ER-South African style

Written Monday, March 8 about events that transpired the night before…

If you have to seek emergency care at 10 p.m. in a foreign city, I can recommend Pt. Elizabeth, South Africa. Concerned about my spreading red forehead welts, we’d asked the manager of the Hippo (backpacker’s lodge) where I could get medical advice, and both she and the lodge owner (whom she telephoned and woke up at 9:30 p.m.) recommended the Greenacres Hospital, a private operation about 5 minutes away by taxi. “For us (meaning black South Africans), medical care is free, so the only people you will see there are white people.”

In the waiting room, it was true that no black Africans appeared to be seeking treatment, but one family looked to be Middle Eastern, and there may have been a couple of Indians. (South African racial nomenclature can be confusing.) Probably 80 percent of the staff was dark-skinned, including the rotund lady who approached and asked sympathetically what we required. Hearing my explanation, she warned us that the list of others ahead of me was fairly long and it might take an 60-90 minutes to be seen. When we said we’d wait, she added my name to the bottom of her hand-written list.

How quaint, I thought. No jungle of bureaucracy to hack one’s way through, as in any American ER. After 40 minutes I was escorted to a curtained room where my temperature, pulse, and blood pressure (sky-high!) were recorded with very modern instruments. (Indeed, everything about this facility looked clean, well-organized, and technologically up-to-date.) A nurse soon appeared and logged the details of my complaint and history into a computer. Then we were sent out into the waiting room again, where at last, a lady at the front desk prepared a billing chart for me (a 10-minute operation, including the hole-punching, stapling, and photocopying steps.)

I finally was called to an examining room perhaps and hour and a quarter after we walked in, and shortly, the friendly, energetic (white) doctor walked in. Minutes into my recounting of how my symptoms had developed, a look of confident recognition dawned on his face. His verdict: shingles (which he suspected might have been triggered by the sun exposure I got in the game reserve.)

Since I’ve never before had shingles (but did as a child have chicken pox), I’m bereft without my trusty companion, the Internet, to fill me in on everything I now would like to know about this malady. I have to trust that the anti-viral medication the doctor prescribed will make the welts and pain disappear within a week or so. We filled the prescription the next day in Pt. E, which has a small-town feeling — most of the homes in the areas we drove through looked as innocently unprotected as those in Clairemont — no barbed wires, no fences. And when the first pharmacy didn’t have the Zelitrex in stock, they sent me down the road to another. There, Penny the pharmacist, only had 17 pills, but she gave me those and printed out a tidy label, explaining what had been dispensed so that I could get the balance at another pharmacy down the road.

Most fascinating to Steve: the entire ER experience cost 420 rands (about $56), and that appeared to be the doctor’s fee. I have no idea why we were charged nothing for the use of the private hospital facilities. About half of the Zelitrex prescription cost $65.

Whether because of the Zelitrex or the pain medication also prescribed for me, the shingles haven’t been much of a nuisance. There’s some pain, but it’s tolerable. Sadly, though, I’ve also finally caught Steve’s cough/laryngitis.

Still, I’m so excited by the prospect of a day of hiking in this beautiful place and confident I can power through the afllictions. We depart for breakfast and then the trailhead in 5 minutes.

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