By Chalya Dul
I might never understand Nigerian hospitals: Private, public, pubvate.
You have a toothache. You go to a private clinic, its sparkling white, looks beautiful, very comfortable. Your confidence surges as your father even makes a joke about hospitals that are this beautiful. “You’ll be fine, you’re getting the best treatment, but when you’re well and about to be discharged and the bill is handed over to you, they’re taking you right back in because the bills have caused you a heart attack” You laugh at the memory like you both did when he said it, upbeat about the treatment outcomes.
The dentist says you need a root canal, whatever that means. He cleans out your tooth nicely and stuffs a tiny bit of cotton wool in there. “Come back next week, let’s see the progress you make before we fill the tooth.”
You decide to pay upfront for the next treatment. You’re happy you’ve finally found the one. You brag about how he’s good and how much he knows his stuff. He even wants to make a deal with you, “Teach me some photography and I’ll treat your tooth equal to your training charge” You’re still thinking about it but it sounds like a deal.
Then all hell breaks loose when you go to the clinic on Wednesday to keep the appointment but the place is locked. You call, three times, no answer. You call his other number; he answers and says he’s sorry he had to travel. “Come tomorrow morning by 8 am.” You suppress the blend of anger and disappointment welling up in your throat.
You go home relieved though. 8 am the next morning you are there (because you’re a sucker for keeping to time, your father taught you well, African time doesn’t exist in your dictionary) but the dentist is not around, you wait for fifteen minutes, call him several times, no response, then his number is switched off.
Of course you’re fuming, your father taught you well, but he didn’t teach you how to be angry. It’s genetic, you’ve heard several times that “people from your place have hot temper.” Forget them.
When you go about your day he calls after three hours and says, “Come next week Wednesday.” You’re definitely not fine with that; very uncomfortable about having cotton wool in your tooth for two weeks but your father says he must have dipped it in something that will protect your tooth so you should stop making a fuss.
Wednesday evening you’re there and the place is locked. No! You call again. Switched off. You are beginning to wonder if your village people sent this man; you go home quietly, then jejely go to JUTH (the public hospital) the next day.
Get a dental card; get seated at the waiting room, one hour, two hours, three hours, counting. You’re called in, the dentist looks at your tooth, and squeezes his nostrils shut to ward of the smell of the two week old cotton wool. You are supposed to be embarrassed but who has time for that? The real fear was losing a tooth, not the feelings of a dentist.
“Let’s do an X-ray, then you’ll come back tomorrow, and we can start treatment”
In the X-ray room, the radiographer has just finished attending to another patient; his gloved hands have been in the patient’s mouth. When it’s your turn you expect him to change his gloves but he refuses and you refuse to sit down. When he changes the gloves you sit, then trouble starts.
You’re supposed to have three X-rays, and on the first he’s forcing his hand down your throat. What the hell!!! You push him away and the female radiologist does a better job of being gentle. Maybe he was angry you said he should change gloves, but it’s not your business if he’s angry. You’re a clean freak, and hospitals are the worst place to be. Who cares about the feelings a radiographer that refuses to change their gloves?
You leave at 4 pm. writhing with hunger. Seething with anger. Helpless with tiredness. And dragging the usual Naija hospital smells home.
Early the next morning you arrive, your card is number five (even though there are just two people) the waiting begins. You have read your eyes out, dozed off, strolled around – waiting is painful. You finally get in the doctor’s office, he hums a familiar hymn as he cleans out the equipment with salt water, or something of the sort.
You begin to wonder if you didn’t make a mistake. Should you have stayed with the other dentist and ignored his behavior? But you’ve had a falling out, you sent him a nasty text and got a very Christian response. It is well. You’re doomed.
The dentist pokes the inside of your mouth with stout fingers and gives some excuse for not being able to fill the tooth that brought you initially. He fills another tooth on the left and he says, “Come back tomorrow”. Obedient you. You close your mouth, thank him for nothing, and step out with a plastic smile.
Tomorrow is here. And you are waiting again. Three hours gone already. It took naive you three visits to understand the processes that go on here; doctors, nurses, ward attendants from other departments bring in their relatives and wives, they go straight into the offices and straight into dental surgery while the bunch of nobodies are out in the cold waiting room, waiting.
When its 12 noon you walk up to the counter and ask the ward attendant for your card
“You won’t see the doctor again?” she asked, like she was surprised. You wonder what sort of stupid question that is; your feelings are a total mess, at the peak is anger and sadness. Tears fill your eyes
“Just give me my card,” you say with the anger and resignation of a girl breaking up a loveless relationship.
You walk out; on the way home you’re holding your tears, trying not to think about anything. As soon as you get home you shed your clothes off like it was an emergency, wash your face, legs and arms. Get into bed and burst into tears. Therapeutic tears.
You’re not even sure what’s making you cry, PMS or anger and sadness about Nigeria.
“Why am I crying about Nigeria?” You wipe your face, get out of bed, and find something to eat.
You walk around with the hollow tooth for another three weeks until it cracks while you’re eating. You do not even realize it cracked because there’s no pain; you just have hard particles in your mouth and realize they’re part of your tooth.
You go to a private clinic the day after the breakage, book an appointment for the next day again. Oh God. Will this end?
The D-day arrives; your tooth is been extracted. The dentist asks how long you’ve had that stinking cotton wool, you’re not even sure again. You mumble something through numb lips. All you feel is sadness, not only because of your tooth.
Sadness for the things you don’t understand. You will never understand why you lost a tooth that could have been salvaged.