After a fitful night of moaning and groaning, tossing and turning, Nick decides this is not an intercostal muscle strain but something more serious. We need a doctor. I consult the locals and return with the news that the call-out doctor is apparently not good, but Leh does have a very highly regarded doctor, whose surgery opens at 9. We duly set off for the patch of concrete paving outside his office and so begins the tortuous waiting game that is the Indian medical system.
By 10am, and with poor Nick by this time in terrible pain hunched over the freezing stone steps, a man arrives to unlock the door. There is an unseemly scrum, during which I like to think I did my best elbowing on Nick’s behalf, receiving token number 2 – I was beaten to first by a tiny hunched old woman resembling Yoda who squirmed her way between my legs presumably. So, we were first to arrive at the surgery and would be only second to see the doctor – not bad. Our token gives us entry to the next stage, a stairwell landing outside the actual doctor’s office. Up we go and nick is rewarded with a narrow wooden bench, literally a step up from the stone.
We wait some more. I recall a story my grandfather told me about his time as a prisoner of war in Russia. He was the considerably the most junior of four doctors in the camp, having only recently qualified, while the others were older, established specialists and surgeons. Nevertheless, he was by far the most popular choice of all the peasants in the village, who would queue for his services, bringing him gifts of brandy, while avoiding the other doctors. Eventually, he asked one of the villagers why they all preferred him. “We know that you are the good, clever doctor,” he was told, “because you always look in that big book.” My grandfather’s inexperience led him to continually check his diagnosis in a medical tome, and this large book impressed the villagers very much. The other doctors, knowing their profession, did not need to look everything up. I hoped that Nick’s doctor was highly regarded for a different reason.
An hour passes, pigeons and a skanky dog sit with us for a while until they grow bored with the inactivity. And then a kindly man with a stethoscope around his neck arrives. Everyone sits straighter. Again the scrum for the door, tokens held aloft. I grab Nick’s number 2 like a talisman and head into the fray. First yoda, then eventually me and the by now pitiful Nick. His consultation is gratifyingly lengthy, nearly 10 minutes, during which time the doctor’s door continually falls open with the weight of the throng outside who burst in and then retreat back again in waves. Nick iis prodded and listened to.
Then the doctor makes his prognosis: either cracked rib (unlikely), herpes zosta (Nick shoots me an alarmed look; I whisper: shingles), pneumonia (unlikely) or pleurisy. He gives us a page of scribbles and sends us to the hospital for X-rays and possible internment.
More waiting, more form-filling. We walk past the room for leprosy (next time…), intestines, eyes and arrive at TB and chest. The room is full of the desperate, looking close to death. I shudder. There’s nowhere for poor Nick to sit. The people here are too sick even to stare (for long). I find him a stool and hunt for the X-ray room. There I find a bored looking man and persuade him to X-ray Nick’s chest. More waiting.
We find the doctor in the centre of another scrum and I shove Nick and the X-ray into the centre. The doctor looks at the scribbles from Doc 1, decides Nick has pleurisy and scribbles some more pages before moving to another patient. We go down the corridor to the nurses’ station. I prop Nick on a chair where he is soon the star attraction of every passing person. I leave the hospital and search out a chemist with the doctor’s scribbles in my clutch. Buy 5 vials of antibiotics, a strip of painkillers, some vitamin B comples, 5 syringes with needles, and some coiled sweets (Nick has an empty stomach). I return to the nurses’ den with my goodies and a nurse proceeds to inject Nick’s hand. There is much searching for the vein, much wincing from the patient, and much gasping from the assembled crowd. The nurse has to bend at an awkward angle just to reach Nick’s hand because two wide-eyed children are in the way, getting a good view.
We leave and taxi back to our guesthouse. It is late afternoon and I go out for food. Nick gets slowly better. By evening, the nurse who we arranged to visit for the injection, has decided not to come till morning. I am keen to give it a go, but Nick is strangely reluctant. In the morning, he is 100 times better and the nurse gives him his injection as planned.
He’s now feeling well enough for a stroll and can move his ribcage enough to laugh at the whole thing.