I arrived in Jagna having trouble standing up. On my last dive at Balicasag island, I got a little bit excited chasing a school of barracuda down the wall with my camera. I followed them for maybe a minute, finning hard deeper and deeper. At the end of the dive, I was wobbling all over the boat, and I couldn’t hear anything with my right ear. Three days later, things were even worse. I had come to Jagna to climb on to a rattling old ferry heading south for Camiguin Island. But, given that I couldn’t even walk the aisle of a bus without falling all over the other passengers, I decided that instead of more diving, probably what I really needed was some medical advice.
The room was filled with people, mostly standing around the walls facing inward to a wooden bench seating seven or eight pregnant women. All heads simultaneously turned in my direction, like a flock of birds in flight, and for ten minutes I swayed on my feet, absorbing the curious stares and waiting for the triage nurse to call me. I didn’t hear her when she did, but the assembled crowd had been waiting for this moment, and I could see the words of my name being practiced on silent mouths. I swayed to the front of the room and sat in a plastic chair, flanked by a standing group of interested, unwell Filipinos, all obviously curious about what diseases Australians might get. With my voice distant and echoing in my own head, I tried to outline the problem to the triage nurse, the group behind me chorusing all of the interesting details to anyone further back or out of range. All my vitals were scratched out with a blunt pencil on a torn-off sheet of paper, and thus processed, I wobbled my way back to the wall, under the surveillance of thirty sets of fascinated eyes. Supporting myself against a signboard advertising birth control (all too late), I clung with determined toes to the randomly tilting floor. One of the pregnant women, perhaps concerned about the carnage if I did crash to the floor, vacated her seat for me. This was something that I could never ordinarily conscience, but with the crowd collectively nodding in consent that it was correct and proper, I thanked her and took her place on the bench. I felt less than half a man, but was thankful to be free of the safe in the spinning room.
The Jagna hospital system is a procession of plastic chairs and it seems that a patient’s medical progress is measured primarily by which one they have managed to reach. From the ER I was escorted to a plastic chair in a hallway, by a second bubbly security guard, who chatted animatedly into my deaf ear the whole way. A fresh crowd of people turned collectively to watch my approach. From there I moved to a chair in a side room to have my TPR and BP taken, and although I’m sure it was unnecessary, the nurse insisted on measuring my height. By the time I was parked in a new plastic chair in a different hallway, my vital statistics had already been broadcast ahead of me. Finally, I was called into an examination room, where there were four or five older nurses sitting around a desk gossiping loudly and shuffling paper. Yet another security guard instructed me to sit on a chair by the wall, in full view of the patient in front of me being examined. When her consultation was completed, and her dignity irretrievably lost, I was called to the doctor’s desk and seated in a new plastic chair. All gossiping between the nurses stopped and their necks craned, while I spent a frustrating few minutes explaining my problem to the doctor, his attention mostly on his mobile phone.
He must have been partly listening, because when I came to the end of my story he snapped his fingers summarily and instructed that I be escorted to the power outlet. One of the nurses set her mobile phone aside and led me into the narrow aisle between two dusty bookshelves, adjacent the examination room’s only power point, while all other assembled staff began the search for the otoscope. While they rummaged through drawers and boxes, they made loud conversation about the size of my nose and my feet and my marital status, with general hilarity about what these details might imply. My nurse busied herself filling up the remainder of the free space between the bookcases with plastic chairs for our comfort. To a chorus of female congratulations, the doctor found the otoscope himself, and holding it as proudly as if it was an Olympic torch, stumbled through the maze of plastic furniture to plug it into the wall. There, kneeling on the floor with each elbow on the dusty shelf of a bookcase, he checked my ear.
After a short while he declared the examination over, and there began a few minutes of awkward slapstick as bumping into each other, we tried to crash our way out of our plastic bookcase prison. I made it back to his desk, and with nothing left to sit on, stood up while he delivered his findings. The doctor scratched at an armpit and proceeded to tell me that my ear drum was intact. But further to this and gazing into the middle distance, he did not know what else could be wrong with me, nor could not suggest anything that I should try, no anything to prescribe. With a note of finality, he took his hand from his armpit and slapped the desk, stating loudly that I need to see an ear, nose and throat specialist. When I asked for a referral, he told me that he didn’t know of any, and that my best option would be to catch a ferry to the island of Cebu, take a tricycle into the city and ask around. To complete the consultation he drew me a dysgraphic picture of an ear and a picture of Cebu, not that I could tell one from the other, then leant back in his recliner and went back to his mobile phone. Not feeling particularly diagnosed or healed, I wobbled my way back to the ER, its unchanged crowd of people still ringing the wall, and made my way to the final plastic chair in the Jagna health care system. The cashier spent maybe ten minutes ringing up my invoice, which gave me enough time to make eye contact with most of the pregnant women and develop some guilt for having been taken to the front of the queue. I paid my bill of 62 pesos, the equivalent of two litres of petrol, and with one slightly lighter pocket, I weaved my way back towards home.
I didn’t follow the doctor’s referral advice. Nor did I stop diving. My reasoning being that it would be better to determine that I could equalise pressures in an environment that I could ababndon, than on an aeroplane that I couldn’t. Two weeks later as I write this my balance is as good as it ever was. My hearing remains dull but is almost back to normal. However, I did catch that ferry to Cebu. The last island in my two months stay in the Philippines.