The House Call

(In June 2003, journalists Mark Frauenfelder and Carla Sinclair uprooted themselves from Los Angeles and moved to the South Pacific. Their first stop is Rarotonga. They brought their two young daughters with them.)

Little Jane is sick. She’s been sneezing and coughing with rattling breath for two days, and now I detect a slight wheeze. Her eyes are red around the rims. Even in Los Angeles I was on edge anytime the kids became ill, but here in Rarotonga, where I foolishly haven’t yet found a family doctor, and where there aren’t daily flights to New Zealand (the closest place with a real hospital), I’m falling into a state of near-panic.

A couple of hours ago I called Jean, a mom whose eight children are friends with Sarina, and whose third-grade daughter happens to be in our front yard right now, teaching Mark and Sarina how to make hermit crabs come out of their shells by whistling into them. Jean gave me the name of her doctor, and I was relieved to hear he makes house calls.

There’s a knock at the door, and I let in a strikingly beautiful woman chicly dressed in black — an atypical color for island attire — who introduces herself as the nurse. She’s tall and poised, and has a large red flower in her long hair. She leads us into my bedroom, and tells me to lay the baby on the bed.

While I tell her the baby’s symptoms, I see a small rusty car drive across our grass. “It’s the doctor,” the nurse says.

Unlike the nurse, he’s completely unkempt, with wildly tousled hair, wearing worn gray shorts and a casual bowling shirt. Like everyone at Sarina’s school, his dry cracked feet are bare. Now that I look, the nurse is barefoot too.

The doctor places his black medicine bag — which is actually a plastic toolbox — on the bed next to the baby. Its handle is wrapped in an Ace bandage. He opens it up, whips out a stethoscope, and listens to Jane’s chest. Jane pumps her arms and legs, whining from the cold of the stethoscope. Before I have a chance to ask how she sounds, he fishes through his toolbox, pulls out a vial and a little brown container, and hands them both to the nurse. Then he turns to me.

“Your baby has a bronchial infection, which is bordering on pneumonia. The nurse will show you how to administer the medicine.”

“Pneumonia!” I gasp.

“Well, right now it’s just a bronchial infection. This is common with children on the island. It’s the climate here.”

“Should I be worried?” Whatever his answer is, it’s irrelevant. I’m worried.

The doctor tells me the baby will be fine. He shakes my hand and turns to go. His business here is done.

“I’m really nervous,” I tell the nurse as the doctor drives away. “What if this turns into full-blown pneumonia?”

“Then you’ll have to take her to the hospital,” she says, warmly yet matter-of-factly. “Where is your drinking water?”

I don’t understand, but point to a bottle of water on the table. She carefully pours a measured amount of the water into her brown container, and adds the powdered contents of the vial into it.

“This is an antibiotic medicine for Jane,” she says, giving her mixture a good shake.

I take a deep breath, barely hearing her as she explains how to give it to the baby. I realize the doctor left without taking Jane’s temperature, or pulse. He didn’t look into her ears or mouth. Is it normal to check only the chest when a child is sick?

The nurse takes a pencil and writes the name of the antibiotic on a label, which she sticks on the brown container of medicine. Air bubbles cause the label to crease across its middle, making the nurse’s writing almost illegible.

She slings her bag around her shoulder and gently kisses me on each cheek. I don’t want her to leave, but she does, and I find myself standing alone in the kitchen.

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