Tequila. That’s how it starts. And that’s how I end up in hospital. Two Thursdays ago I attended a Mexican Gastronomical shindig at the Intercontinental. Tequilas flowed. Now, I’m not normally your suave tequila gobbling urbanite, I try to give such drinks a decent berth, but heck it was a beautiful evening and our table was full of the interesting types who were flowing with it and besides it was a Thursday, the new Friday. So I downed a few, licked enough salt to cause me hypertension and sucked on lemon wedges.
The pains started that night, right at the bottom of my esophagus. Whenever I swallowed it felt like someone was screwing a rusty nail in my gut. The next morning we were headed to shags, a 6hr drive into the bowels of Nyanza. Of course I couldn’t hack the drive so my bro stepped in and saved the day. I slept.
Saturday: while showing off the scenery to some pal of mine who was visiting my shags for the first time, we pulled over at some boma and there I asked some kids to pluck some raw mangos for me for Ksh 20. I love me some raw mangos. I took three and again, licked enough salt to cause hypertension. Come Sunday morning and I couldn’t eat, heck I couldn’t even drink water. The pain was worsening. On our way back to Nairobi, I was a man in excruciating pain. My wiseass brother figured it was ulcers. My pal figured it was all that salt. My mom felt it was “all that alcohol you guys drink”. Everybody is a doctor where I come from. Quacks.
“You have pancreatitis,” this young-ass trainee doctor announced that evening at Aga Khan Hospital, sorry, make that University. I could have sworn he had googled that diagnosis.
“How do you figure?” I asked him.
“Because certain enzymes have increased in your blood,”
“Look, it could be anything; it could be Meningitis or something.”
“Do you have a stiff neck?”
“No, but my foot is itching.”
“Then it’s not Meningitis.”
“Ok, mad cow disease then, I’m just from shags man and we have many cows.”
“Your pancreas has a problem sir.”
Now the last guy I know who had pancreatitis is dead. I was screwed. I was given drugs and sent home to die. At night the pain got worse. Next day –Monday – I was back at the University demanding a second opinion. I wanted to see a real doctor, perhaps someone older than me by about 40years and didn’t know what google was. I couldn’t pass food down my throat, heck I couldn’t even drink water without feeling like I was going to pass out. One specialist showed up, looked at my lab test results and said, “We gotta admit you son,” Turns out I didn’t have pancreatitis (or mad cow disease) my esophagus had a problem but further tests would reveal what. That Monday evening, I was admitted on first floor, bed 5. First time as an overnight guest of a hospital. And for the next three nights I was cooped in the ward.
Let me shatter certain myths here. There are no sexy nurses in hospital who wear short white dresses and frequently bend over to pick their pens. All that stuff you watch on Scrubs isn’t precise. There are no sexy female doctors who constantly feel your forehead for fever. Nurses are only sexy on TV. Hospitals are a different kettle of fish. Hospitals are like prisons; you have a stripped uniform and dinner is served to everyone at the same time. But at least, at the university, they fuss over you. Plus when you press this red knob a nurse promptly appears with a smile. I can’t tell you how many times I pressed the damned thing. I even pressed it in my sleep.
Opposite my bed was an ageing Kikuyu man who loved tea more than anything else. He was a very private man. Said very little. I suspected he was rich because rich folk say little; it’s the hecklers with short money who make a ruckus. Next to him was some guy with a broken foot. He groaned a lot at night. You haven’t heard a grown man groan until you hear a man with a broken foot groan. His wife always sat by him, nursing him, feeding him, loving him. Opposite Mr. Badfoot Groan- and adjacent to my bed- was an old Luo professor from Nairobi University. He was short and stocky, about 67yrs of age. He had a huge head, head of a warrior, white hair sprouted from his nose and his head. He was very loud which means he wasn’t rich, at least not as rich as the Kikuyu guy.
Everybody knew he was a professor because he was constantly on the phone holding loud conversations that bordered on the insane. If there ever was any caricature of a Luo this guy was it; loud, brash and with a very pronounced accent. And the beauty? He didn’t give a toss. “Yes, Odhiambo, This is Professor X, yes I am at the ‘ostal….yes….due for laboratory tests tomorrow…yes, kindly ask the faculty to draw a check of Kenya siling 250,000 to offset the earlier on bill….yes…..precisely…those negosiasons should be after, right now I need to settle and have a sat-eye….yes, I sal ring you later on. Of course yes, I sal keep you in the loop. Good bye Odhiambo” Then he would get off the phone and tell the orderlies to bring him tea with “Two sukaris,” He always had his tea with two “sukaris.”
We became friends when he heard me on the phone with my old man speaking rapid Luo. After my call he shuffled over to my bed and asked me where I was from. I told him. He then started asking me questions about my village, if I knew so and so who has a red roof just after the bridge, or if I knew so and so who came from a family of chiefs. I said I didn’t know these cats, perhaps my dad knew them, I offered helpfully with a jaded smile. But it wasn’t his fault; meet an old school Luo and chances he knows many people in your village, people you have never heard of. Plus I was in so much pain from all that intravenous treatment I didn’t want a tete-a-tete about my family tree.
