Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The SEHA Disease Prevention & Screening Center Is Not My Friend

Today was not a good day for Mommy.  Not a good day at all.

Today was medical screening day in Abu Dhabi.  I had been putting it off forever and I'd finally run out of excuses.  See, when I first moved here I thought that only Daddy needed a medical test in order to receive his residence visa, since he was the "sponsor" of our entire family.  But no, it turns out that all of the adults, including even Zia and Raquel because their visas are being transferred over to Daddy's sponsorship, needed to make the hour-long schlep into Abu Dhabi (where Daddy's employment is based) to be deemed medically "fit" for residence in the UAE.  Joy.

Daddy and PopPop had SUPPOSEDLY prepared me for the "clinic" experience: they explained that the "exam" was nothing more than a speedy blood test and a chest x-ray. Furthermore, they assured me that I would zip right through, as there were expedited lines for women.  Piece of cake! they said.

Worst. Cake. Ever.

I arrived with Daddy and Zia at the SEHA Disease Prevention and Screening Center and was promptly horrified by my first glimpses inside.  We were standing in a hallway that led into a bunch of run-down, dingy rooms... I peeked into one and saw a little boy apparently about to receive a vaccination.  But nothing looked sterile, nothing looked hygenic. Everything looked worn-out and wooden and brown.  I said to Daddy, "Are you kidding me with this place?  Why didn't you take me to a hospital?" "This is a hospital," he said, and kept walking towards the main lobby.

There, we were directed to the "women's section," and in doing so, passed crowds of men (similarly run-down and dingy looking) standing in long lines.  Ok, I felt encouraged!  Bring on the zippy women's section!

My enthusiasm was short-lived, however: we arrived at the second floor and saw that, behind glass automatic doors, the women's section was also full.  And because the sign over the door said "Women Only," Daddy had to hand me my paperwork and the laminated number he was given at the reception desk, and send me in on my own.

Now, while I am not a huge fan of doctors or needles or anything medical, I honestly wasn't nervous going into the day.  I mean, I have had 3 children, so I know my way around a blood test.

But two steps into the women's waiting room, my stomach tightened.  It was not that I was freaked by the series of desks where head-covered attendants were collecting money according to called numbers (much like a deli counter; I had number 309 and they were on 297)... rather, I was shocked to see, to my left, what looked like a couple of RETINA SCANNING MACHINES, scans in progress, right there on display for the entire waiting room (see eerie sci-fi-esque photos above).  Um, no one said anything about having my eyeballs scanned.  As I sat there watching the electronic digits tick ominously closer to 309, I kept overhearing the eyeball workers giving stern directions: "Look in here.  Other eye.  Stand closer.  Open your eye.  Wider!" At this point I was more confused than scared: what were these eyeball pictures for?  was there anyone I could ask for more information?  is it true that, as a friend opined to us, the UAE is a "police state," and this image was simply going to be fodder for my file?

When 309 was called some twenty minutes later, I put away my book and cell phone (I had been furiously texting Daddy mean messages asking why he brought me to such a creepy place) and headed up to the counter.  The woman, who had heavily henna-ed hands and unflatteringly bold eyebrows drawn onto her face, looked at me from under her headscarf and asked for 275 dirhams (US $75).  After I paid, she handed me a receipt and pointed me over to the eyeball area.  Yay.

I went to the end of the line and took stock of the ethnic makeup of my waiting room cohorts: I guessed they were about 50% Filipina (housemaids, most likely) and 50% Muslim (the vast majority of whom were wearing some kind of head covering).  There were only 2 Caucasian women.  It was the first but not the last time that I would catch myself wondering where all the white people were.

My turn for eyeball photo.  The (head-covered) technician was very pretty and asked me to cover one eye, then the other, and look into the little mirror on the machine.  She was direct but very polite, and showed me none of the impatience that had been heaped upon the Ethiopian woman before me, who perhaps because of a language barrier had been unable to satisfy the technician's frightening demand of "Open your eye wider!" and thus was relegated to some kind of holding area (would she be sent for remedial instruction in eye-opening before being allowed back for another go?).  My eyes were photographed, my papers stamped, and I was sent into another waiting room.

