Scene: A hospital recovery room in Belize. It is devoid of color, character and any hint of modernity. I think of the style as “institutional gothic.” It is early evening, there are six beds, all of them filled. Three are young men in their late teens, early 20s. All three have broken right legs, plus scrapes, bruises. Two have their right arms in casts. All have been in motorcycle accidents.
On the other side of the room in the bed closest to the door is a young guy whose lungs were punctured in a knife attack outside of a Belize City nightclub on Saturday night. In the middle bed is a much older — and very caucasian — expat, looking very, very lost. In the bed closest to the window is Franklin Grant, a quiet and gentle rasta guy with a scraggly beard, red eyes and no legs.
Over each bed is a dusty metal fan. They sweep the room 24-7 and provide what little relief there is from the heat. No air conditioning, no nurse’s call button, no button to adjust the beds.
Into the room bursts the busily portentous and bald headed doctor followed a retinue of young women in white, all carrying clipboards or notebooks, with two doctorly looking men trailing. Probably interns. They carry no notebooks and project studiously bored looks.
The doctor — clearly feeling like a big fish in a small pond — immediately crosses the stage, ignoring all other patients, and beams at Franklin Grant, a gentle man in his early 40’s who has lost his legs to diabetes.
“Mr. Grant, so good to see you again! What brings you in this time?” he sings.
“Kidney stones,” says Grant in a shy, subdued voice.
The doctor nods, smiles, sends up a few pleasantries then offers a knuckle bump and moves on to the trio of cycle crashers.
As if they aren’t even there, he offers a quick bio at the foot of each bed. He turns to his acolytes for additional details. For each patient a nurse has a bit more information on their medical circumstances. (This can be sung in bright call-and-response style.)
The repartee is fast, sharp and intense — like a final exam — almost operatic. The doctor sometimes cuts the speakers off with “Uninteresting” or “Irrelevant” and asks for other details. Almost in synch, the students — serving as chorus — jot down everything said in their notebooks.
(Note: Goal here is to quickly and neatly unveil the storyline of each patient.)
The entire group then walks past the expat as if he were invisible. They stop at the bed of Knife Wound. The chief doctor tries some snappy “street” dialogue. Knife Wound stares back at him. It is a steady, inscrutable look. He is guarded, unwelcoming. At any other time you can see the pain in his eyes, the bewilderment over how he got here and the brief, kind, smile he has for the other patients.
The doctor quickly retreats to his formal role and they discuss the patient’s wounds and the resulting collapsed lung. Like ducklings behind their mom, the whole group bustles out of the room in a whirlwind of chatter..
The room grows silent again.
Slowly and awkwardly the three crash victims rise from their beds and form a trio under the spotlight, center stage. They begin singing in street corner do-wop style about their crashes, the number of Beliken beers they’d been drinking before their accidents and the pain they feel.
The number starts slowly then builds in power and agility until it is pretty clear that once these wounds are healed they will be back on their bikes again.
OK, this is a very rough sketch of my new Off Off Broadway musical, “Recovery: Belize.” Think “Book of Mormon” meets a an “ER” telenovella.
The musical may also includes
* the rousing revival number “Tuesday is Come to Jesus Night” during which religious advocates of all persuasions flood the ward, bibles in hand, to witness the Word to a captive audience;
* the 60’s girl group-inflected “It’s a Job, Baby” sung by a trio of hospital aides with a group of adult-sized dancing urine bags holding rag mops behind them;
* the solo show-stopping “Respect” by a young and attractive student nurse who must ward off the groping hands of male patients as she tries to make her rounds in a professional manner;
* a taut island-inflected lament by Knife Wound, “Misunderstood” under a solo light on an all black stage;
* a charming, emotional reggae-pop solo by the legless, homeless, diabetic rasta dude, Mr. Grant, ”Keeping Da Faith”;
* a large-group Broadway show tune “Doing What We Gotta Do” that includes the many family members of the patients, who feed their sons, sleep on the floor, read and weep for them.
* an international cast that includes Cuban, Mexican and Guatemalan doctors; Taiwanese and Philippine nurses; U.S. physicians and their Belizean counterparts all sing a “West Side Story”- like number that highlights the cultural divisions but ultimately has them pulling together;
That’s all I have so far. I’m toying with a budding romance between the student nurse and Knife Wound, as the central story.
Oh, the expat guy? That would be me. I still haven’t quite figured out how he fits into all this, if he ever really does at all.
Here’s where our story actually begins:
Some persistent internal bleeding over the Memorial Day weekend forced me to take the last Tropic Air puddlehopper out of San Pedro on Sunday to check into the national hospital in Belize City. It is called the Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital, aka KHMH or, as a Belize City cabbie once told me, “Kill Him now or Murder Him later.” He laughed. I didn’t.
It does not have a great reputation. But in a tiny Caribbean nation on a holiday weekend (it is called Founders’ Day here) the options are limited.
On the exterior, KHMH lives up to its reputation. The building is big, ugly and old, overused and in need of much repair. Just like me. Same on the interior (again, just like me). So, “what the hell,” I thought, and walked in past the barbed wired security fencing and steady, if disinterested, gaze of the guards.
My first pleasant surprise was that I was eligible for a 25 percent “golden citizen” discount on the Emergency Room fee. So I happily paid the $7.50 BZE /$3.75 USD. It took a couple of hours before I got to see the triage nurse but once inside, the medical staff was first rate — and probably relieved to have something other than gunshot and machete wounds to deal with on a holiday weekend.
