“Mas madjor? (Are you better?),” asks one young man by my bedside. He’s followed by a group of older women dressed traditionally (long, black pleated skirts; panu fabric wrapped around their waists; and headscarves covering their heads). Next was a young woman, followed by another person then another. They each come and ask me the same question.
I am in a hospital room at Hospital Dr. Agostinho Neto in Praia. In Cabo Verde. In West Africa. I had broken my arm the day before. This took place last year, and it was a pretty bad break too. I fell in a gap in the sidewalk and basically tried to catch myself with my hand–something I found out the hard way you should ever never do! Anyway, I had to go straight into surgery. And to say I wasn’t scared shitless would be a lie. I was after all in a developing nation in Africa, one not particularly known for its medical advances. I meet with my doctor, who turned out to be a Cuban surgeon who works in Praia. After he explained everything thoroughly, showed me the X-rays, assured me he could fix my arm I felt less fear–just a bit.
I knew I would be hospitalized afterward but I thought it would be a couple of days max–it turned into a week. They needed to make sure no inflections developed. After experiencing the “straight-outta-Brooklyn” style emergency room before myself and having heard horror stories of hospital stays, I was very nervous about staying overnight. But to my surprise things were–for the most part–very efficient and clean.
The rooms were sparse. The staff urged patients to bring in their own sheets. I didn’t have any since my stay was an emergency, so they pulled out some for me to use and told me to ask my husband to bring in some the next day. We had about 6-8 women in the room. The rooms on the entire ward were separated by gender. On one half of the ward were women and kids. On the other half, there were men.
The succession of strangers wishing me well happened every visitor’s day (about three times a week). It seems if you are visiting a patient it is rude just to visit that patient; you should stop by the bed of each person on the side of the ward you are visiting. In actuality it was nice to experience this kind of kindness.
There was a welcome routine during my days there. The nurses would wake you up early for a bath. If you are newly out of surgery, they would help you bathe in the bed. After a few days of recovery they urged you to go to the bathroom and shower yourself. Not that there was really a shower. There were plastic barrels filled with warm water that you used to wash with. I was still a bit hesitant to do this as one could easily slip and fall on the tile floor. I tried to always go to the showers with a roomie in case I had trouble–the last thing I needed was something else broken.
After bathtime, breakfast was served. It basically a snack. Coffee, buttered bread, and a fruit. No juice. If you wanted juice or bottled water, someone from outside would have to come bring it to you. After breakfast, the doctor came around with a nurse or two and usually accompanied by a group of interns. Your temperature was checked, you were asked about pain and sleep habits, then your wound was examined and cleaned. Lunch was usually something like soup, stew, fish or chicken with veggies, or cachupa (the national dish of CV, a corn stew with meat or fish). Dinner was also light. A lot of patients got lunch delivered to them each day by family or friends. Everyone in the room had a stockpile of juice, water, cookies next to their bed covered by a clean crisp kitchen towel (the stashes were always nice and neat). My roomies would often share their sweet snacks with everyone in the room.
My roomies included a young teenage girl, Maisa (I’ve changed everyone’s names, of course), who had a major arm cast and who was extremely quiet; next to her was a little girl of all about five years old who too had a broken arm. Then there was me. Across from me was a woman, 40ish, who was awaiting surgery on her feet. Next to her was a young, late-20-something woman named who had broken her leg. And finally a tourist, women in her late 60s who was from Italy. She spoke no Portuguese much less the local Creole. The woman awaiting foot surgery, and who was named Neusa, knew enough Italian to translate for her. The tourist was visiting her son who lives on one of the other islands and unfortunately she was mugged. She was pushed to the ground and broke her arm in several places. She also had a bad black eye. And it turns out, her “translator” Neusa lived on the same island as the son and knew him as well.
