Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Chapter 10 Normal

There are six of us, sitting on the balcony of the girls’ apartment and, although it’s only 6pm, it’s dark out. Jim, our resident Irishman, is playing Fleetwood Mac and we’ve each been planning our inaugural lessons for tomorrow. The day we finally get to meet our students and really get started on what we came here for.

I was at the hospital again today. A few posts ago I wrote about observing reconstructive surgery on a one year old. The surgery was performed by a visiting medical team from the States. The team’s visit, as that of many others in the Territories, was organized by a charity called the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund. The PCRF’s story started 20 years ago with a young Gazan boy called Mansour, who lost both legs to an Israeli anti tank grenade, and has now grown to an organization with a volunteer community that spans the world and has helped thousands of children from across the Middle East.

There’s another team in this week. This time from Dubai with a specialist in orthopedics. I spent some time with the team helping to log cases as the doctors screened patients and studied scans.

The cases ranged from weak discs best treated with a shot of cortisone to the back all the way to an old man who was bent over at an almost 90 degree angle. He had fallen off a donkey four years earlier and, despite visiting many doctors, his condition had continued to deteriorate. He would definitely need surgery.

Some of the patients were in so much pain that they had been unable to work or feed their family for years. They would look searchingly at the doctor, hoping desperately for a magical cure that would restore them to their position as proud head of the family.

The doctor, compassionate yet honest with his diagnoses, would ask questions about the patients’ lifestyles. What work did they do? Was it something that could have contributed to the back pain? Were they left or right handed?

Lifestyle was a big issue. The world has become very health conscious and it’s more common than not to see people exercising and watching their food. Many of the patients we’ve seen over the past few days have been overweight and their backs were simply giving in under the pressure.

Health is a big issue in many places. Governments launch expensive campaigns to educate their people about the importance of eating and living well. Apart from raising the general standard of life it also relieves public health services of the very large strain of dealing with issues arising from unhealthy lifestyles.

I haven’t seen anything like that here. Nor many areas suitable for children to run around and play. Schools are slowly placing a greater focus on sports to encourage children to make exercise a regular part of their lifestyles but this is still very much in its infancy as far as I can tell.

So it became clear why so many of the patients, despite being only in their 40’s and 50’s, were suffering from problems that could have been avoided had they been aware of the long term dangers of a sedentary, unhealthy lifestyle.

Many of the women who came in that day were worried about how long they would be off their feet. They had children to raise, homes to keep in order and simply could not afford to be flat on their backs in bed for long.

The doctor saw almost 40 patients on the first day. Back to back. When I asked how many patients he would see on a normal day back home he laughed and said 'never more than 15.'

Meanwhile the electricity would cut about once an hour as it was overloaded by the many AC's being blasted around the hospital. The room was filled with other doctors, administrators, nurses coming in and out, patients, me with my laptop and the incessant ringing of mobiles. All of which, strangely, featuring ringtones which were any one of a range of extremely cheesy pop songs.

By the end of the day his face was drawn from exhaustion. Not only from the constant flow of patients in and out of his door, but from allaying their fears and meeting their desperation with the sometimes disappointing truth that the pain would never completely go.

The next two days will be mostly operations to correct what can be fixed. For some it is too late, but for others it will be a return to something they haven't felt in a long time. Normal.