It was a scorching afternoon as I stood there, at the lanai of the Accident and Emergency Unit of the hospital. Like an ambulatory patient, my eyes were taking in spectral glimpses of multiple faces interacting deeply with the atmosphere. Over there was a man being lifted out of a car onto a wheelchair. He was frail and elderly. There was another man by a pillar supporting the covered porch, seated on a stone on the ground. His head was bent in deep recollection, supported by his two palms. Closer by, was a woman on the phone. She was telling the other party that her son had gone to the bank to pay the required money and would thereafter bring the teller. Not far away a lady circled with a child dressed with only diaper in her arms, trying to pacify her to stop screaming. Close by was a group of four, three women and a man. They had questioning eyes that sought answers from each other. Just about where I stood, a young man was assisting another to offload cartons of Parazone® bleach being supplied to the hospital.
I stood and sipped the flurry of movements, people going in and out, with eyes and hearts ached by varied pains in search of unknown reliefs. It was in the midst of this thoughtful repose that a young man approached me. He, without asking to know if I was familiar with the environment, enquired where a bank was close by. I pointed to a microfinance bank I could see in sight, but he declined and said the hospital sent him specifically to a particular commercial bank. I pointed to a security operative some distance away, advising him to seek his answer there. I was left to return to my conscious engagement with my surrounding.
I had gone to the hospital to see a friend who was coming also to see a friend whose child was admitted at the hospital. We had agreed to meet at the hospital and I arrived earlier than her. It was while waiting for her arrival that I took in the above snippets of my environment. As I stood there, one thing that came so strongly to my senses was the hospital smell. I don’t know whether to call it a stench or a scent. Well, I don’t think it was a stench, though it had a choking sensation on me. But there is a strong impression the hospital environment leaves on the olfactory senses. Something uniquely hospital-like, though hardly hospitable. May be it was my mind, but I sensed it as a child, about thirty years ago. I grew up, without being taught, to identify it as the smell of death. Yes, the smell of death.
If you have been to Nigeria’s hospitals, you would have, no doubt, perceived the smell that distinguishes the hospitals, something that hovers between dearth and death. I’m referring to the dearth of healthy medical facilities, of committed and competent medical personnel whose primary drive is service over money, the dearth of needed equipment to forestall increasing deaths. Many Nigerians have lost family members and friends to the dearth of good medical facilities, lack of electricity, poor recruitment process, bureaucratic bottlenecks in hospitals among other causes. Unfortunately, the problem isn’t abating. With increasing polarization of socio-economic status and inequality, little commitment is shown towards empowering healthcare facilities in the country. Many medical personnel are recruited through personal contacts, sometimes with a history of doctored competences, rather than on merit.
As a child, there were two inviting professions that stood out as being at the service of the individual, with a twin commitment to salvage man disease of the body and the mind. They were the medical and teaching professions. Both existed to complement each other in treating the somatic and psychic ills of human existence. They delighted in helping you live healthy life and enjoy the delight of study in building the mind, the reservoir of human well-being. But the times have changed. Though I have met a few doctors who are driven with a commitment to save lives, I have met many who are presently brazen-faced in their drive for money over service.
The smell of death that enmeshes the hospital is so pervasive that you can visit the hospital healthy and return ill, either by just being in the hospital ward or using the toilet facilities. It is the vicious circle of medical care and it probably accounts for bouts of in-patient/out-patient interaction that characterizes the medical treatment process. I’ve been to tertiary hospitals, as well as private ones, where water does not run, and you have to use bucket to fetch water and flush the toilets. I’ve been to ones where medical personnel are lackadaisical in responding to patients, no matter how obvious the patient’s health condition might be. I’ve sat before a doctor who had to google symptoms and prescribe medication without running tests. I have lost family and friends because of the negligence of medical personnel.
I must admit, I have met wonderful doctors who are selfless in their practice, but they are getting fewer by the day. The work ethic of the medical professionals is dwindling by the day and no matter how much money is injected into the health sector in building hospitals, providing equipment and paying emoluments, if the work ethic is not addressed, death will always lurk in the atmosphere of the medical facilities. If truth must be told, I feel closer to death being at the hospitals than being onboard an aircraft in Nigeria.