Adoration of the (Imagined) Infirm

This is a love song of sorts, a well-deserved work of literary praise for my doctor, Adrian Nii Oddoye. Actually, it’s not just for him; it’s for all the doctors who’ve claimed me as a patient instead of kicking me out of their offices; all the doctors who’ve taken my urgent phone calls and greeted my lists of symptoms (oh-so-many symptoms) with true compassion.
This is my show of gratitude to all the doctors in Ghana who carry on despite the difficulties, saving lives and, as a result, healing the nation.

You see, I’m a hypochondriac, a person who fears being ill, worries and obsesses about falling ill; an individual who often and unrealistically imagines herself to be plagued with some disease or other, usually the rarest and most unlikely, the grimmest and most debilitating, the one that will result in a slow and painful decline. Forget about diabetes, hypertension and gout; I’m talking Ebola, the bubonic plague, Ewing’s sarcoma. Serious stuff.

I’ve become quite adept at hiding this paranoia from everyone except my closest friends and, of course, my doctor. I have programmed his number into speed dial and I phone him often. He fields my constant queries and, without any hint of patronization, quells my fears. Sometimes his assurances work; other times, I’m not convinced until he orders a battery of tests or prescribes copious amounts of medication (more often than not, they are placebos).

As I type this, I am extremely conscious of the fact that for the past three days I have been nursing a shooting pain in my right calf. I’ve read up on all the possible reasons for such a pain in that location and—having skipped the most benign ones like muscle strain, potassium and magnesium imbalance—settled upon something a bit more dramatic.

I think I have DVT, deep vein thrombosis, a blood clot. And if part or all of it dislodges and travels to the heart, lungs or brain…well, my days of writing for the Daily Graphic, and all other publications, will be done. I stay awake at night fretting. Even so, I have resisted the urge to phone my doctor because I’m embarrassed.

Last year I travelled to Paris. That is where I first learned of DVT. It had been an uncomfortably long flight. My legs, ankles and feet were heavy from edema, and there was a shooting pain in my right calf.

“Dr. Oddoye,” I said, in a panic. “I think I have…” He listened, asked me to point this and flex that. He then told me that though he disagreed with my diagnosis, I should report to his office upon my return so a scan could be performed.

But when I got back to Accra, I couldn’t reach him. I tried and tried. No answer. No call back. I guess he was busy. (Yes, I know, he has other patients and priorities.) My first thought: he was finally sacking me as a patient. If so, what would I do? This frightened me almost as much as the possibility of DVT.

The less said about our healthcare industry the better. It leaves a lot to be desired. That is why so many well-to-do citizens make it a point to purchase insurance policies so in cases of emergency they’re airlifted to South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Dubai, UK, US—anywhere but Ghana—for lifesaving treatment. However, the rest of the population, those whose hand-to-mouth reality won’t allow such a luxury, is forced to play a sort of Russian roulette with our lives each time we venture into the maze of our country’s inadequate medical system. Unless we have a seasoned, trustworthy doctor—which I did. And I wasn’t about to let him go that easily. I sent him a text, in which I wrote:
Q: What was written on the hypochondriac’s tombstone?
A: You see, I told you I was ill.
He phoned me immediately. “Adrian,” I said, calmly, “I’m sure it’s probably nothing, but a scan would ease my mind.”

By now I’m fairly certain he’s figured out why I address him, at different times, by each of his names. When I am neurotic, a patient in crisis, it’s Dr. Oddoye. When I’m ready to admit to the absurdity of my conclusions, but not yet ready to do away with the formality of the doctor-patient relationship, it’s Adrian.

When I’m sitting at +233, the jazz joint he and his brothers own, and I’m just another old friend, a drinking buddy from “back in the day” at Don’s Place, it’s plain old Nii.

Nii, who will start regaling me with “a day in the life of a doctor” stories but then stop mid-sentence when he remembers who he’s talking to, the friend who’ll, overnight, develop every symptom he mentions and swear by midday she has some rare and exotic disease.

Nii, who takes tremendous glee in handing me the report to whatever test I’ve requested and telling me, “Nana-Ama, look. You are perfectly healthy.”

Nii, whose heavenly reward for treating me with such care and patience for all these years can only be some kind of wonderful.
To all the doctors like Nii, many of whom are underpaid and overworked, saddled with the burden of a broken system and its dizzying bureaucracy; many of whom could easily find employment in other countries but have chosen to stay…

…I know it can’t be easy tending to people when they are at their most vulnerable, from the terminally ill to the chronic, but healthy, valetudinarians like me. Which is why I stand in praise. I stand in admiration and awe. And I say the only thing I can: thank you, thank you, thank you.

This article was originally published in the Daily Graphic.

Meri Nana-Ama Danquah is currently at work on a memoir, Eating Seafood in Ethiopia: And Other Terrible Mistakes I’ve Made While Travelling. She can be reached at view@danquah.com