I ended up in the hospital from Sunday evening to Wednesday evening — receiving treatment to staunch the bleeding as well as medications, consultations with a urologist, a sonogram, x-ray and EKG. The three meals a day and hospital bed were absolutely the worst I have ever experienced in my life. But make no mistake: The medical care and kindnesses of the staff were among the best.
By late Tuesday the bleeding had stopped, although we were no closer to an answer to why it started, and by Wednesday they were ready to release me pending further tests next week.
Wednesday morning I was cleared to go, after an x-ray and EKG. Great, I said, let’s all pull together and get me out in time to catch the 5:30 p.m. water taxi back to Ambergris Caye — last boat of the day. They all agreed that this was possible, which meant that at 4:50 p.m. they were still pulling tubes off my body and handing me medications.
As it turned out, the dock was a mere 9 minutes from the hospital in a taxi with a front screen so spiderwebbed the driver kept his eyes just above the steering wheel and to the left, so he could see the road. I think he was interested in seeing the road.
A hospital administrator handed me an invoice on the way out and said to not bother paying right now if it means missing the water taxi. Which I readily agreed to do. On the 90-minute ride back to the island, I used the waning light of the setting sun to go over the invoices. There were two.But bottom line: The total cost for all medical procedures including food, bed, medications, urologist consultations, for three days was $230 BZE.
Of the six beds in my room, three were filled with young men recovering from pretty bad motorcycle accidents. Another bed held a young stoically hard-looking guy who had been stabbed outside a nightclub on Saturday and was just out of critical care. The police spent a good couple of hours interviewing him on Tuesday. The final bed held Franklin Grant, a 40-year-old rasta dude who lost both his legs to diabetes 18 months ago.
Mr. Grant is a staff favorite. The first to be greeted and the one everyone worries over the most. Understandable. He has a big heart and generous soul. When my drip bag ran dry, I was content to wait for the nurse to make her rounds (no call buttons here). Mr. Grant sprang from his bed to wheelchair and pushed himself down the hall to the nurse’s station to let them know. He even got me a wet wipe after a meal of stewed chicken and beans that came with no napkins. (Napkins and cutlery, other than a plastic spoon, are nonexistent). I returned the favor by charging his cell phone with my Kindle plug.
Tuesday is Come to Jesus Day at the hospital. Ministers of all faiths filled the room with bibles and blessings for all. And in a deeply religious country, all were interested. Again, everyone knows Mr. Grant and they were lined up at his bed to bear witness to Jesus, even though Franklin is already a deeply religious soul.
The Catholic priest, who also serves part time on our island, is a Canadian and former pro hockey player. I promised to hook him up with the local Thursday night street hockey game that is played on a tennis court, just south of town. He is trying to build a chapel in San Mateo, the poorest of poor sections of San Pedro Town and I ended up offering to do what I could do to help him. That is right down the street from us, an area carved out of lagoon with free parcels to the poor. Many houses are up on stilts with rudimentary bridge walks to dry land.
The padre was followed shortly by a traffic jam of evangelicals, Mennonites, Anglicans, Adventists and free-lance bible-toting lovers of the Word and Jesus. My favorite was a joyful couple, Angel and Sheena, who were just so damned much fun to talk with that we all ended up holding hands and praying for a better world and a cure for my affliction.
Hey, when you are hooked to tubes, nothing is off-limits if it might help.
Enforced bed-rest and absence of WiFi enabled me to finish the 900-page biography “John Lennon” by Philip Norman — both a raw and tragic story of Lennon’s life and a tragically-paeanic apologia to Yoko Ono. Loved it, hated it. But it got me through the nights.
The most humbling aspect of doing time in the national hospital was watching the families as they cared for their sons. A mom slept on the floor next to her young and badly damaged son. A young wife doted on her husband who’d snapped his right leg in two. Families brought in good food and fresh water for the guys, who were all in there long-term. They changed bed pans. One sat quietly with hands on her lap as her son read aloud from the Bible, one uninflected syllable at a time.
The staff is marked by competence and kindness. My urologist discussed the algorithms and steps used to determine what ails me in understandable terms. An aide bought me bottles of water after mine ran out. Nurses and student nurses alike were in constant transition, but always concerned and caring, heroic even.
They are challenged, for sure. Old or simply nonexistent equipment, very old beds, a colonial-era bureaucracy, a seemingly endless parade of gunshot victims from the gang warfare that plagues Belize City, understaffing — you name it, KHMH is a classic inner-city hospital.
There are other options in Belize for medical care. I know little about them, beyond my cardiologist Dr. John Gough whom I would recommend to anyone. KHMH’s reputation isn’t the greatest but its performance, in my case, was well above the stories that I have heard.
Foreigners who are used to pristine conditions, fast service and dazzling medical technology — and maybe even amenities like comfortable beds, edible food, in-room TV and WiFi and nurse’s call buttons — will find this place rough going. Frankly, it takes less time to fly to Houston, with its plethora of medical facilities, than it took to check in, get a bed and see a doctor at KHMH. Think about that.
Still, I left that hospital better off medically than when I came in; stronger spiritually than I have been in years; and deeply humbled by the love and kindnesses that Belizeans share, even with an old expat.
Addendum: OK, I need a lyricist, a librettist and a composer. Any volunteers? Oh and some Broadway angels who want to bury some of their fortune offshore in a Caribbean venture ….
Also, there are a number of private medical facilities that come highly recommended in Belize. The problem is the material. Hard to write an Off Off Off Broadway musical about a modern, pristine medical facility that treats boring old expates (like me) and has TV’s in every room.