September 4, 2009

Under The Weather in Zefat

Yet another ‘moment’ in Israel. I am sick and I need a prescription.

I am not in my familiar home town in Israel, the place where I have a friendly English speaking doctor. She is a former Australian who works out of her house, and who has a large waiting room painted in a calm lilac color, complete with soft classical music and magazines.

Nor am I near my home town’s large, modern Macabi building; a health services place where one swipes a magnetic card in a computer and out a spits a piece of paper with a number on it. This number is then electronically called, giving one access to medical services. There, everyone sits patiently and waits their turn.

I am not in Kansas. I am in Safed, the wild west of Israel. I find the local Macabi offices tucked in behind an old grey building. There is an information desk at the front. People mill around in a herd. There is no line and they have no numbers. They grab a chair in front of the secretary, sit down, wave their arms, scream, chat, gossip and then leave. I do not know what they are saying half of the time. I just know that I am in pain and I need help.

I wait until there is an opening in the crowd and show my Macabi card to the secretary, asking for an appointment. She is Russian. She is either generally a nasty person or is in a foul mood today.

“An appointment? Here? No. You have to call the Macabi number on your card. We don’t give out appointments.”

She throws my card back at me and looks at me in disgust, dismissing me from her sight. I look at her in amazement. I am stunned, speechless, and wonder how many other nicer ways she could have said this to me. If I had the vocabulary to tell her this, I would have, but I am in no condition to think about such things and just stand there, my mouth open in amazement at her absolute lack of manners. She then says to me, if you really need a doctor, go and wait outside door number 8. There is a doctor working there today.

One doctor working? I walk over to this door and see a sheet with several dozen patients’ names listed. I realize that I am to force myself in between patients. The problem is that there are many people already waiting and the doctor is behind schedule. When I arrive, those waiting are already agitated. They are all talking about The List, pointing out their names on the paper and looking at everyone's assigned times.

They look at me darkly. “What appointment time do you have?” they ask, pointing to The List accusingly.

I am about to confess that I have no appointment and am a castaway, a good for nothing, when the woman beside me (whom I have just been met and has already told me much of her life story, with special graphic details abut her health) jumps up to protect me.

“She just needs one minute with the doctor. Please let her squeeze in between patients.”

A burly man, bald head shining and red temples bulging, jumps out of his seat ready to fight. “That’s what they all say. And who do you think you are?”

At that very moment, the door opens and a patient walks out. My new best friend grabs me and forces me inside. The burly man and his wife burst past us and sit down. It is like a nasty case of musical chairs or a kindergarten prank where a kid grabs someone’s toy and shouts, “Na, na, na, na, na.”

The doctor looks at me and at them. She tells me to leave and shuts the door. This happens again and again. At one point, I am positioned by the doorway and am about to enter, when a couple with an old women shuffle right past me and go inside. I wonder in amazement how they could time such an entry into the building and then straight into the office without an appointment and without an explanation to anyone. It is almost as if one has to walk around here like a king.

I have now been here for two hours. I consider going home and dealing with my pain alone. Instead, I sit and philosophize about this, about my personality, and my inability to compete with these people. I realize that I do not want to be a fighter as it just agitates me inside. I do not want to walk around like a king because it is not respectful. I conclude that in my Zen way, I will work on my patience and try to instill calm inside instead of intense anger.

The door opens one more time and I find myself facing the doctor. I tell her that I just need a prescription. I want to come across as if I do not require any effort on her behalf other than a few words on a piece of paper.

This is the wrong approach. She tells me that if I think her job is so easy, I should try to sit in her chair. She gets up and points to her chair as if the threat is real. I almost expect her to walk out of her office and leave me to take care of the patients. She is Russian and she does not mince her words.

She finally asks me about my health. I know what is wrong with me but she does not trust that I know. She scribbles something on a piece of paper and tells me to see the nurse.

The nurses' station looks like a bridge club. People are chatting, joking, coming and going. Someone is being weighed. Someone is having their blood pressure taken - all in full view of everyone. Here, everyone’s health is everyone else’s business. The nurse tells me to grab a plastic cup beside the water cooler and to pee in it. I return with a full cup and wrap it with paper towels to protect my privacy. I wait outside, terrified that my cup will spilleth over.

I walk in and sit down. The nurse confirms what I knew all along, except that my infection is acute. She tries to enter my information into a computer but is having a heated discussion with my new best friend. Every time she tries to press a key, she stops to argue. My ‘friend’ says that illness stems from negative thoughts. The nurse says that this is nonsense. One counters that we if we did not dwell on sickness, we could be healthy. The other says absolutely not. This goes on and on. Zefat is a perfect town to hear such a discussion.

After a while, people gather around and a man asks if anyone wants coffee and cake. Somewhere in the crowd, an Englishman is theorizing about politics. I hear the words Condoleezza Rice, Putin and Siberian labor camp. Perhaps I am in a bridge club.

I am finally given a piece of paper with results from the contents of my plastic cup. Yet again, I find myself face to face with the doctor’s office door. It is shut tight. I wait and I wait. Children race up and down the corridor. Locals drop in for a chat. Everyone knows everyone. I work on my relaxation skills. I have been here for three hours.

I continue to wait for the door to open, and as soon as I spy a crack, I race in, waving the paper to the other patients; this note is my legitimacy, my passport for entry.

I am finally asked to come inside and the doctor hands me a prescription. It takes her one minute to write it. As for me, I have been given an afternoon to think about life, to do a self analysis, make a new friend and experience yet another side of Tzfat; and, yes, the pharmacy is still open - for another ten minutes. Now it is time to rush.

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