There have been times I’ve jokingly said that if anyone’s going to write a Rough guide to healthcare around the world, it should be me. I’ve seen the inside of many hospitals not only in my native Sweden and here in the UK, but also in the United States, Kenya, Guatemala and Bulgaria.
Although I wouldn’t say I’ve ever been treated less than cordially in these places, some experiences were more noteworthy than others.
My visit to an A&E clinic in the outskirts of Nairobi happened on my first ever trip to the African continent. I was in my early 20s and had flown to Kenya on holiday with my family, when a viral infection I’d probably brought with me from Sweden turned into something more sinister, leaving me coughing and gasping for breath. A doctor was called to our hotel and after a brief examination, he told my parents I urgently needed an x-ray and blood taken. A brief taxi ride later, my mother and I were sat in a windowless room with no furniture aside from rows of plastic chairs and waited to be seen by a doctor. As the only foreign patient in the spartan waiting area, and one that made an awful noise with my constant coughing, I inadvertently caught the attention of other patients who gazed at me with curiosity.
A few years later, I was living in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia for a few months while researching my PhD, when I fainted and hit my head on the stone floor in the communist-style high-rise building where I rented a room. My landlady found me unconscious and called the ambulance which took me to the nearest hospital where I was met by a chain-smoking nurse with thick layers of makeup and a nurse’s uniform so tight and skimpy that I feared the seams would break.
Then there are all the hospital stays I’ve enjoyed on account of my birth defects, strokes, ear problems, etc., most of whom have been here in London where I’ve probably seen at least ten different hospitals, probably more. And in most cases, I’ve had nothing but good things to say about the nurses and doctors who’ve treated me. I’ve seen first-hand the pressure they face, especially in the public health sector, and I can only admire their almost super-human resilience in the face of government cuts and excruciatingly long working hours.
Yes, there have been times I’ve felt objectified and dehumanised as a patient, about which I’ve written before. Not so the last time I paid a visit to the hospital, which was three days ago. I had been called to the endoscopy unit at University College London Hospitals (UCLH) for a gastroscopy (a very uncomfortable procedure which involves having a long tube inserted through the mouth and into the oesophagus), and in a vain attempt at stoicism, I declined the offer of being sedated, opting only for a local anaesthetic throat spray.
As awful as the experience was, the doctor and nurses looking after me were nothing short of fantastic. While waiting for the procedure to begin, Dr Mohamed introduced himself to me by his first name, Besher, and the three nurses, Brenda, Bukoshi and Laila. The atmosphere in the examination room was relaxed, friendly and compassionate, and it made all the difference. Having a gastroscopy is not the most dignified of experiences, but the medical team made every effort to make me as comfortable as possible, always explaining what they were doing and above all, talking to me, not over me.
I left the hospital soon after the procedure was completed, exhausted and with a sore throat from the probe, but feeling deeply grateful to Besher, Brenda, Bukoshi and Laila for doing such a great job with care, kindness and respect. If I ever write a travel guide to the world’s hospitals, there’s no doubt the endoscopy unit at UCLH deserves a place on my “Top 10” list.