In this house, we now count spots to fall asleep; we rank our itches on a scale of 1 to 10; and the daughter — who caught it from school and passed it around — gives us expert advice on just how miserable we will feel before getting any better. But it could be worse. “Chicken-pox can be fatal in adults,” she tells us cheerfully, and I speed-dial my GP. When I hear his concerned “ enna ma? ” on the phone, I’m instantly reassured. I ask him many questions, the great majority of which are silly; he answers them all patiently. And I hang up, thanking my stars I live in Chennai.
Nine years ago, that wasn’t the case. We had just moved to Croydon, London, and registered with the NHS practice nearby. The list of doctors had one Indian sounding name. I was delighted, I hoped she would speak like us, and surely, she would understand that I’d like to be prescribed antibiotics whenever I had the sniffles? I decided I would ask to see her every time.
How naïve I was! The practice didn’t work that way; when I called in for a ‘same-day’ appointment, I was told I would meet a nurse. And that - for someone used to the ‘chief doctor’ culture, even for sprains — was a bit of a shock. Couldn’t I at least consult the duty doctor, I asked. “You can meet the nurse,” I was told politely and firmly. So, I met her; she was a darling, extremely competent, and became my preferred health care provider. Except, she was available for just a few hours every day. If any of us fell ill in the weekend, we would, well, have to sit it out.
But it wasn’t an illness that caught me out, it was a nasty cut. I was slicing a cabbage, late one wintry Friday, watching raindrops streak down the kitchen window. I pressed the knife down, but instead of the crunch of the cabbage leaves, there was a loud ‘Argh’. I had sliced my left fore-finger.
The finger bled, not copiously, but steadily. I held the entire hand under stinging cold water; it only stained the sink pink. I applied pressure and tried to staunch my precious B-ve blood. It didn’t work. I yelled for a band-aid, and wrapped it over my finger. Five minutes later, red trickled down my palm once again, and I began to worry…
It was well past our NHS practice’s working hours; so I rang the local hospital’s casualty ward for advice. After several minutes of Beethoven, I was asked to ring NHS Direct to speak to a nurse. The call was promptly answered, and a kindly lady asked me nearly 25 questions, starting with my name, surname, GP’s name and address. After every right answer — she had them in front of her, I could tell that she was merely verifying — she said ‘lovely’. After two dozen ‘lovelies’, she told me all the nurses were busy attending calls at the moment, and if I could please leave my number, somebody will call me back. “In the meantime, if you feel very sick, do not hesitate to ring for the ambulance,” she said and hung up.
All the while, my finger continued to bleed. It was too wretchedly cold to go to the hospital’s ‘accidents and emergencies’; and there usually was a very long wait there too, I had heard. So the husband suggested we apply ice. Half hour later, my teeth were chattering from the ice-pack, but my finger still bled. I rang back NHS Direct, and yet another syrupy-sweet telephone operator praised me for remembering my own name and address. “All our nurses are busy attending calls,” she then began, and I wanted to weep. “Please let me talk to someone to help me with this cut!” I pleaded. “Shall I call an ambulance for you, darling?” she asked, and after my confused yes, dialled for help on my behalf.
The ambulance got to me very quickly. Two big, cheery men got down and asked me where the patient was. “It’s me,” I said and held out my finger. “Not a very big one uh?” one said; the other bit his quivering lips and said he don’t know anyone who died from a cut on the finger.
“I only wanted to speak to a nurse, I’m sorry for the trouble,” I told them with the little left-over dignity. They bandaged my finger tightly, and bade me a good weekend.
Since then, I grew wary over weekends, and took to ringing up friends and relatives who were qualified doctors, during medical ‘emergencies’. When we moved to Amsterdam, some of them began to worry when they saw a +31 (Holland country code) on their mobile phone displays. Even if I was only ringing to wish them a happy Diwali , they would start the conversation with, “just three questions, we’re going out.”
But soon, I warmed up to our Dutch GP. He was a dear old man, and answered questions bluntly, but kindly. Between him and Google, I managed very well. Until one weekend at Keukenhof, when a donkey affectionately bit my left hand. Google had no answers for “what to do if a friendly donkey bites you in Holland”. So I visited the GP first thing on Monday. “What did you do to the donkey?” he asked me. I was only petting it, I told him crossly. He then asked his very amused assistant to give me an anti-tetanus shot, and assured me that there was no rabies in Holland.
I panicked when I heard the word ‘rabies’. I went back home, and rang a doctor friend. “What’s the matter now,” he asked. “A donkey bit me,” I said, and while I waited for him to finish laughing, I couldn’t help wishing I was back in Chennai, where doctors answer the phone with a concerned “ enna ma ”…