Friday, 18th of May, 2018. He was already dead by then, he died five days earlier. I didn’t know him prior to his demise; therefore my acquaintance with him is in death and a similar tale of neglect.
On that Friday morning, I walked into Oliyide General Hospital, a modest government-owned hospital tucked at the end of a long street in Mushin, Lagos. Being at the far end of the street, leading to a gated cul-de-sac offers it a somewhat eerie atmosphere of secrecy. With the blandness of its painting, one would think of nothing but be rooted in a feeling of indifference at first sight.
That Friday morning was not the first time I had gone to the hospital for medical issues, hence my familiarity with the long bureaucratic processes that characterize activities at the hospital. I woke as early as 5 AM – never mind, doctors would not be around until 10 AM or so – to ensure I got to the hospital by 7 AM. This was a means to avoid the tussle and the seemingly endless queue with the sick – those who would survive and those who would be defeated by their conditions alike.
A dangerous miracle played out as I reached the gate of the hospital, a strange scarcity of patients mortified me. However, my mortification was assuaged by my realization that my earliness could have positioned in a situation where I would be first attended to.
I took my seat. Sufficient moments intervened, and we waited still; the day had matured into fullness. The sun scorched, and the glass panes of the hospital offices shone with concentrated brightness. We were just three on the waiting bench – me, a healthy-looking impatient rascally middle-aged youth and a woman of advanced age whose eyes flapped in uneasy oscillation. It took the rascality of the impatient patient for us to be aware that we were not recipients of the benefit of a miraculous dearth of patients. We were merely marooned, seated in futility. A segment of the medical staff was on strike. By now, it was 10 AM and the old woman was subtly writhing in pains at the end of the bench. One could not even tell if she was sleeping – or dying.
Frustration welled in me like the surge of a volcano eruption. The non-medical staffer who brought the news did not fail in ensuring a crucial addendum that the presence of a few staffers, including hers, was a humanitarian gesture. Truly, what could she be doing when the Joint Health Sector Unions (JOHESU) were on strike? Technically, the medical sector of the whole country was in a state of paralysis and in a time of tragic abeyance. They had been on nationwide strike for a while, many days even before he died.
Ina lilahi wa ina ilaehi rajihun. We come from you and unto you we shall return. That was the expression that appeared on my Whatsapp status on the 13th of May, 2018. A senior of mine in the department posted the notifier of demise accompanied by three crying smileys. I was moved by sheer curiosity to ask who it was for. She answered with a taciturnity that betrayed her bereavement, ‘’Umar’’.
Umar was going to die a year and four months later when he was born with the acute birth defect. He had an endless agonizing tryst with sicknesses and his breathing became heavy which meant he had to heave through every breath to stay alive. Little did he know, in his innocence, that he was committing a crime? When his searing tears became a signature soundtrack for endless turbulent nights and early mornings, his mother’s forlorn look will perch on the once-delicate skin of a new born that was as soft and moist as an unction-soaked flesh which now assumed an ashen coat of bluish layer.
As time went on, he would find himself in the arms of his young parents on their way to numerous hospitals seeking an end to the agony of the innocent boy. Then he would find himself at the mercy of oxygen-mask on his nose. Something that looked like a small cupped palm that would smother him and that cupped palm would be attached to a water bottle by his side. He would never know, however, that that water bottle housed life for him.
Sunday, 13th of May 2018, they would on their way to the hospital again. Two hospitals would be even without oxygen because the workers were on strike and the third one who would admit him after several hours of bargain with his parents had no sufficient oxygen. The oxygen would be exhausted half-way and he would be stranded again and left to fight for life again, heaving through a punctured heart. Then, sadly, he would die.
The news filtered to his sister some minutes later. She posted the news of the demise on her Whatsapp status for everyone who was aware of the campaign to raise six million, five hundred and ten thousand naira for a heart operation that would have saved him from the Congenital Heart Disease. Umar had a hole in his heart.
Nursing my frustration, I decided to take succor in football news which I follow religiously. My phone notification alerted me to incoming Whatsapp messages and I checked them. I seized the opportunity to vent my frustration on my Whatsapp status.
I wrote: 09:51 AM. At General Hospital. No nurse, no doctor available. The rowdiness here just like my secondary-school break time period. We are done in this country!
Aishat responded ‘’LOL. They are on strike. That was what happened to Umar on Sunday’’. Fatai responded to the status with ‘’LOL’’ Oluwaseun responded to the status with ‘’LOL’’. Lanre, Tobiloba, Hammed, Deji, etc. LOL means lots of laugh. Well, that was the instinctive response to a situation that killed Umar and was likely to kill the abandoned aged woman at the far end of the bench who seemed to be apparently haggling with death. We are in Nigeria, the last resort is to laugh at tragedies.
JOHESU was the body on strike. It is comprised of medical staff who are not doctors. They are Radiographers, Laboratory Scientists, Physiotherapists, Pharmacists, etc. They were rightfully demanding pay parity with their colleagues, a rightful remuneration for services rendered nobly but the Nigerian government is notoriously hard of hearing. This situation then created instances that took the lives of Umar – and many others.
Moments after noon, our news-breaker took our files and sauntered through the doors, she bristled past us many a times and she motioned to us to come. A miracle, but this time a real miracle. A doctor was ready to attend to us. He was plump and looked well-fed. His shirt smartly tucked into his trousers which had a splitting crease at each leg. He was the same doctor that attended to me five months ago, in December, when I first came to make complaints about the same issue, a cardiovascular leakage.
While I was going to his door, I witnessed one last spectacle that drained every vigour out of me. I shook like a wad of leaf in violent wave. I saw his face, not Umar’s, but another, a grown-up whose arm was freshly amputated in an emergency case. The bloody stump was shabbily clothed in a shred of linen and he supported this stump with his right arm. He was going to wherever it was to be stitched, chaperoned by a single person whose attention was not present with the now-one-armed man. Besides the chaperon, he was trailed by the dripping dots of his blood on the ground. The hospital was on strike, it was a bloody mess! His face was nondescript, a passive submission to the circumstances. He cast a last look at the trail of his own blood behind him before he disappeared into another ward.
I turned the doorknob, a moment of remembrance played out between the doctor and me. ‘’We are on strike; a few of us are only here out of concern. You see that man? –‘’ I turned my gaze away so as to signal I was no interested in relishing the gory memory of the man. He got the clue. ‘’Okay, erm, I will be placing you on the same medication.’’ He scribbled on a piece of paper the medication in byzantine lettering that would take only knowledgeable squinted eyes to decipher. I took the piece of paper to the partly-closed pharmacy and bought half the drugs – those were the only ones available. I was condemned to purchase others at prohibitive prices down the streets, at a nearby pharmacy.
In the evening, when I sat before the television to take my night dose which coincided with 7 PM news, I was confronted with a headline. The government was not ready to dialogue with striking workers. The strike was impotent and the situation would go on for a time. I remembered Umar, the woman whom I later left at the hospital and the few other victims which the news televised.
I remember, even till now, that when the President’s son had an accident, he was flown to Germany for treatment and the President himself is a frequenter of UK hospitals. I remember that the budget allocated that the money budgeted for a redundant hospital meant for the presidency is much bigger than that budgeted for all the teaching hospitals in the country.
I swallowed the drugs and waited for the strike to expiry. It took days, and now it looms again. They are threatening another strike. Lots of laugh.