Thursday, July 24, 2014

Misery Meter meets India

Before we came here, I promised myself that I would be honest about my experiences.  That I would record the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly.  Because, more than anything, I am writing this blog for myself and for my family. To really remember the experiences we had and how we felt and how they changed us.

Also, having a blog is a good consolation prize. When you have a horrible day (as I did yesterday), you can look on the bright side and say, "At least I will get one hilarious blog post out of it!" 

It makes everything useful...if only for a good laugh for people halfway across the world. ; )

I now have a new LOW on my "Misery Meter". It is called India Low and there is a fair bit of distance between that and my previous America Low. To tell you the truth, I did not even know I had a Misery Meter, but it just kept going off yesterday and then I had to give it a name.

One thing being in India has also given me is a sure knowledge that even as I write this, I know that my new "India Low" doesn't even touch the "I-have-leprosy-and-my-family-and-community-have-shunned-me-and-I-no-longer-have-use-of-my-hands-and-feet" Low that I see every time I go out with our mobile medical clinic.

So, even while I have fun describing just how miserable yesterday was (and it was!), I just want to make it clear that I still have perspective on just how relative my Misery Meter is.

Where to start?.....

Avery has had an ingrown toenail for about a month now and it got infected and even though we were treating it with antibiotics, Dr. Susan (our managing director who is a medical doctor) thought it would be best to take her to the hospital for a surgery consult. As it turns out, if you want to see a doctor here in India, you go to the hospital. They don't seem to have separate doctor offices like we do.

Things went awry from the very beginning. I woke up with a horrible sore throat and was concerned that I might have strep. When I went to get dressed, the pants I had chosen out of the volunteer closet (in the next building over from us) would not fit over my ankles. They are these super baggy pants and yet had been sewn with impossibly small holes for the feet. I was running late, so I called out, "Does anybody have any leggings I can wear?" Camry tossed me her gray leggings and I put them on. (bad choice...B.A.D. choice)

Avery and I ran out to meet our driver and to my dismay, I see that there is a group waiting for us and we are in the van that does not have air conditioning.  (Please keep that always in your mind as you read...NO air conditioning...96+ degree weather...60-65 percent humidity.) There was a nurse, a house mother, and two children from the school. As we started our journey, I realized that we were not going the direct route to Chennai (which takes 2 hours) but that we were going through little villages on the way...first, to pick up another Rising Star nurse from her home and then to pick up other people that also needed to go see a doctor. 

My head and throat are throbbing and the constant honking of horns and the deplorable condition of the roads we travel on are only making it worse, but even so, I am still just dealing with it.  Still have it together on the inside and still able to cope with the discomfort.

Then we came to a train crossing where the guard rails were down but there was no train in sight.  Our driver stopped the van, turned it off, and we waited...and waited. For at least 20 minutes! The minute the van stops the air becomes thick and heavy. The leggings are indescribably hot.  I want to rip them off and throw them out the window. Then I remember where Camry got these leggings. They are the only ones I ever owned in America. I bought them to wear under my ankle-length skirt during the winter months when I would go to the temple at 5 am and I was freezing. These things were made for warmth!! Curse them!

This is probably the first time I nearly cried. There were so many times it is hard to remember, but this was definitely the first. 

Finally, the train zipped by and the rails went up and we were able to continue on our way. At length, we arrived at the hospital. Oh, if only Americans could all see this hospital we would never again complain about our healthcare.  (I am serious!) There was an outdoor waiting area under a metal structure (like what farmers cover their hay with) with over 200 plastic chairs and at least half of them were full of people waiting. After our nurses stepped into an office, they split us up and one nurse walked me and Avery over to a Specialty Building. We waited in one line, then sat down in the waiting area, and then were given wristbands and directed to the elevator. After squishing more people than you ever thought possible into one elevator, the doors closed and we made it to our floor. We checked in, weighed Avery, and were directed down a long hallway to wait near a door that said Paediatric Surgery--Dr. Prakash Amralraj.

After sitting there for about 15 minutes, an orderly came and informed us that the doctor was in surgery right now, but would be here in about an hour. THANK GOODNESS the hospital was air-conditioned, so, other than being a little boring, I thought waiting would not be a big deal.

Oh, how wrong I was. That was before I started sneezing and the water/snot started running sporadically (and with no warning) from my nose.

And that was before I felt the tell-tale grumblings in my lower abdomen and realized with great dismay that I had forgotten to bring any toilet paper. The FIRST RULE of India: "Never leave home without your T.P." and all I had in my bag was a water bottle, an iPad, and two peanut butter sandwiches. All useful and/or necessary, but nothing that even MacGyver could use in my situation!

I tried to ignore it, tried to hope against hope that I could wait it out, but eventually I had to seek out a much for the toilet as for the hope of some kind of paper to blow my nose. I was directed to an empty bathroom that I saw (with some relief) had a western toilet. I stepped in, locked the door, turned around, and my heart sank. Let me describe what was in this room. It is very important for you to understand what was in the room and what was not in the room before I continue.

There was one dirty, low American toilet with no toilet seat. A water spigot and bucket of water with a scoop floating on the surface. And one empty paper towel dispenser. long as you fully understand that, we can continue.  And, please, don't judge. Desperate times call for desperate measures....

I looked in vain for any scrap of paper, any tissue, any newspaper, a leaf for crying out loud, but was only left with what God gave me.

Oh, wait...did you not know that God gave you your very own bum-wiper?

