General Kiwi Hospital

The Monkey King Dances is a collection of columns written for two New Zealand newspapers – which don’t archive online – between August 2007 & July 2008. Columns are reprinted as originally published barring any serious grammatical errors. Pictures and links added for fun.

At least it was cheap.

At least it was cheap.

First impressions are the most important, unless of course you’re lying in your casket with your eyes as wide as saucers, grinning from ear to ear with your tongue sticking out like some cruel caricature of Bozo the Clown. Then in that case, I suppose, it’s the last impression that really counts.

For the sake of decency, names and exact locations will be omitted, suffice it to say, after my first experience with New Zealand hospitals, I was sure I would end up in the casket.

It wasn’t a very personal journey that first brought me to the hospital. I was doing an article and was stumbling around inside, looking for the recovery room. I passed through one damp, poorly-lit hall after another. Most of the place looked as if it were about to be condemned. Every piece of equipment looked ready for the rubbish pile.

I kept going back to this scene a few weeks ago, when I finally had to make the journey to a local hospital. Again, names and places have been omitted, but I still wonder how these experiences relate to medical attention in New Zealand as a whole. When I arrived, I was told to sit in the waiting room until a doctor could see me. The wonderful lady at the desk said it would probably take up to an hour before I would be attended to, which of course, roughly translates to two and a half hours. So far, so good. Just like home.

But my biggest fear, even after my first New Zealand experience, and being a complete foreigner in the ER, was the thought of socialised medicine.

My previous encounter with semi-socialised medicine was in Nepal, where after being treated by a witch doctor who pulled the spirits out of my head with some beads and a feather, I was taken to an actual medical facility and given rubbing ointment – I had had a week-long headache. Needless-to-say, I was nervous about my first New Zealand ER.

The environment in the Kiwi ER was substantially improved. Immediately, I could see evidence of socialised medicine at work. Above the reception window, information about the services offered scrolled across a small screen. It reminded me of something one might see waiting in line at AA or the tax office. In private medicine, you are generally treated as an individual with a particular ailment. From what I could tell, with socialised medicine, the sick and feeble are lumped into one, giant group of misery and pain.

Apart from the fact that most of us dour-looking folks in the waiting room were very clearly lower-class, the similarities with The States stopped there. The ER back home is generally reserved for anyone 18-60. The pregnant women visit the gynecologist and the geriatrics usually goes to a specialist for their dose of potassium cyanide. There were a few young people in the mix – a construction worker, with a hand heavily bandaged, sat there for two hours before getting up and giving up. While I appreciated our sad but eclectic group, I didn’t like the three hour wait.

Things perked up, of course.

I had gone to the ER because my eye had inexplicitly swelled to the size of a rotting apple, with the same general colour and texture. Approaching the desk, I had worried about paying and insurance more than anything. If privatised medicine does anything, it’s to drain your pockets and make it incredible hard to get good treatment.

The wonderful woman at the counter asked how I had come into my current predicament and I suggested that I might have just discovered I am allergic to cats, particularly when the first one I’ve ever shared a flat with enjoys sleeping on my chest at night.

“Maybe the cat scratched it,” suggested the nice lady.

I, of course, didn’t get it and spent the next 10 minutes trying to tell her that “No, I think it’s just allergies.” What I didn’t comprehend was that with an accident, my traveler’s insurance would cover it. When I finally left the hospital, it was clear that everyone had been in on the ploy. I tried to explain to the doctor my symptoms as honestly as I could, but there was always a bit of wink-wink nudge-nudge and I skipped out of there with a good check-up and some medication that cost me nothing.

A similar incident happened last week when I visited a GP for yet another ailment. After waiting 20 minutes, I was escorted into my “examination room”. Back home, the privatised medicine means doctors’ office are uniformly cold, sterile and generally uncomfortable. Because you’re personally shopping for a doctor, each one has to give the impression of absolute professionalism, if even that’s not the case.

Instead, here, I sat down a homely office with the doctor who wasn’t dressed in a white coat and stethoscope. I braced myself for the feathers and beads. But it didn’t happen. First we sat and chatted, then he examined me and prescribed some medicine lickity-split. We then proceeded to google the damage I’m causing by smoking. Knowing my position and income, he quietly chatted with the ladies in the front about my payment, and I am forever grateful for the attention.

I think these positive aspects of my experiences say a lot about socialised medicine. In a situation where people are lumped together, there’s a sense of “well, we’re all in this thing together,” which brings out the camaraderie in everyone involved, be it the doctors, the patients, or the receptionists. I for one am more committed to stopping smoking because I feel as if I might personally disappoint my GP if I died tomorrow from the tobacco.

It’s for this reason, those junior doctors who went on strike should get the full support of the community. I seriously doubt those debt-ridden, young doctors pocketed a few pills from the cabinet and went on a partying rampage. They likely spent those two days worrying about disappointing the other poor souls stuck together in a socialised programme.

Another good reason to show support is self-preservation. The last thing you want to do is anger the person responsible for saving your life. It’s particularly important when said person could make one phone call to ensure your last impression is that of a wide-eyed Bozo the Clown getting comfortable in the casket. And nobody wants that.

Timaru Herald, April 26, 2008

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