“This is it, ma’am,” the driver said, as I climbed out of the back of the truck, dusting off the layers of dirt. I was late. Damn. It had been a long, arduous commute – lurching up the steep, pot holed road, stopping and starting continuously to let hitch hiking natives on and off. This was my first day on the job and I was excited but nervous because I wanted to make a good impression. The truck drove off leaving me standing alone in the road. I looked around but couldn’t see anything resembling a hospital. Then off to the side I noticed a dilapidated bamboo building with a makeshift sign dangling in front that said, HAUS SIK. A half dozen indigenous people were hanging around outside. Really? This is the hospital?
“Well, finally; here you are. I’ve been expecting you. Get in here. We have work to do,” bellowed a woman in an Irish accent from the open doorway. She was about six feet tall, built like a water barrel and had a mass of bright red curly hair. “I’m Anne,” she said as she stuck out her hand. “I run this place and I haven’t had any help in a long time.” She threw me an apron to put on, then proceeded to jabber a mile a minute as she showed me around, trying to download everything she felt I needed to know in ten minutes. Her brogue was so thick I had no idea what she was saying.
This front room we were in was the main clinic, consisting of a few wooden benches where a few patients waited patiently to be seen. Some shelves ran along one of the walls, containing jars of antiseptics and sundry bandages, plus other supplies and ancient equipment, which looked like they might have been left over from WWII. An old plank supported by two sawhorses served as a gurney, and was covered with a dirty sheet. In the back was another room, which was the actual hospital ward. There were straw mats on the floor, covered with patients, more or less, as well as their families who stayed with them. Food wasn’t part of the health care plan here, so they had to do their own cooking, which took place over campfires outside the rear of the building.
A little desk sat off in the corner where the dayshift “doctor boy” named Joe sat with a notebook and jar of pencils. I learned that it was his job to take roll call first thing each morning, as patients frequently just left to go walk about, or gave their bed space to one of their friends. I looked in his book. Next to the names he accounted for each and every patient. Two columns. Two choices – Present or Absconded. He kept very tidy records and I could see that he took this responsibility very seriously. Anne mentioned that he had other jobs, which she would talk about later. “But first,” she explained, as she put the kettle on. “It’s tea time.”
I sat down and watched as she brewed mugs of stiff, black tea. Then she reached behind her into a cupboard and grabbed a flask, turning her back to top off her brew. Spinning back around, she winked. “Cheers and welcome,” she said, as she clinked my cup. I smiled and thought – We aren’t in Kansas any more, Candace…