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Hospital Visiting Hours

Last year I introduced you to my friend Rebecca who is working in Mozambique.  From time to time, she is going to email me a "slice of life" that I can post on the blog, so you can read about what it's like for her living and working in a developing country.

3 February 2006

I don’t know Luria well, but she’s about my age and participated in a seminar I conducted in 2004.  As the daughter of a priest with whom I regularly work (and therefore in whose house I’m regularly a visitor), I see her and her fellow housemates (her parents, her three-year-old daughter, her four or five other siblings, a couple of their children, and anyone else who may be visiting) from time to time.

Luria’s sick in the hospital with tuberculosis, and today’s a holiday, so I thought I’d head over to the hospital for a visit.  Hospital visiting hours coincide with mealtimes and are clearly publicized as BREAKFAST (06:00-07:00); LUNCH (12:00-14:00); DINNER (16:00-18:00).  The correspondence of visitors’ hours with mealtimes indicates the quality and quantity of the food served by the hospital. Most visitors come bearing thermoses, steaming pots, or pieces of bread to supplement the meager hospital offerings. 

I arrived at about 6:45 this morning to find crowds outside both the men’s and the women’s wards.  Within a few minutes, the men’s ward crowd entered that building.  The women’s ward crowd, however, just kept growing, locked outside the building.  To pass the time, I wandered around the hospital complex and admired the new donor-funded construction projects (including a new pediatric ward and a big maternity ward—so women giving birth don’t have to be surrounded by all sorts of sick women). (I hope that the improvements in physical hospital infrastructure are matched by improvements in the supply inventory—in other words, that there are sufficient Tylenol tablets and bandages to serve the patients in the new wards.) It was a normal morning at the provincial hospital. A cleaning team poured buckets of water on the concrete sidewalks to clean off the mud brought by yesterday’s rain.  Members of the kitchen team carried steaming buckets (presumably filled with tea) on their heads. And at the open-all-night laboratory, people waited in line to have their fingers pricked—standing up, drive-through style—in order to confirm their suspected annual bout with malaria.


Meanwhile, we women’s ward visitors waited.  Occasionally the door to the women’s ward would open for a staff member or an overnight visitor to leave.  We mobbed the door to try to enter, but generally the doors were closed too carefully for us to pass through. Once four women, three with babies, managed to push their way in—only inspiring others to do the same in response to subsequent door openings. It was good-natured, playful mobbing, more like people reaching for the t-shirt thrown into a crowd at a basketball game than like strikers mobbing those who cross the picket lines.   But it was definitely mobbing.

The crowd of 58 people chattered away.  58 people plus babies, who don’t take much space tied to their mothers’ backs, without the trappings American babies, and therefore aren’t counted as people by people counters (like transport fare collectors). Conversation between the visitors—mostly women—was not in Portuguese.  Though most women in the city are able to speak Portuguese (it’s the only language used in schools), they generally don’t use it at home—or, apparently, in conversation outside the hospital.  At one point I was clearly the topic of conversation, but when I expressed in confident Portuguese that I didn’t understand what they were saying, someone asked “you don’t understand ANYTHING?” and then they all laughed and continued with more energy.  The few men offered Portuguese commentary on the situation: “This cleaner’s getting worse—sometimes she doesn’t open until 10 or 11;” “they should fire those workers;” etc.

Though most of the conversation was between visitors, some was directed towards the faceless people (presumed to be cleaners) on the other side of the door.  I caught the word “arungu”—white person—apparently being used as a point of persuasion about why the door should be opened.

At quarter to eight, the persuasion finally worked.  One man continually threatened to contact the hospital director.  The door opened slightly to let him—just him—in, but the mob of women with babies on their backs and steaming pots on their heads was too determined—and eventually the doorkeeper gave up.  We all managed to get in. 

The ward has a single hallway, with rooms on both sides.  (At the other end of the hallway, opposite the door we struggled to enter, is another door, but it’s normally tied shut with IV tubing.)  Each room was full of wriggling colors, packed with patients (some sharing beds; some sleeping under beds) and their visitors.  Most women wear two or three different brightly colored cloths (or “capulanas”) —one covering the skirt (to keep it clean), one as a shawl (for warmth) and another to carry a baby.  Other equally vibrant cloths covered the beds as sheets and the patients as blankets. 

While wandering through the colors looking for Luria, I was assertively approached by a fellow visitor carrying an apparently sick child.  Mistaking me for a doctor (either because I had white skin or because I wasn’t carrying any food, as all good visitors would be doing), she stopped me to present a medical case.  My insistence on not being a doctor seemed a bit incredulous to them.  In the end, I didn’t find Luria—even after asking a cleaner for directions to the “special room,” where I had heard she was staying, paying $8 a day for the privilege.  I hope that’s a good sign—that she’s been discharged.

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