During the months leading up to our trip, I quietly worried about getting India’s notorious stomach bug – Delhi Belly.
Every bite of my first few meals in the country created anxiety for me (in fact under my breath I repeated the mantra, “No Delhi Belly, “No Delhi Belly,” over and over hoping to keep all illness away). I waited to be roused in the middle of the night or in some embarrassing public space for a gastrointestinal eruption. But it never came. Those first weeks that I ate in restaurants in Delhi, Agra, Bir, Amritsar, Dharamsala, Jaipur and Jaisalmer (all the places you’ve been reading about) strangely passed without incident. Even at Chokhi Dhani – a resort for locals – Karen and I ate fresh cucumbers and raita and basked in the glory we felt for being sure that we had adapted.
And then one night – I felt it.
“Oh – that’s not good.” I said to myself praying that it was nothing. I took a couple of Pepto Bismol tablets and went back to bed.
In the morning, Karen went out alone and I stayed in bed thinking that whatever I had gotten would run its course and that I’d be back out there by the afternoon after pounding a few bottles of water. Later on however, we were both concerned because I was running a fever. We thought I should go to a doctor or a clinic. I thought I would get a few antibiotics and be back out and touring by the evening.
But there was no doctor’s office nor a clinic. There was only the hospital.
“The hospital? Isn’t that a bit dramatic?”
“That’s where we send people sir,” said the hotel staff, “Don’t worry. It’s a very fine place.”
I wasn’t convinced. That being said, I had never felt so crappy from a stomachache in my life and so I agreed to go.
When we arrived I was quickly whisked into a room where a plump and smiley-faced Indian doctor (who’s son he proudly told me had graduated from Columbia University) took all of my vitals and a few notes on a pad before finally looking up, sitting back and folding his arms to tell me in a calm and sing-song smiley voice, “Mr. Check – you have food poisoning. I’d like to admit you.”
“We need to do a blood test and make sure you are okay. You’ll have a very nice room – I assure you.”
“You’ll have to spend the night.”
The doctor could see the worry on my face at what he was telling me.
“Mr. Check, we need to take the necessary precautions. You are sick. It’s standard procedure. Blood work, spending the night and an IV.”
“What?! An IV too?!”
After that the doctor sent me to the ER where two male nurses took blood, fed me pills and shot me up with liquids into a fresh IV catheter. I hadn’t been in a hospital in years and to be honest, I’ve personally never been hospitalized. This was the first time in my life. My initial observation was that the smiley-faced doctor seemed completely disconnected from the nurses that were now treating me. Had they spoken? Did they know the correct medicines to give me? Why were they giving me so many things? Regardless, I realized what was happening. They were rescuing my immune system, but in a very aggressive way. They were treating it like a battlefield that they were now fire bombing in a campaign to search, seek and destroy every last little microbe in my intestines (so much for all the probiotics I had been taking).
After the preliminary round of medications, I was put in a wheelchair and moved across the street to another building, dodging the usual flurry of dusty streets with rickshaws, dogs, a goat and masses of people that collectively defines India.
Realizing that I had an IV in my arm, I muttered under my breath, “Am I safe?” By that point I didn’t have a choice. I was at the mercy of the Jodhpur hospital staff.
While Karen was busy dealing with the bureaucracy of getting my paper work sorted out, I waited in my room that the doctor had said would be “very nice.” It wasn’t. It was an austere and Spartan cell, with a cot that felt like a rock (and no support for my third and fourth lumbar).
After I was officially checked in Karen went back to the hotel to get a couple of things for the night, and I sat there all alone receiving whatever solution was dripping from the bag into my body.
At that point I received some visitors.
First a woman entered in a Sari, holding a grass broom.
“Namaste.” I said in return. She swept the room and the bathroom and then left.
A few minutes later there was a second knock at the door. This time it was a boy that was probably about 12 years old.
“Namaste.” I said in return again.
He emptied the trashcan under the bed and then he left.
Yes, there was a third knock. This time a man entered with a tank on his back and a hose in his hand – like he was a Ghostbuster. He must have been the exterminator.
“Namascar.” He said bringing his hands together into a graceful bow.
“Namas … ” Before I finished the word, he was spraying around the edges of the room – including a couple of licks on my sandals.
Finally, someone that I actually expected to be in the room appeared – a nurse (a male nurse actually). He had long sleek black hair and held another bag of solution and a syringe.
He looked down at his chart and then up at me again. He nodded with the glance that said it all – he felt my pain.
And with that he changed my bag.
Karen was starving when she got back and even though I wasn’t so hungry, we both agreed that we needed to eat. We were pleasantly surprised when we realized that there was room service even though there wasn’t much to get but soup, rice, daal and cookies. We ordered soup (figuring that it would help settle my stomach). When the food arrived, it was literally two flimsy plastic cups filled with daal and rice. I took one sip and realized that it was way too spicy for someone attempting to recover from Delhi Belly so I didn’t finish it. Oh, but Karen did.
“My stomach hurts.” She told me twenty minutes later.
“Yes – I think it was the soup.”
Just then, as if he were waiting for us to have the conversation, the smiley-faced doctor entered.
“Mr. Check how are you feeling?”
I let him know that I was doing a little better but that Karen also wasn’t feeling well.
“What did you eat?” he said turning to her now looking concerned.
“Why did you do that? You shouldn’t eat soup in this hospital!”
“We can’t eat soup in a hospital?” She asked confused.
“No. It’s not for your stomachs. Here – I’m going to tell the nurse to get you some bananas, some bread and some coconut water.”
I doubted they had coconut water anywhere in the country let alone in Jodhpur.
After discussing Karen’s condition, we returned to my case. The doctor reiterated that he just wanted to keep me overnight until my fever broke.
He then left and within a few minutes, Karen jumped up out of her seat and darted into the bathroom – sick from the soup she had just eaten. The timing couldn’t have been better. Just then, three Indian men entered – they were kitchen staff. All were wearing open-collared button down shirts like they were extras in a Bollywood film. They must have been sent from the doctor to take our food order.
“Doctor says soup you want?” the one in the middle said in all seriousness.
The word, “soup” reverberated in my ears as I could hear Karen puking in the bathroom. It suddenly dawned on me that Indian hospitals were like everything else we had been experiencing in India – there was seemingly no attention paid to important details.
“No I don’t want soup! She’s sick! My girlfriend is sick because of your soup! YOUR soup!”
The three of them looked at me puzzled not understanding a word of what I had just said. They scratched their heads and left.
Karen and I eventually got some bananas and cookies for our dinner and watched a movie on her I-Pad before going to bed. My fever broke the next day and we were able to leave by 3pm. Karen felt better, but I was still dizzy, low-energy and nauseous for three full days after Jodhpur. I’m doing just fine now though (I even rock-climbed yesterday).
*I want to thank the love of my life, Karen Czukerberg for taking care of me. I’m also proud of her because now she knows how to navigate the Indian healthcare system.
And just to give an idea on how we passed those 24-hours, check out this video: