doctor in the house…

I am a huge fan of BBC comedy series "Doctor in the House" and "Doctor at Large". Used to listen to them (repeats of course) over the internet. I never wanted to be a doctor, ever - if hell exists then hospital is that for me. Never liked the sound, smell, anything to do with hospitals. Anyway, the reason I bring this issue of doctors and hospitals here (actually when I think of it there might be reasons and not just one reason) is that my current residence in Ghana is just behind this clinic, which is closed now (otherwise I wouldn't have taken the place!). To be more precise it used to be a Maternity Home/Clinic and you can see the services that it provides used to provide from a snapshot of the signboard below. Yup the signboard is still outside, and the walls are painted hospital-yellow, and there are posters encouraging women to "say no to sex", "use female condom", and "breast-feed your babies" all over the walls (of the clinic, not my house!). So you can just imagine how I feel as I come home after long-day's work and walk through the corridor with all these posters on both sides! And the reason I use the clinic entrance to get to my house is that clinic forms the front of the property and the side gate is just too big (built for vehicles) to open and close everyday.

This Way MaternityHome

Anyway, good thing is that the hospital-smell is no more and the disused clinic at the front hides my house completely from one side (where there is the main street!), which gives me a peace of mind, security-wise...and there is the watchman of course, who lives in the clinic with his family. And let me tell you he doesn't have a big family (husband-wife and 3 kids!), and I am guessing he won't have any more given where they live now!

Wondering how I give direction to my house to my friends/visitors? Well, for guys, its okay - I just tell them to come in front of the maternity clinic and I go receive them at the front gate. But for girls/ladies, its always awkward. First I have to tell them to come to a "maternity clinic" to see me, and then I have to lead them through the corridor with posters of "say no to sex" and "female condoms" - targeted for women of course! I have tried to gaze the expressions in their faces as I lead them through that dreaded corridor. Guys just make jokes of course - that if I have a girl coming over, I don't need to worry about protection and all that. Those posters should make them aware! One even said he would like to bring his girlfriend to my place one day if I don't mind!

Clinic Corridor Posters
Scenes from the dreaded corridor

With girls/ladies, it a bit different. I try to take them through the corridor as fast as I can, and usually let them take the lead so that I don't have to keep turning back to lead them to the house. It has mostly worked. And I don’t make any remarks regarding those posters or about the clinic with girls. When they themselves ask about the clinic, I tell them that it had been closed for months before I moved so I have absolutely no idea how it was like when still open. One actually joked when she saw the poster of female condom. She was leading the way, and suddenly turns back to tell me that she doesn’t carry it in her handbag when she comes to visit her friends. But then takes out a condom (male condom that is) from her handbag. I just stood there staring at her - and didn’t know how to respond. She then started laughing, which got me laughing too. Then only I felt at ease.

There have been occasional visitors to the house, mostly from local government departments (district and regional health office etc.), to enquire about the clinic. Nobody seems to know about its closure strangely, and as soon as they see a "white man" (yea, I am considered a "white man" in Ghana!) in the house, they think its the "doctor" - "doctor in the house"!!! So when I tell these government officials that I just rent the house, and that I am not a doctor, and more importantly that the clinic has been closed for a good few months, they just look at me in disbelief. They have no record of closure at their office, and they need to submit one kind of report or other regarding the maternity homes in the district within a couple of days!

Last week a lady knocked at the side gate (big gate that stays shut all the time). When I went to ask who she was looking for, she says - "I'm looking for you". "For me?" I ask back in surprise. "Yes, you. Can I talk to you for a minute?". I had absolutely no idea who this lady was. A middle-aged woman, well-educated from her speech, and pretty high official somewhere from her dress and general attitude. She comes around to the main gate (to the clinic), which I open to let her in. By the way, I haven't mentioned before, we keep this main gate to the clinic locked almost permanently (will tell you what happens when we don't a bit later!). She suggests we could sit down on the bench right there and "talk". I still had no idea who this lady was and what she wants to talk about. So I ask her as politely as I could. "I am extremely sorry, but I don't remember meeting you before. I don't even know who you are or why you are here or what you want to talk to me about". At that moment she suddenly asks "Aren't you the doctor here?"...I remember "doctor in the house" one more time!

I tell her I wasn't the doctor at the clinic, but to make our conversation lighter, I tell her my brother just became one, and if only he was here in my place. She then suggests why don't I ask my brother to come here then!?! Anyway, when she realised I wasn't the one she was looking for or wanted to talk to, she started talking less formally. She used to be a nurse, but now is an administrator at the district health office. Her responsibility is to oversee the running of the health facilities for women in the district. And like most people I have met so far re: closed clinic, was shocked to see it not operating. Even worse was that she didn't know about it until that moment. And who tells her this bad news - some researcher from Nepal who is here in Ghana to study about Shea tree, agroforestry parklands, and customary institutions and what not. But to be fair to her, she was extremely courteous and asked me if I could help her find somebody who would like to research on this herb found and used extensively in northern Ghana by women during their labour. Apparently it reduces contraction or something like that - I don't exactly remember what she said. Anyway, the bottom line was that it is one of the best herbal medicine available for women during their labour. I tell her to give me the scientific name and as much detail as she could so that I could pass those to my friends in medical field who might be interested in researching that particular herb. She then left with my phone number, promising to send me the details!

A week before this lady, another gentleman had come from some other district office to enquire about some financial issue pertaining to the clinic. Again, it was me who broke the news to him about the closure of the clinic. I could tell he wasn't particularly pleased either. Was complaining that nobody informed his office about the closure.

Now lets talk about what happens, when, on occasions, the main gate to the clinic remains open. And this happens mostly early in the morning as the watchman's kids are leaving for school or his wife is leaving for work, and other visitors are coming in, including my own visitors. Only two days ago, a man in his early twenties came with a girl, who looked less than twenty, to see a doctor or the midwife. He saw me first somehow, or that he was just waiting for somebody who he could identify as a medical staff to come to sight. He came over to me straight away to ask if I was the right person to talk to about his wife's (here in Ghana girlfriends are often referred to as wives, and boyfriends as husbands!) problem or should they see a midwife. Without even bothering to ask what the "issue" was, as it was none of my concern, I told him that he had come to the wrong place, and that this clinic has been closed for months. He didn't know what to say, or may be he didn't believe me (may be he thought I was a lazy "white" doctor not wanting to see patients early in the morning!). He just stood there with no intention to leave. So I directed him to the watchman's wife and asked her to explain to him in the local language that the clinic has been closed and that he'll have to take his wife to somewhere else. Once she explained this to him he left with a sadness in his face. All this time, the girl was standing behind the clinic's back-door that separates my house from the clinic. I followed them to lock the main gate, where there was another young couple, just arrived on their motorbike, again looking for a midwife! Same story again, of explanation, disbelief at my "clinic-closure story", and sadness...May be this is the season of unwanted pregnancies, or that of childbearing on this part of Ghana!

It has also happened sometimes that a labourer passing-by popping in to the clinic to ask if he could get his wound cleaned and bandaged - when the main gate is unlocked that is. And I have also received a man badly wounded with a machete, and bandaged with rags coming in for treatment. I didn't know whether to administer him the first-aid myself or send him to a functioning clinic. As soon as he said the cut was pretty deep, I just told him to take a taxi and go the hospital immediately.

So, even when closed, a clinic is certainly not a place to live close to, especially if you are a hospital-phobic like I am. But then I am mostly out-and-about doing my work, so its only these odd mornings or evenings that I get to see these "patients". Ever since I moved in to this house, I have just one prayer - that no one brings their wife in labour, ready to give birth, to this clinic...I wouldn't know what to tell them at such juncture! May be call an ambulance... OR fetch a midwife and get the clinic operating again, only if temporarily!?!