The first night, since I was still loaded with drugs from the surgery, was a blur. I slept well. The second night, not so much. The little girl, probably scared and lonely, kept calling Neusa. “Tia, xixi.” Many little kids call friendly and familiar women “tia,” or aunt. The little girl had to pee. She needed help because her arm was in an overhead sling. But I think it was more than that as the little girl cried “tia, xixi, xixi” nearly every five minutes. And sometimes Neusa, who was trying to sleep, didn’t hear whispered cries. I felt for the little girl, who was trying to be very brave. And I felt helpless. I was in the next bed, but I could not get up to help her go to the bathroom–my arm too was hanging from an overhead sling. Needless to say, the night was troublesome.
But soon I got into the routine. Wake. Wash. Examination. Eat. Chill. Eat. Chill. Eat. Sleep. A few days in, the little girl went home and an elderly woman from the island of Fogo was admitted. She was fragile and elegant. And stubborn. She had fallen in the bathroom and broke her hip, but she didn’t want any help. The nurse put in an IV drip, which the woman removed as soon as the nurse left the room. Another IV was put in, then another. Finally they had to tied down her other hand so she could not remove it again. The nurse said, “Calma, Avó.” She was saying “Calm down Grandmother,” calling her grandmother as a sign of respect. But the woman wasn’t having any of it and shot back–”I am not your grandmother!”
The old woman was obviously scared and there was to be no calming her down just yet. Even when her family came–and she had a lot of family come–she was not pleased. When one nurse said, “You son is here,” she answered “Ca ten fídju.” (“I don’t have children.”) Needless to say she was mad at her family for dropping her at the hospital. It took a few hours of coaxing from the staff before she warmed up. The break came from one of the cleaners, who stoked her hair. He talked gently to her and she started to calm down and began to allow the nurses to care for her. The next time her family visited she smiled and laughed even at one of their jokes.
For the most part, things were uneventful until the weekend. Then late on Friday night/early Saturday morning, one of the nurses, a male nurse who seemed kind during my previous dealings with him, was on the nightshift. When he came to do the rounds–to check out the patients, to take temperatures, to dispense medicine–I noticed he was drunk. So drunk he was slurring and unable to walk straight. Mind you, the doctor on duty left this nurse in charge. Of course, most of us turned down medication for the night. (I should explain here that the weekends here in CV are typically “boys’ night out,” meaning socializing and drinking–and more drinking–among themselves.) Still, it really worried me that the doctor didn’t see fit to send the nurse home to sleep it off, and instead entrusted the patients to him.
Luckily, the days of my stay were nearing their end. I was sent to X-rays and the surgeon came to show me my arm was healing as expected and the bones were in the right place. In about two more days I could I go home. When my husband stopped by that day since it was not visitor’s day, he came to the window by my bed. Through the window, he passed me some juice, water, cookies before the guard told him he had to leave. But I did get to give him the good news–I could leave soon.
The cookies he left with me was apparently a treat everyone likes. Mel (molasses) cookies. When I offered them out;e veryone wanted one–even the Italian tourist who had decided against her son’s wishes for her to fly back to Italy. Instead she choose to stay in the hospital here in Praia. She liked her doctor and trusted his instructions. Marisa, the quiet teen, also took one. During my days there in the hospital, she had shared many things with me–juice, sweets, water. But she never really talked much. Today, she felt like talking. And over cookies she told us all what had happened.
She and her best friend were standing on the street talking when a car, driven by a drunk driver, plowed into them. Her friend was killed. Marisa teared up telling the story. Then she added that the injured driver was in the same ward–in the men’s section. She cried some more. But when I told her I was sorry, she looked up and through tears said, “That is life.”
In that instance I realized how privileged I was. Americans are. When people die we grieve, we blame, we question God/the Universe. We go through a long process of acceptance. But here was a teen girl who of course was grieving the loss of her best friend but was also solidly rooted in reality. No matter who she blamed, who she cursed, who she questioned, the fact was her friend was gone from her life–gone physically but never from her memories. And that is life.