There, I observed many women sitting around in silence but no authority figure to tell us what to do. Who was running this operation, anyway?  I happened upon a security desk where I was asked to turn in my paperwork.  What would have become of me had I not stumbled upon her?  Would I have sat in that waiting room forever?  Would it have killed them to post some instructional signs?  Or would that have detracted from the not-fun-at-all fun house effect, where the suspense was the whole point?

I took a seat next to one of the active exam rooms and hoped that I knew what was coming next. After all, I'd been advised that this entire process involved only a "blood test and chest x-ray," but after the eye scan/photo thing I already had reason to doubt my sources.  

A doctor?/nurse? from inside the exam room called out a first name, and a Filipina woman rose and followed the voice. I could overhear only a part of their conversation from the hallway where I sat, but the red flags were: "Go behind the curtain and take off..." "Keep my bra on, madam...?"  At this point, fear sacked me in the face.  NO ONE SAID ANYTHING ABOUT CLOTHING REMOVAL.  This place was skeevy enough, and now there was a possibility that I was going to be asked to disrobe?  What would I do?  Part of me was preparing to make one of my famous scenes and just storm out of there in true, crass, American style (lord, I love the rush of adrenaline that follows a good spectacle!), but another part of me knew that dear, patient Daddy *really* needed me to get this medical exam over with, and he had already taken a whole morning off from work to accompany me.  Of course I had to stay.  At least until something really outrageous happened.  Which I wasn't ruling out.  At.  All.

So I sat there and quietly panicked.  Unknown number of minutes passed.  When I heard my name called, despite having had more than enough time to formulate a game plan, I still didn't know what I was going to do if I was told to go behind some curtain and get naked.

The woman waiting for me in the room was surprising in her attire: white medical jacket, combined with full head and face covering, and only her eyes showing.  I sat in the chair by her desk and she reviewed my papers: "Are you married?" "Yes." "Pregnant?" "No." "Please take your papers to Room 8 for your blood test.  Thank you."  I was done with scary curtain room.

Wait, what question had Filipina predecessor gotten wrong??  And what part of her was nudely examined as the consequence of being either unmarried or pregnant?  Now I would never know, and I was happy to retain my ignorance.  Off to Room 8 I went, not realizing at the time how much anxiety was rapidly building within me.

Room 8, another line of women waiting in chairs.  They all looked so much alike: black head coverings; tired, unmoving facial expressions.  I felt my face sinking into a similar frown as I took yet another seat.

There were no numbers assigned here (as far as I could tell) and no identifiable means of figuring out who was supposed to go next.  Daddy texted me that this was taking a long time, and couldn't I "throw some weight around?" but it wasn't at all clear to me whom I should be throwing my weight at.  Again, where were the people in charge?  Or were there none?

I had the misfortune of sitting directly across from the blood-drawer, so I had a plain view of the wincing taking place on the faces of the drawees.  So much for the reassurances I had been given by a friend that "These technicians are the best, after all, they just sit and draw blood all day."  This was bad news for my increasingly knotted stomach.  Could I really have forgotten to eat anything today?

Not sure it was my turn but I stepped up anyway.  The (again, head-covered) technician greeted me warmly and I made my usual blood test banter about how I came to her station because I heard she was the best in the business, blah blah blah.  She was surprisingly receptive and smiled encouragingly.  That said, the needle prick was more painful than I expected, and I now have a sweet bruise in the crook of my arm to show for it.

At this point it had been about an hour.  But it felt much, much longer.

I was directed to the x-ray area.  Daddy texted me that this part goes quickly and it shouldn't be long now.

Well, I entered the x-ray waiting room and was taken aback to find that it was standing room only.  For the second time, I just stumbled upon a woman quietly handing out laminated numbers; she was wearing a full black robe and face covering and bore no trappings of being an employee.  Not helpful!  I was number 448 and the number being called was 397.  I watched Filipina women being taken into rooms from whence they emerged in blue hospital gowns and proceeded back towards, I assumed, the x-ray machine.  The fear of being told to disrobe struck me once again, not because I was afraid of taking off my clothes per se, but because the idea of nudity in this context was something I was entirely emotionally unprepared for.  Why was no one talking to each other?