Anyway, second day I bump into him in the bathroom in the morning. He’s naked. Buck naked. Did I mention he is over 60years of age and has white hair all over? No? Well he is over 60yrs of age and has white hair all over! Of course I don’t want to look because, well, because he is my father’s age and he is naked for crying out loud! But the bathroom is full of mirrors and I dunno why I looked, but, yes, let’s just say he looked like a naked Santa Claus, everything was bushy…and white. Talk of an early Christmas! (You aren’t having lunch, are you?)
But there is an incident that made me sad. So at some point the Prof goes and sits on the Kikuyu’s bed, and later they are joined by this old Somali guy from across the hall. These three old men sit there in an eerie but somewhat comfortable silence. They all sport white hair. Although they are all from different backgrounds, ethnically and perhaps socially, they are brought together by age. Age hands them a curious homogeneity. But in age they have also found diseases, diseases that they have little control of because they are diseases of the aged. And I sat there observing, it dawned on me that their bodies were broken, or rather, were breaking. And at that point their age seemed like their bondage, their Achilles heels and they belabored under it, stoically and with a lot of patience and helplessness.
But they were lucky because they seemed to have done something right to afford that kind of medical care and that – to me at least – became the saving grace to this depressing tableau. They didn’t say a word to each other; they sat aware of each other’s presence but also lost in their own private worlds. It was a deeply disturbing scene this, quite somber, a poignant metaphor of life, and perhaps of death. As I watched them from across my bed I couldn’t help feeling a sense of dread at growing old and of falling to the whims of sickness and – eventually – to death. I reached over and pressed the red buzzer just to see a smile.
I needed an Endoscopy done to me. This is where they put you to sleep before inserting a tube down your throat which takes all these pictures and video. Great gizmo. Have you seen the inside of your throat? Don’t, it looks like an Ostrich’s fresh poop. An orderly shows up at my bed one morning pushing a wheelchair. He’s a pleasant man called Musyoka. He says he is there to take me for my Endoscopy so if I could change into these clothes please. I slip into this blue gown that covers my front and leaves my ass out in the wind. It’s a ridiculous outfit, comical even, and I find a lot of discomfiture at having my ass out for the public to see and not because it’s hairy or dry and scaly but rather because, well, because it’s my ass damn it and it’s private!
Musyoka pushes me out of the ward, down a ramp and through corridors. All this while I’m hoping I don’t run into someone who knows me, I’m praying hard that we don’t meet someone who will stop me to say hi and later tell everyone that they saw Biko, half dead with his ass out, being pushed on a wheelchair! Oh boy, did I pray! When a story like that gets out it takes a life of its own, next you will hear that I weighed 34kgs, no hair, bones sticking out of my skin and dying of a mysterious disease. You know how idle people are in this town. People want to kill you before your time. I stare down all the way.
Thankfully I meet no one and even if I did meet anyone I know I was going to act like I didn’t know them. The procedure (yes, that’s what they call it) was being done at Princess Zahra Pavillion, a swanky hospital wing that looks more like a five star hotel than a hospital. This is how cool this wing is; Patients at Princess Zahra aren’t sick, they are ill. At Princess Zahra you don’t recover, you recuperate. At Princess Zahra you don’t drink water, you hydrate. The rich will always die with a smile on their faces. Or worse, a smug grin. I hate rich folk, so much!
Anyway, I’m wheeled into this theater like place where Dr. Musau introduces herself to me. She is motherly and kindly and sweet.
“What happened Jackson?”
“Call me Biko please, but yes, this pain right here is killing me.”
“Did you take something to cause it?”
“Are you sure?”
“Look, I can’t help you if you don’t level with me.”
“Ok, I took tequila.”
“Just a tot?”
“Okay, two tots.”
“Ok, a few tots.”
“These things are bad for you, you know?”
“So why take them?”
“I will stop doc. I promise, just patch me up please.”
“You should! Now I want you to lie on your side on that table. I will inject you with a drug that will put you to sleep immediately before we start with the procedure. ”
Here is the thing, there are two male assistants standing in the room. Guys I don’t know. While she wears her surgical garbs, one guy helps me from the wheelchair and leads me to the table. I’m reluctant because I don’t want to fall asleep in this room full of these strange guys, not with my ass out in the open like this. Not with my ass out in the wind like this. No sir. This town is twisted…I’m just saying. I mean you can’t trust people with your ass anymore, can you? This is 2010 after all! So I reluctantly laid out on the table but with one free hand grabbed the tails of my garb tightly behind to cover my now freezing – and scared – ass.
The injection was dispensed and soon I started feeling sleepy. They stuck this thing in my mouth and asked me to bite it. I started feeling drowsy and I remember hanging onto the tails of my garb harder, trying not to expose my ass. Trying not to let go of my dignity. I remember trying hard not to fall asleep, trying with everything I got, trying so damned
hard to beat the wave anesthesia.
“Biko buddy, don’t let go, don’t fall asleep, these two folks don’t look too straight…hang on buddy, we will get through this….hang on tight to your tail…breath in…buddyroo, breath in, as long as you breath you won’t pass out..don’t close your eyes, don’t close your damned eyes buddy boy!…OK there, look at that painting above the doctor’s desk, isn’t it a beautiful painting? Yes it is, it’s a beau-….it…is…a bea-uti…no..budd…y…the- p-a-i-nt-i-n-g don’..t…fa…l….l….a…s…leee…p