Web Exclusives: Raising Kate

a PAW web exclusive column by Kate Swearengen '04 (kswearen@princeton.edu)

November 20, 2002:

Of a broken wrist and a hospital visit
Setting a bone the Egyptian way

In Egypt when you break your wrist, the doctor gives you general anesthesia before setting the bone. This goes against conventional medical practice, or at least against the way medicine is practiced in the U.S., where the doctor tells you to turn your head while he puts the pulverized bone back in place. For my money, general anesthesia is the way to go, although it carries with it the risk that once they put you under, you'll stay under. The way my junior paper's going, it may have been better if I hadn't awakened.

On Halloween, I fell down a flight of stairs on the way out of Arab literature lecture and broke and dislocated my left arm. My attentions were initially divided between not falling back on the traditional American linguistic arsenal that lends itself to such situations — a no-no in Egypt — and keeping my legs covered. I was wearing a skirt at the time, and within two minutes of my fall every janitor and security guard in the building was clustered at my feet.

Kate: "My arm is broken."

Janitor: "Insha'allah [God willing], no."

Kate: "Look at it. It's not straight."

The janitors and security personnel escorted me to a small room, where we were joined by a motherly Egyptian woman and a Korean nurse practitioner from the university's medical clinic.

Motherly woman: "Would you like some tea with sugar?"

Kate: "I'm diabetic."

Motherly woman: "Tea with mint?"

Kate: "Do you have bourbon?"

Motherly woman: "What?"

Kate: "Tea with mint would be great."

Nurse (brandishing large aerosol bottle): "This for swelling."

Kate: "Uh, okay."

Kate (interior monologue): "Isn't that stuff for sunburns? That's going to do absolutely nothing for a broken bone. God, this is like the time I went into anaphylactic shock at McCosh and they told me Benedryl would take care of it."

Nurse: "I will give you shot for pain."

Kate (eyeing needle): "Are you going to stick that in my arm?"

Nurse: "If you want. Or somewhere else."

It was at this juncture that Rana, a Lebanese woman who works in the Study Abroad office, showed up to drive me to Al-Salam Hospital in Mohandiseen and to get me through the red tape. When she's not coming to the rescue of foreign students, Rana moonlights as an economics professor. In fact, she is considering coming to Princeton next year to pursue her doctorate. Rana is brilliant and funny, and Princeton should be doing everything in its power to entice her to move to the Garden State. This is me putting in a good word for her.

Rana warned me not to judge the Egyptian hospital by American standards. I told her about McCosh and said I was used to Third World health care. But in all fairness, the Egyptian hospital impressed the hell out of me. In any American hospital I would have spent at least an hour waiting to be processed, and then another couple of hours waiting for the doctor. Not so in Egypt: within 20 minutes a doctor had examined my arm and dispatched me to the eighth floor for X-rays, where the radiologist grudgingly stubbed out his cigarette and proceeded to manipulate my injured wrist in the merciless manner of radiologists everywhere. And a mere 30 minutes after that, I was supine on a gurney, tucked under a white sheet and wearing one of those shower-cap hats they give to women going into labor. Khadijah, my friend from the hostel who had accompanied us to the hospital, took a picture of me smiling big as the nurse wheeled me to the operating room.

The operating room? Apparently this is common procedure in Egypt, too. I had signed a consent form for a closed reduction only, and the doctor assured me that if it was necessary to open the wrist, he would do so at another time. The operating room was full of interns, all of whom were delighted to have a foreigner to practice on.

Intern: "Comment allez-vous?"

Kate: "Mish trËs bien."

Another Intern: "Ha ha. Arabic and French. Ha ha. You are a funny one."

Doctor: "What did you eat this morning?"

Kate: "Ful. I ate ful, of course"

Interns (think this is hilarious): "Oh, you are a real Egyptian."

Another Intern: "How was the ful?"

Kate: "Delicious. We don't have ful in America. Well, maybe in the big cities, like New York."

Interns: "No ful in America?"

Anesthesiologist (inserting IV): "Which do you like better, America or Egypt?"

Kate: "Uh..."

Interns: "Do you like Egypt?"

Kate: "Until now."

Anesthesiologist: "Ha ha. Until now. Ha ha."

And then the anesthesia set in. Two hours later I woke up with a cast on my left arm, and two hours after that I was out of the hospital and riding in a cab back to the hostel. Having a broken arm is a big inconvenience in Cairo, I won't deny it. At the same time, there are advantages. Cab drivers and garbage collectors stop to shout "salamtik," or "good health" out their windows, and people on the street come up to me and ask how I broke my arm. Even the omnipresent soldiers, usually shameless in their solicitation of any female passerby, ignore me as I pass. But the best part of having a cast may be its value as a souvenir. As my friend Cristal put it, "You should have everyone from school sign it, so when you get home you're the only one in the States with a cast that says Mohammed on it about a thousand times."


You can reach Kate at kswearen@princeton.edu