Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Phoning Princess Margaret

We had chatted to this English couple cordially for a couple of hours, and gotten on like a house on fire. We were surprised, then, at the response to our invitation to dinner the next Saturday. “Sorry,” the wife said, “but Richard will be sick that day.” Wow! How does one handle such an abrupt brush-off?

“Ahh,” she said. “I’d better explain that.” And she did, and we let it go, and sure enough Richard was sick that weekend. (We checked.) His malaria, contracted in Kenya some years before, was of the recurring kind, which laid him out for three days around the same date every year. They had it marked on their kitchen calendar. It never happened in England, because the climate was different there – but here in the New Hebrides in the South Pacific, the tropical humidity was just like home, for the virus.

The New Hebs was an embryo “offshore” tax haven – and still is, pretty much, as the independent state of Vanuatu. A new Australian client flew in one day, checked into his hotel, and woke up with a high fever in the morning. The local British doctor was bamboozled. “It looks for all the world like malaria,” he said. “But the fever doesn’t come overnight. And you say you’ve never been up in this area before.” “That’s right,” the visitor said. “I’ve lived in Sydney all my life... except during the War, of course.”

Of course. Thirty years had passed since he had been a soldier in New Guinea, and the malaria-parasite had lain doggo ever since – coming to life as soon as conditions were suitable.

I was lucky with “my” malaria, when it came. It was the common-or-garden variety that required only a few days of heavy sweating at home in bed – and no repeats. Its worst effect was the weakening of my immune system that enabled Hepatitis ‘A’ to catch hold immediately afterwards. That kept me under for another week or so, but it didn’t recur either.

Neither illness warranted a trip to hospital, that’s the point of the story. Because the islands were a joint British-French protectorate***, our town had a British hospital and a French one. The latter was staffed by French Army doctors, who rarely met a leg they didn’t feel obliged to amputate. The British one had a better reputation, and very few people died in it. *** For a bit of background, read Aiding and abetting adultery in the South Pacific, in the Archives of November 2012]

The Paton Memorial Hospital (“PMH”) was a short boat ride across from where the populace lived, followed by a long and steep stairway up a rocky hill. A ferryman was on call 24/7, at least in theory. One had to phone him at his home, and wait at the dock while he got dressed (if he was in bed), rode his bike down and got the boat seaworthy. After that, he helped the patient's companions manhandle the patient on board and off at the other end, and help him or her up the exhausting stairs – to the hospital if still breathing, or to the mortuary if not. The hospital had an excellent survival ratio, but the stairs didn’t.

By coincidence, Linda and I were familiar with the initials “PMH” from our three years in Nassau, Bahamas. There, they stood for the Princess Margaret Hospital, named for the Queen’s sister. The time interval for us had been only fifteen months, so Linda’s mistake was forgivable.

She had to phone and reserve a bed for after her appendix operation, which she had delayed until after the Queen’s visit. Royalty was on people’s minds. Somehow the call was answered not by the switchboard but by someone at the nurses’ station, who assumed it was an internal call.

So the greeting was casual: just, “Hello?” Linda, thrown a bit by the informality, asked “Is that Princess Margaret?” “Uhhh...” Linda, uncertainly: “Is that Princess Margaret?” Silence. Had the line gone dead? That was common enough. Linda, again, giving it one last shot, “Is this the number for Princess Margaret?” Finally, politely, puzzled and apologetic, a small voice ventured, “She’s not at this number. This is Nurse Bong at the Hospital.”

I must say Linda was treated very respectfully, when the time came. It’s always nice to have friends in high places, isn’t it?