ONE LAST THING

Nicky Smith col­umn

Financial Mail - Investors Monthly - - Contents - NICKY S SMITH

My doc­tor is Chi­nese, from Taipei. De­spite hav­ing lived in SA for about 23 years his English is a lit­tle touch and go at times. Some­times I have trou­ble un­der­stand­ing what he is say­ing, when he both­ers to say some­thing.

He also doesn’t dis­play a great at­ten­tion span. Or I’ll ar­rive and say some­thing like “My back... er”, and point at where I think the prob­lem could be. He walks away from me and pats my shoul­der like a stern un­cle all at the same time. While telling me to lie down and take my shirt off — though I am not ac­tu­ally sure he has ever used those words. I think I in­tuit what he wants.

Once my shirt is off and my face is in the hole in the ta­ble he walks qui­etly into the cur­tained-off cu­bi­cle that is full of his wires, crocodile clips and volt­meters.

Some­times he pokes me. And says some­thing like “pain”, or “there” or “is sore” and I’ll try to point at the area but can’t — be­cause ly­ing on my front I am ges­tur­ing with point­less ef­fort. I can’t re­ally talk ei­ther be­cause the hole in the ta­ble is an awk­ward size and it feels a bit like some­one is hold­ing my face closed. I mostly groan or take a deep breath when it’s sore, or grunt in agree­ment.

Then he starts to stick nee­dles in me. I al­ways ask the per­son I live with af­ter­wards where the nee­dle marks are and we try to count them. It al­ways sur­prises me how many nee­dles he takes out ... it’s as though they some­how mul­ti­ply once he has dis­ap­peared be­hind the cur­tain af­ter putting them in.

With my face stuck, my neck puls­ing and my but­tocks clench­ing madly, I can’t see what he is do­ing. I also can’t move be­cause I am con­nected to mul­ti­ple elec­tri­cal cur­rent-gen­er­at­ing ma­chines and am ter­ri­fied I am some­how go­ing to tear my flesh or elec­tro­cute my­self if I move too vig­or­ously.

Ly­ing there twitch­ing like a frog in one of those scenes from an Amer­i­can high school movie science class ex­per­i­ment, I get to over­hear the face­less oth­ers who have found their way to him.

One time I lis­tened to a Ger­man woman tell the an­cient Gary Lar­son lady who some­times mans the “re­cep­tion area” that she had come to see the doc­tor “be­cause she can’t feel the na­ture, she is blocked when she is in the na­ture”. Yes, she said, she had been there be­fore. An­other time there was a lady who was hav­ing her pe­riod twice a month.

On one oc­ca­sion a gi­ant, swollen twitch­ing man-an­kle I saw through a chink in the cur­tain was snor­ing. An­other man had had his hand crushed on a build­ing site, I heard his friend trans­late for the doc­tor into English.

From this eaves­drop­ping on strangers I hear that the lady with the ag­gres­sive pe­riod should have chil­dren soon if she means to, and drink a spe­cial tea twice a day. The snor­ing an­kle needs to come back next week and must do his self-mas­sage, while the crushed hand learns he will get some mo­bil­ity but it will take a long time. And he will al­ways have pain.

The tick­ing ma­chines, the trun­cated and in­ti­mate sto­ries, com­bine with the un­fa­mil­iar smell of the pow­ders and teas the doc­tor grinds as he pre­pares puts me in a trance. My face melts through the hole in the ta­ble, my eyes are be­come un­fo­cused, mak­ing the pat­terned linoleum blurry.

Then the tick­ing stops, not all at the same time. Some of the pulses end be­fore the oth­ers do. Slowly I rise to the sur­face again.

The doc­tor comes in, says some­thing like “ok”, and takes all the crocodile clips off the nee­dles and hangs them on his coat hang­ers. And then in a faster time than seems pos­si­ble he pulls out all the nee­dles, seem­ingly hun­dreds.

Then he wipes my back with his dry hand and gives the base of my spine a bang or two with his balled fists; my sig­nal to get dressed.

My part­ner asked me what my doc­tor had said was wrong with my shoul­der. I said I didn’t know, that he didn’t ac­tu­ally say, or maybe I didn’t ask. It hadn’t seemed ap­pro­pri­ate or nec­es­sary some­how.

So the next time I went I asked. It turned out I had a torn lig­a­ment in my shoul­der and the nee­dles he placed in the base of my spine — which were in­cred­i­bly painful — were to stim­u­late re­growth of the car­ti­lage be­tween my com­pressed and cal­ci­fy­ing ver­te­brae.

He did say not to worry, or ges­tures and sub­lim­i­nal mes­sages to that ef­fect, we are treat­ing it. I don’t know that I want him to tell me more than he thinks I need to know. It may just be good enough that he makes me feel bet­ter.

He wipes my back with his dry hand and gives the base of my spine a bang or two

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