My 10 days of hell at a Lahore public hospital

Updated June 29, 2016

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Some people in Pakistan will die simply because there is an absent doctor or an unavailable dialysis machine. —Creative commons
Some people in Pakistan will die simply because there is an absent doctor or an unavailable dialysis machine. —Creative commons

At around 4pm, an epileptic patient having a seizure is wheeled into the female emergency ward of a public hospital in Lahore. One after the other, the hospital's doctors come in to inspect her, putting her on endless drips, but nothing manages to subdue her body's violent convulsions.

The fits come at an interval of two minutes each. The patient is my cousin.

My cousin needed a neurologist. The ward's doctors were doing everything they could, but there was no specialist on hand to prescribe the right combination of medicines for her deteriorating condition.

Our emergency occurred over the long December 24-27 weekend. When we asked to see the hospital's neuro-specialist, we were told that he would only be available after the holidays, not even for emergencies before then.

The junior doctors at the hospital added candidly: "We're not even allowed to call the professor."

Thus began my cousin's longest, most excruciating wait for decent medical treatment as we, her family, helplessly watched her in pain.

While we waited, my cousin's feet were put in casts because her nerves had become stressed during the seizures — a condition known as foot-drop.

In the interval, I called up every doctor friend of mine, who could somehow help me reach this seemingly omnipotent specialist. I couldn't help but wonder that if we — a privileged middle-class family — were experiencing such a hellish time at this hospital, what fate must befall the less privileged of the country who seek aid here?

Read: My baby would be alive if it wasn't for medical negligence

To be fair, the medicines were available at a fairly inexpensive cost and the general physicians did take a round in the wards every few hours.

But what disturbed me was not only that the head neurologist was on leave, but that there was no replacement in case of emergencies. In fact, with the absence of this neurologist, the entire department itself was under lock and key for four whole days.

Nobody cared about the neurology patient because nobody was expecting a neurology patient.

The general physicians at the emergency ward had managed to bring my cousin's condition considerably under control by the time the work week started. When the holidays drew to a close, the specialist still could not find the time to pay my cousin a visit; he sent a junior doctor instead.

Too little, too late.

When the concerned doctors did finally get to my cousin, they recommended an MRI. Due to an acute shortage of many crucial machines at the hospital, we had to take her to a private clinic which was an ordeal all on its own because there were not enough stretchers or ambulances.

Ward horrors

During the length of my cousin's stay, I was baffled at the number of patients pouring in everyday into a hospital that was scarcely equipped to deal with them. The nurses had to often place two patients on the same bed in many wards of the unit, because they did not have enough beds.

The beds that they did have were lacking stands to hang the drips or blood bottles; the hospital staff would hook the drips up by tying them to nails on the wall.

The walls were dirty, hygiene was poor and cats were free to roam and pounce on the patients' food.

There was no privacy either, shades had to be frequently brought in and all male relatives of all other patients had to leave, if any one patient had to use the bedpan.

The male ward was worse; the sick and suffering milling out of it into the hallway on stretchers.

See: Excellent healthcare is being provided in Pakistan, but...

Despite my experience, many doctors, nurses and staff at the hospital were also responsive but it was apparent how overworked they were. It was due to their efforts that my cousin’s fits stopped and we were able to take her home, even if we couldn't see the neuro-specialist the entire 10 days that we were there.

When I look back at the incident, I am reminded how difficult it is to watch someone you love suffer in sickness. I am also reminded of all the suffering patients entering that hospital, hoping for some relief but finding none.

Are we then just left to fend for ourselves?

It certainly appears so. I don't recall any politicians visiting any public hospitals of late. In fact, the most populated province in the country doesn’t even have a Health Minister.

It's worth asking then who will ensure that specialists at a public hospital in Pakistan actually take out time to visit patients instead of focusing on their private practice?

Also, who will ensure that bureaucratic red-tape is minimised at the public hospitals so that people have access to speedy health facilities?

And while the prime minister of the country has the luxury and the resources to travel to London to deal with his own health issues, do the people of Pakistan not deserve a comparative level of treatment at home?

Initiatives like the Prime Minister’s Healthcare Programme are merely temporary, stop-gap arrangements which do little in addressing our massively ailing healthcare system.

Some people in Pakistan will die simply because there is an absent doctor or an unavailable dialysis machine.

How can we then even begin to justify the shameful 0.9 per cent of Pakistan's GDP spent on health against the astronomical 20pc amount spent on defence?