 Let me introduce you to your left hand...which is what they use here in India...which is why there is not a single scrap of paper in this bathroom. And notice that I did not say there was a sink with some lovely soap either. 

I will skip all the sordid details. I have tried to wipe them from my mind...with my right hand, of course!  ; )

When I came out of the bathroom with wet, rinsed off, but-in-no-way-clean hands, I mimed desperately to a janitor for paper towels. She disappeared into a nearby room, came out with one hand cupped, and the other holding a wad of paper towels. She tipped her cupped hand over my outstretched palm and, bless her!!, out came orange hospital soap. I stepped back into the toilet room and scrubbed and scrubbed that soap into my hands for all I was worth and then rinsed with the water from the spigot. (If only I had tried my miming skills before stepping into the bathroom...) 

...but let's move on, shall we?

I used one of the paper towels to dry my hands, one to blow my running nose, and shoved the other 2 into my purse. On my way back to our seats, I saw some "hand sanitizer" near the front door and ran over to douse my hands repeatedly with it. It was like straight alcohol and I was so grateful for it!

We continued waiting. All the while, I am using up my paltry supply of paper towels on my runny nose. We are finally shown into the doctor's office where he takes a cursory glance at Avery's toe, prescribes Augmentin, and tells us to come back in 6 days. I asked if he would operate then and he said, "No, we don't like to operate on ingrown toenails. They always end up coming back. We will check it next time and if it still needs to be cut out we will make the appointment then".  All the while he is talking, I am thinking, "I will hold her down and cut out her  "#@*#" nail myself if I have to, but I am not coming back here!" Oh yes, I had definitely reached the swearing-in-my-head level.

We left the building, met up with the other people, and had a lunch of lemon rice and boiled eggs that the nurses had brought along. The last little girl and her housemother finally made their way out to the van and oh-so-slowly ate their lunch on the grass. Inside my head I was wishing that Indians ate on the run like Americans and that we could just start driving and get home. I was also talking myself back from the tears of  exhaustion and overheated-ness and of the futility of this whole blasted day when Navamani turns around in the van and says, so calmly, completely unaware that I am on the verge of a breakdown... "Rebecca, little Shalini is not done yet. They must go back and see another doctor." 

I could not take that hot, sticky van one minute longer so I got up and took Avery to a nearby park area in the building complex that had stone benches and shade and we wiled away the rest of the, trying to sleep with a couple ants crawling on me and she, listening to a kids' Podcast on my iPad. 

Unbelievably, the ride home was worse than the ride there. I was running out of water and had to resort to reusing all the used, soggy tissues in my bag while we made countless stops. One at a leprosy colony to drop off some supplies, many to drop off the other patients, three times for the nurses to run to a nearby store and buy something they or the school needed, and of course, 15 minutes waiting for that stupid train. Every time we would stop, the sweat would drip down my face and arms, my legs would swelter in their winter leggings and the air would become unbearable. Still 45 minutes away from home, we had pulled over near a busy intersection in Chengelput. All the nurses were out on little errands, so there I sat with the children, the other patients, and the driver...all of whom speak little or no English.

On the brink of losing it, I grabbed a 100 rupee bill (less than 2 dollars) out of my purse and told Avery to follow me. Pantomiming to the driver that I was going to go look for a cold drink, I felt confident that we could find something easily and THANK HEAVENS we did. We bought one cold water bottle and two ice cream sticks. I was ecstatic to see a pile of napkins on the counter and stashed away as many as I could for my dripping nose. We walked back to the van, quickly finishing our melting ice cream, and sat down to drink our water on the curb...when almost immediately we were accosted by a group of street urchins. 

I am serious. And I am not exaggerating...
I have never had cause to use that description, but that is what they were. They were clearly siblings...6 of them...the oldest holding the baby on her hip. They were practically naked, their hair was matted and full of filth and lice and they were grabbing our water bottles to take them away from us. They were not begging, they were simply taking. If I had not been sick, with what I am still afraid might be strep throat, I would have gladly given them my water bottle.  I tried to shoo them away, telling them I had nothing to give them. One of the kids held onto my bottle with such tenacity, I had to pry her (his?) little mud-caked fingers off of it. They were the most pitiful sight I have ever seen. Even in the leprosy colonies I have never seen such filth and squalor.  I wish I had been together enough to figure out what I could actually do for them. But I was exhausted and sick and depleted. I felt a little sadness, but mostly relief as I watched them walk away.

At length we made it home, where I pulled off those wretched leggings, threw them in Camry's room ("Oh, yeah, sorry," she says. "I forgot to tell you how hot they are!" ten hours too late) and scrubbed and scrubbed my left hand before getting in bed at 6 pm and calling it a night.

As I write this, I laugh, remembering the conversations I had with friends about
moving our family here...

"Yes," I hear myself saying, "the kids will have good days and they will have bad days, but all of them will teach them something in the end."

Karma: 1    Me: 0


  1. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry while reading your post so I think I did both-and I said to myself-"I will never complain again-especially while in America!" I give you top scores for description! Hope both you and Avery are feeling better soon!

  2. We are sitting here in awe, trying to imagine what you went through. We also laughed so hard that we cried! We hope you guys are feeling better and know that you are always in our prayers... :) Mom is going to love this!

  3. I should feel offended that my mother-in-law will laugh with glee when she reads this...but I must admit, even my own parents laughed until they cried!