Monday, September 15, 2008

Chapter 3: A doctors visit

It was my day off. I didn't have to be at the restaurant until 6 p.m. and the rest of the day was my own. My grandmother had been needing to go to the doctors' for a check-up for a while, and now she needed a renewal of her diabetes prescription. So Nour and I took her to the Red Crescent Centre.

There was really no way to know how long it would take to get in to the building, to find the right administrator, to get an appointment, to wait for the appointment, then do whatever else they told us to do? So we left as early as possible to be there early. We got there around 9:00, I guess the clinic had been open for an hour already.

We got off the minibus at the end of the street and had a ten minute walk to the clinic from there. Teta was tired, but she is a strong fighting woman. She and Nour linked arms and walked down the street. Oh so slowly, why do women have to wander so slowly! We were already late, and the longer it took us the worse our wait at the clinic would be. I thought of Teta's doctor in Mosul, who had actually been the family doctor and looked out for most of our family's health needs. We would just call ahead to make sure he was in, drive five minutes down the street, and then walk right into his office. Back when we felt like we were worth something.

I whispered to Nour that I was going to go get our name on the queue and marched ahead. When I glanced back, I saw my little sister and my elderly grandmother chatting, looking into store windows as they walked. But Teta really was tired, I knew, and so of course I couldn't ask them to hurry up.

Thanks God, I hadn't been sick since we came to Syria. Neither had my mother or my sisters or little Rashad, except for one day stomache bugs. And there was the cold we all caught that wouldn't go away, but I'm sure that was because we hardly ever heated our house last winter. But Teta... Teta has been sick for years. I've never known Teta when she didn't have diabetes and high blood pressure, and then she had a heart attack right around the time of the Fall in 2003. Since then she has not had energy to do much at all and just sits at home. But my Teta is the best kind of Arab grandma. As soon as she gets a little flicker of oomph, she uses it. Almost every day it is she who cooks our food, and my sisters have pointed out how the house is always a notch cleaner, it seems, when they get home from their computer course on Mondays and Thursdays.

Even so, I had been with Teta to the clinic once before, and Mama had brought her several times, too. She was no stranger to this place, although that didn't mean anyone acted like they recognised her or treated her as special in any way.

No, we had to queue like the rest of them. I inched around an elderly couple and made my way into the downstairs office. At the reception desk I was given a number. That was something, I now felt a pinch less guilty for my impatience now that I had a numbered slip of paper in my hand, proving I had reason to walk ahead of my family. As I waited for Nour and Teta to round the corner and for our number to be called, I stood against a wall facing the receptionist. I watched her as she attended new arrivals and took note of how many numbers she handed out before Teta and Nour arrived. Six. My anxiety had gained us the time of six people.

When our number was called, about half an hour later, we walked up to the appointment-making attendant. As we explained the purpose of our visit and she wrote our name in her ledger for Dr. Mustafa at 11:00, I was reminded of my absolute detest for these places. Places which were set up for refugees, where they acted like they were doing us an enormous favour. As I handed the receptionist 20 Lira, the "reduced" fee for an appointment, I felt cheap and like I'd been sold out. She took it with a smirk on her face that said, "You freeloader, what makes you think you deserve discounted medical services? Everyone knows Iraqis have money while us Syrians struggle to live day by day - thanks to your people pushing up prices!" I knew that was what she was thinking because once someone had actually said it to my face. Not at a medical clinic, that was when I was picking up our family's food rations a few months ago, but the man who had said that had the same look on his face.

The waiting room was crowded, but we found a seat for Teta, and Nour and I took turns standing by her while the other wandered. On my turn to wander I went for a walk around the block and bought myself a Fatayer. I felt guilty, thinking I should take one back for Nour and Teta, but I couldn't figure out how to give them their Fatayer without everyone else in the room - who was surely just as hungry as my Teta - seeing. I could buy some and give them to Nour and Teta on the way out, but by then we'd be on our way home. So I bought myself a Fatayer and gobbled it down quickly, brushing my shirt and chin to make sure no traces of flour were left that could betray me.

There was a water cooler in the waiting room, so I filled a plastic cup with water and took it to Teta, and then Nour left for her walk. I told her not to go far and wondered if leaving the room was too far already. Everyone has heard the stories about things done to Iraqi girls on the street. But it was too much to ask, really, to make her just stand there in that hot, smelly, unventilated waiting room without any movement or fresh air. Teta was a strong woman and she was seated in a chair; Nour was still young and needed activity and fresh air, so I let her go and prayed she'd come back quickly.

The appointment itself was uneventful, except for the prescription for the diabetes medication. The prices went up again. We still only have to pay 20%, but 20% of one hundred dollars was... much more than we had. We asked the doctor what we could do and he said we could petition the director of the clinic for a further discount, or talk to our case manager at UNHCR. But he doubted it would work; discounts are rarely handed out, and in our family we have two people working full-time. The discounts usually go to people needing major surgeries and who have no one working in the family. The doctor said this kindly and apologetically, but as soon as he'd said it, we were whisked out of his office. Before I knew what was happening, Dr. Mustafa was already on his next patient and we were standing in front of the pharmaceutical counter with a pricey prescription in hand. I glanced at the pharmacist serving other clients, then glanced down at the prescription and bill, then glanced at my sister. "Yalla. I'll take care of this later," I said. "Let's go home and have some breakfast."

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