Learning to be Sick in Washington, DC

When my mother went to live in Washington, DC, in the 1960s, she discovered that being ill there was not like being ill in her home town of Alexandria, Egypt, where everyone fussed over her and soon made her feel better.  Here’s one of her stories.

“When will Dr Smarts be able to come and see me?” I asked the receptionist who’d answered the phone.  His name had been given to me by a friend.

The receptionist laughed. “Come and see you?”

“I have a sore throat and a temperature, my nose is stuffed up, and I can’t taste food.”

“I have a cancellation for 3pm tomorrow. Take two aspirins, drink plenty of fluids, and we’ll see you then.”

“Doesn’t Dr Smarts make house calls?”

“Not unless you’re in your 80s.  Even then, he prefers to see patients in the hospital.”

Hospital? I shuddered.

I called the school where I taught to say I was ill and wouldn’t be in. The secretary was understanding.  “There’s a virus going round.  Drink plenty of fluids.”  What was a virus? No Alexandrian had ever mentioned the word ‘virus’.

It was a miserable day spent alone.  My friends were either at work or otherwise engaged.  The only visitor I had all day was the building engineer who came to check the air conditioning.

Polish TV

But there was American TV, to which I had quickly become addicted. Alas, the early afternoon movie was an old one, Suez, and it made me homesick for Egypt.  When I saw all that sand and all those familiar persistent flies, I burst into tears.

Where was Nagibeh, our old housekeeper, to sit in my room till I fell asleep, and my little sister’s nanny, the fat Dia with her rosary and fervent prayers? Where was my mother to read me stories? Where was the kind Greek doctor who puffed his way up the stairs and who made me feel better even as he blew smoke rings into my face?

The following morning my temperature was up.  Although it was a warm September day, I was shivery.  I wrapped up as for a polar expedition and walked the one block to Dr Smarts’ office.  How extraordinary that he did not make house calls, and me so nearby too.

Dr Smarts was unimpressed with my symptoms. So I coughed over him and exaggerated my aches and pains. I did such a good job that he decided to run some tests.  He also wanted to know the medical history of every member of my family.  He was beginning to get on my nerves.  All I probably had was a bad case of la grippe, which some nasty-tasting medicine would cure in no time.  And here he was asking me about my family.

Sick as I was, I gave him a colourful account of being ill in Egypt.  Egypt? He wasn’t quite sure where it was. I even told him about the time I was so sick with indigestion, Father called the doctor in the middle of the night. I’d eaten a whole kilo of sudanis, delicious peanuts bought off a street vendor, and had thrown up 10 times.  Nagibeh had cleaned the carpet with savon de Marseille.  Dr Smarts had never heard of savon de Marseille.  His general knowledge was pitiful.

“Couldn’t you have just put the carpet in the washing machine?”

To give him credit, Dr Smarts was a good listener and jotted down everything I said.  No doctor I knew ever wrote anything except prescriptions.

“What do you normally eat during the day?” he asked.

“I have an English breakfast: eggs, bacon, toast, coffee.”

“Lunch?”

“Well, first there’s elevenses.”

“What’s elevenses?”

Ignoramus, I thought.  “It’s a mid-morning snack” I explained patiently. “I have hot cocoa and biscuits.”

“How many biscuits?”

“In our culture it’s considered rude to count what one eats.  However, if they’re chocolate, most of the box.”

“Lunch?”

“Where I teach, lunch is usually cold cuts and salad.  I’m not fond of lettuce.  I’m not a rabbit. But at 3pm before I pick my daughter up from her school, I have a chili hot dog at People’s Drug Store.  My main meal is dinner: chicken or meat, potatoes, spinach, a banana. No dessert. But sometimes before bed I have a tuna sandwich with mayonnaise.”

The doctor put his pen down and looked at me. “It’s a wonder you’re not the size of a house.”

“I ate much more in Alexandria” I replied hotly.  “My father and grandmother ate like horses, and weren’t fat at all. My mother hardly ate a thing and was always ill.”  Dr Smarts looked shaken.

“You know, Dr Smarts, in Alexandria they say ‘Eat, eat, bil hana wal shifa.’  That means with pleasure and good health.  We also say ‘Bon appetit.’ And doctors all make house calls.”

“We used to make house calls too.” He sounded wistful.  “Anyway, you’ll be fine.”

“What about a prescription?”

“Just drink plenty of fluids and take aspirin.”

I bundled up again under the amused eye of the receptionist.

As I walked home, I thought of what I’d write for La Reforme Illustrée, our friendly Alexandria Sunday paper. No house calls, no prescription, counting biscuits! How uncivilised.

I resolved never to be sick in Washington, DC, and you know what?  I never was.

© Jacqueline Cooper

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6 thoughts on “Learning to be Sick in Washington, DC

    • At just 4’11”, my mother was a feisty lady. On a serious note, it’s interesting and educational to consider how uncivilized healthcsre (and not just in the USA) seems to the people who use it.

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