Yesterday, I saw a coffin.

“Yesterday, I saw a coffin,” my grandmother said.

“Really?” The wards in the Klang hospital were really crowded, about a few feet of space to walk between the rows of beds that are placed so closely to each other that patients practically sleep next to each other. I can hardly imagine a coffin in these wards.

“She means that someone died yesterday,” the elderly asthmatic patient whose bed is next to my grandmother said. She had been hospitalised longer than my grandmother but I could tell that the two of them have become fast friends.

“Uh…okay.” I’m squeemish about bringing up the subject of death around, you know, very sick people but this lady, with a nasal cannula for her asthma issues just shrugged. “We’re right by the ICU.”

“Chinese lady,” my grandmother said.

“The other lady was a Malay woman,” the severe asthmatic patient said. “Yeah, they died yesterday.”

“Yeah. They died. Guess it was their time.”

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Klang Hospital feels like the busiest hospital in Malaysia. In fact, it feels like the busiest hospital in the world. The wards are clean but cramp. And then during visiting hours, it feels like a wet market with relatives piling in to visit. The humanity packed into one room is almost frightening. One patient had about ten members visiting her at one time with three babies, one a wee newborn, piled on her bed.

The atmosphere in the wards are a combination of joy and sorrow. One family was fast talking and their merriment punctuated with loud hearty laughter every so often. While another, a husband holds onto his wife’s oxygen mask as she lay there. I am not sure she is even aware that her husband is there while his face was a blank look of defeat.

I don’t know if my grandmother can see any of this, or is easily defeated by the sadness in the ward. I’m the sort of person who notice the sorrow and helplessness. Hours after I left, it was the faces of concerned and sad family members that remain etched in my memory. On the other hand, my grandmother epitomises optimism, she makes fast friends and was quick to point out to me everybody she had met: “This aunty here has kidney problems. This one has diabetes. That one – Parkinsons” and everyone is happy. The kidney patient is not sad, she has a doting daughter who takes good care of her.

She seems cheerful. The three ladies all requested that I bring them prunes tomorrow because “we can avoid taking the medicine that makes us poo”. I offered to bring orange cake that I baked for her but she said to save it for Eid which is in 5 days time. I tell her we will come back tomorrow.

There is ash on our car when we leave. I can’t help but hope it is not an omen.

*

It is difficult to reconcile how I feel. On the one hand, I know that government hospitals do have some of the best doctors and specialists around. On the other, well, it is a government hospital. There is no aircon, the wards are cramp and from the outside, it looked like it caught fire and continued to function as a hospital despite the disaster. And there are rats that come out to play at night.

We are continuously debating whether to move my grandmother to a private hospital. But the answer is not that straight forward. To put it simply, private hospitals especially at my grandmother’s age will be very expensive. Even more so because she does not have insurance. She is too old for insurance and everything will have to be paid out of pocket.

The thing about private hospitals is that niggling doubt that I have. You’re always wondering, is every procedure necessary? Do I need to take this drug? Are you really watching out for my best interest or are you milking me for money? My own experience at private hospitals is mixed. I had an excellent specialist who cared for me during my asthma episode and helped me recover. On the other hand, I paid nearly RM 300 per visit from a gynaecologist who came by to my room twice a day to say “Hey there, how are ya?” He’d stay for 3 minutes, max, we timed him and pocketed a cool RM 600 from me daily. RM 100 a minute.

In government hospitals since it’s public healthcare means continuous care even after you have been discharged. They will move your case to the KK and you are always monitored for the ailment that you came in for.

In a private hospital, well, once you’re done, you’re done. There is no continuous monitoring – you’re on your own kid. But there is comfort in a private hospital, it feels like a hotel. The rooms are air-conditioned, there is cable TV and room service.

Do you show that you love someone by taking them to a place where its more comfortable as they recover despite always wondering if the healthcare is better? Relatives assume that you don’t love your parent enough to actually spend money and put them in a cushy hospital.

Or do you grit your teeth and put up with the rats, the cramp spaces because it was in this hospital, the head of trauma, following his gut instinct refused to let a seemingly okay patient go? Because it was also this hospital that a specialist noticed something so minor in a blood test that most would have just discounted and noticed that it was a symptom of a far graver problem.

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