Sunday, 3 October 2010

Balwant Singh Hospital

We arrive for an appointment at 8am. Sister Calista, sweet and tiny 70-year old nun from tribal North-East India, has been told by an optician that she needs a cataract removed. Georgetown is intimidating to her after the scale and comfortable sociability of Aishalton, so I and another friend accompany her.

Balwant Singh is widely agreed to be Georgetown’s best hospital. Certainly it is the smartest. The bevelled edges of the formica cupboards are painted verdigris; all the pillars and doorframes are in slightly antiqued old gold. The floor is spotless; for the first hour of morning surgery, patients are rigorously shunted out of their chairs so that thorough mopping can take place.

Like most Georgetown hospitals, there are no real appointments. You may be given an appointment time, but in practice everyone arrives together and waits until system or whim allows them in. Why? Why fill your hospital with angry, impatient and bored people when you could at least give them an appointment hour? Our appointment purports to be at 8am. Sister Calista, gentle and slightly out of tempo in the city, is trying hard not to worry. She has fasted as instructed from the previous dinner time. We wait.

There are three women on the nurse’s station. Three heavy-lidded Furies tapping their expensive talons on the desktop, handing papers back and forth with that strange receptionist’s relish of rustling nails and tactile page-turning deliberation. A tall, wealthy-looking man is waiting with his small son for the child’s broken arm to be reassessed. The boy is about five- just young enough still to have that heavy head on a beautiful vulnerable stalk of neck. The cast has been taken off just now. A metal bar protrudes from the elbow on one side, cottonwool from the hole in his arm on the other. At first he is cheerful, but after an hour or so of standing waiting for an x-ray, he is beginning to weep. Finally the Third Fury tells the father that he was supposed to pay first at the cashier. Getting angry now, he sweeps off in search of the cashier. All three Furies watch him miss the window, watch him wander around the open-plan hospital floor bewildered as the child begins to wail. They tap their talons, purse their lips, look on in something between apathy and disdain. Eventually he finds the correct window and pays.

We have ample time to watch this episode, as we ourselves are still waiting for the ophthalmologist. After only an hour and three quarters, we are ushered in. He appears extremely knowledgeable, and makes extremely fast judgements. He asks Calista questions but does not appear to wait for or hear the answers. And he responds at a machine-gun speed that I can follow but only just, with terminology utterly foreign to Sister Calista, and does not pause to see whether she absorbs it. It is like watching a Porsche overtake a penny farthing.

She would have NO idea that he diagnosed retinal bleeding if I had not been there to hear it- and I had to ask him to repeat himself three times. No paperwork is given, and there seems to be no formal procedure of patient information. It’s ‘the doctor knows best’ taken to the extreme (perhaps ‘the doctor won’t bother to explain to you because you don’t need to know’). She is packed back out to the waiting area to have eye drops which will dilate the pupil and allow a more detailed examination. But Fury Number 1 who administers said drops is busy. Upstairs. So, after repeated pleading, we wait 45 minutes before Fury Number 2 condescends to put the eyedrops in, a procedure that takes about a second and a half. After that we have to wait another hour for them to take effect. By now Sister Calista is hungry and weary and dejected, but she hasn’t yet acquired the knack of complaining in her 70 years, so she keeps her eyes shut and waits on the Lord (or the doctor: perhaps here the two are synonymous).

The facilities are good. The doctors are knowledgeable. But the atmosphere is an odorous agglomeration of high-handedness, arrogance and disdain. Why do they feel this is acceptable? My physiotherapy twice a week at Georgetown Public Hospital is conducted amidst peeling paintwork, rusty bicycles in the waiting room, elaborate filigrees of cobweb catching my eye as I lie on my back, and pungent pillows I lie upon (and try not to dwell upon) on my front. But Bernadette treats me as a human just like herself. I have an appointment which is rarely more than half an hour late. It feels like a place for people- with too many people in it, granted, but FOR them in some way. Balwant Singh feels like a medical Harvey Nichols where the ladies on the perfume counter curl their lip and pointedly hide the atomiser. I guess I’ve always found that kind of exclusivity exclusionist and rather repellent, but perhaps that’s intentional. I’m not their desired clientele. I wonder who is? The Furies look as though their dream is of a hospital with no patients at all.


  1. Between June and early September this was my routine once, and sometimes more than once, per week. The first time I went I wasn't aware that I had to pay first (the fury in front didn't inform me of that little tidbit), so I waited for 5 minutes in a line at the ophthalmologist's nurses' desk to be told that I had to go wait in the cashier's line, to come back again and wait in the newly formed nurses' desk line. Joy.

    Eventually, after a couple of months, they began to treat me almost like a human. So that made it all okay. I began to look down with pity (and a little disgust) at those poor unfortunates who, unlike me, had yet to gain the "respect" of the furies.

  2. I never understood the appointment thing... in Guyana, the times I have made appointments it has always been as you described, probably one of the reasons I don't particularly like going to see "doctors"