I grabbed a seat as soon as one was vacated and suddenly felt tears welling up in my eyes. My gut was telling me to flee but my head was telling me I had nowhere to run.  It was critical that I be issued a residence visa before my visitor status soon expired, and surely Daddy would have found me a cleaner, faster, warmer and cuddlier hospital if the option were available.  But no, I was stuck here, being shuttled around unmarked rooms by unknown people who referred to me by a number.  I was being poked with a needle and my photograph was being taken, both without any formality or explanation (what was being tested for in my blood, anyway?).  I had no idea what was coming next and I had no one with me.  I was alone and I was scared, just following instructions and doing as I was told. An unwelcome image popped into my mind of people being taken off the trains at concentration camps and herded about like animals, afraid but trusting that the showers were just that, showers. Now how awful is THAT.

Also, as I looked around the waiting room, thoughts were popping into my head that were making me uncomfortable by their political incorrectness: Where were the Caucasians? Why was I surrounded by housemaids?  Did the other white people know something I didn't?  I tried to shoo those thoughts away by reminding myself that I was no better than anyone else there, that I didn't deserve to bypass this humiliation any more than the Filipina housemaids deserved to experience it.  And I honestly believed that.  It's just that, after 2 months of living in Dubai, whether I like it or not I have come to expect that white people are simply treated... differently.  Was it this clinic, or was it Abu Dhabi in general, that did not adhere to these fact-of-life social distinctions?  Why was I able to pay extra money at the airport to have someone else suffer the inconveniences of collecting my luggage and stamping my passport, but I was not able to pay extra money for a little more dignity when intrusions into and around my body were involved?

Finally I heard a call for 448.  I braced myself for the instruction to change into the blue hospital gown, not knowing yet whether I would oblige; but to my great relief, the request never came.  Instead, a nurse told me to go behind the curtain and simply remove my necklace and my bra.  (At the time I chalked it up to an unknowingly wise outfit selection-- t-shirts must be thin enough to not interfere with an x-ray-- but later was told by an acquaintance that the housemaids were subjected to additional tests.  Could that be true?)

When I walked towards the x-ray room, I passed the technician reviewing the x-ray of the woman before me; there was a huge image of a ribcage and heart on her computer screen.  It made me uneasy that a total stranger would momentarily be looking inside of me.  What if she saw something unusual or wrong?

I stood alone in the x-ray room, not knowing what to do.  Again, the resentment and confusion and fear formed a lump in my throat.  At last someone came in and nudged me up against a large vertical plate so that my chin was mushed against my chest.  Was another plate going to be put behind me, like a giant human mammogram?

No.  I was told to stand against the first plate, take a deep breath, and hold it.  Moments later, I asked if I was done, and a disembodied voice said I was.  I rushed to put my bra back on and get the heeeeeeeeell out of there.

The x-ray woman gave me a receipt so that I could collect my results tomorrow.  But I wasn't listening. I was already halfway out the door.

When I was reunited with Daddy and Zia, I tried to smile and teased that Daddy owed me an enormous diamond after putting me through this ordeal.

But on the drive home, I cried hot tears into my sleeve.

I don't know what upset me more: the experience of feeling like a welfare recipient, sitting nameless and faceless in a queue of sad and desperate people; or the fear that came along with the repeated possibility of having my physical space invaded, with no viable alternative but to allow things to be done to me virtually against my will.

Either way, it sucked.  And I'm still bitter about it.  Especially once I told my neighbor about it, and she informed me that in Dubai, unlike in Abu Dhabi, you most certainly *can* pay for a quicker, cleaner, no-lines alternative.  In Abu Dhabi, however, the private clinics were apparently closed as of December 31st and at least for now, only the crowded government clinics are an option.

Tonight, as I look around at my big house and my bruised arm, I am a little bit homesick and a whole lot counting my blessings.


Allison Guerriero said...

What a schlepp to the clinic, only to have to go through such an ordeal. Glad to hear you weren't a pussy about it!! Sorry about that, it does seem a trifle humiliating.

CG said...

Nice blog you have.

There is a word you need to learn here in the UAE and it is called 'WASTA'. You need wasta real bad. Your wasta is your 'contact', and anybody who is anyone has some (otherwise known as Vitamin W.)
You should have had your husbands company PRO with you (assuming he has wasta) or something equally as powerful.

Good luck with your stay here.

latika said...

next time if you will renew your visa here in uae better go to VIP section if you want to be treated like a QUEEN...we're all equally created by one GOD..don't be too boastful!!!