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Helen Betts | all galleries >> Saudi Arabia: Life in the Desert >> The Great Saudi Hospital Experience > My most unusual Thanksgiving ever
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My most unusual Thanksgiving ever

The lobby of Dr. Sulaiman Al Habib Hospital, Takhassusi, in Riyadh.

This was a most unusual Thanksgiving, spent in a Saudi Arabian hospital to have surgery on my broken big toe, on which a 15-pound frozen turkey had dropped when the “handle” came apart in my hand.

I had spent four painful hours in the ER on Sunday, the day of the accident, and thought I could hobble around for six weeks while it healed, but unfortunately the foot surgeon felt differently and because of the nail that had been broken at the base, said I urgently needed an operation. That was a bit of a shock, but I was admitted early (for Saudi Arabia) the next morning and had surgery that same day. I’m told the operation went well but that now the big concern is about infection, and we have discovered that I’m allergic to more than just penicillin, which is a problem.

Anyway, the point of this narrative wasn’t to talk about my injury, but rather to share some observations of spending three days in a private Saudi hospital. I would have to say that most of the staff – especially the nurses – were incredibly friendly, very helpful and technically competent. Every nurse I met was from the Philippines and had come to the kingdom with promises of a high salary and also due to a glut of nurses in the market at home. They didn’t always (if ever) get as much money as promised, but said it was more than they could earn at home, so stayed on as long as their contract allowed.

The doctors were quite a mix of nationalities – my surgeon was Saudi but American-educated (nine years) and was in fact offered a staff position at Johns Hopkins right after he returned to Riyadh and had signed a contract with this hospital. What a delightful and engaging person; I wanted to get a picture of him but never seemed to have a camera handy when he was around. Maybe I can manage that on a follow-up visit. Other doctors were from all over, including Jordan, Libya, Syria, Yemen and even Spain. The Saudi physicians wore a traditional thobe and shemagh at work, while the foreign doctors wore Western attire.

One hears about how Saudis don’t want to work, but I’m not sure I believe that as there was a large number of them, both men and women, employed at this hospital. The men mainly handled information and administrative desks for the public, while the women did some of the same as well as working in customer relations and such. Again, thobe and shemagh were required dress for men, while the women wore niqab (full face covering) and a black abaya with snazzy red trim. Female technicians wore niqab and scrubs; the gown for female patients was floor length and fastened modestly in back. Any time a person wanted to enter my room, they would knock and say “As-salamu alaykum” (Peace be upon you), to which my response is “Wa-alaikum-salaam” (And upon you peace). If a male doctor was coming into my room, a female nurse always announced him in advance. I was once asked if I wanted to put my headscarf on (I said no).

Although I feel the care was good here, the one thing that really stood out was that nothing ever happened quickly or as scheduled, but rather on “Saudi time,” which as a Westerner I found incredibly frustrating. The day before I was admitted I was told to arrive at 9 a.m. to see an orthopedic surgeon; he finally showed up at 9:30. My surgery was scheduled for 11 a.m. and the operating theater was booked for 11-1, but I wasn’t even wheeled out of my room until 11:30 or operated on until at least 12:30. I kept pressing them for a discharge time on Saturday, but my American-trained surgeon was reluctant to commit, and in retrospect I can understand why: I had to see several doctors about antibiotics, then have blood drawn, then be given more IV antibiotics, then have more blood drawn, wait for the results, wait for the official discharge, see the billing office (far cheaper than in the States, I’m sure, but yikes, still a lot of money), go to the pharmacy… I finally got out about 5 p.m.

Something I actually enjoyed here, when not confined to my room, was people watching. I had heard that this hospital was more frequented by foreigners, but really, I would say there are far more Saudi patients. I saw whole families, groups of women chatting, men visiting with friends, children romping, drivers lining up to deliver or retrieve their bosses’ wives, service people wheeling large gold carts (like you have in fancy hotels) filled with huge bouquets, boxes of chocolate, balloons and such, out to waiting SUVs. It was a microcosm of Riyadh, full of activity and life, and fascinating to watch. I wasn’t able to get many pictures in the lobby, unfortunately, due to the prohibitions against photographing people without their permission, but maybe I can find a way to delay leaving for a little while and hang out with my cell phone and catch a few crowd shots. If
not, well, there’s always the next time here!

The Narcissus Hotel, posted earlier:

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Karen Moen13-Dec-2015 20:56
What is most interesting is how they deal with the dynamics of male-female interactions. Are there any female doctors? My guess is no, and that is why foreign medical workers are employed. It is an aspect of their culture that certainly complicates the practice of medicine. I really enjoy your narratives. Get well soon and keep that cell phone handy!
Philip Game07-Dec-2015 07:55
Well, Helen, that's an interesting vignette and overall, a relatively positive and interesting experience (if it had to be... Inshallah). Please be more careful with next year's turkey...
Kevin Warren04-Dec-2015 16:49
A Thanksgiving you'll not soon forget. Sorry to hear of your mishap and hope your recovery goes well and quickly!
gerard belbeoch01-Dec-2015 16:33
Thanks for the update Helen and sorry you had to spend thanksgiving in the hospital, bless you. Take care and hopefully you will be home soon.
Alexander Kazakov01-Dec-2015 13:56
Superb scene! V
Julie Oldfield01-Dec-2015 05:25
It sounds like you have been through quite an ordeal. I hope you feel better quickly. Your post was very interesting to read and gave me a good glimpse into their culture. V
Dave Petersen Photography30-Nov-2015 23:01
Sorry to read in your account about you less than ideal Thanksgiving. Hopefully the worst is past and you have a quick recovery.
Tom LeRoy30-Nov-2015 09:52
Incredible scene in the hospital, what an eye opening glimpse. Hope your recovering well!
hamery30-Nov-2015 03:44
Glad to know u are well after the operation and a woderful capture of the scene inside the hospital , Helen. Whats a Thanksgiving ever as u say it. Rest well and recover soon ! My best wishes. V
larose forest photos29-Nov-2015 18:12
Wow, what a fascinating report. Really, you could write a book about your experiences in SA (and I mean that truly). It is a glimpse into a culture most of us will never have other than vicariously and though shouldn't say this, given that you were in hospital because of an injury, I enjoyed this account of what went on. I hope you are able to get back on your feet soon. I guess you are looking at a couple of months before the broken toe heals?
Carol Rollins29-Nov-2015 15:08
Wow, Helen, what an interesting story. Not a great way to spend Thanksgiving, but certainly
an experience filled with lots of memories that you would not have otherwise.
Still.....heal quickly. We all want to see you back on you feet.
Graeme29-Nov-2015 14:36
Thanks for the update Helen and sorry you had to spend thanksgiving in the hospital, bless you. Take care and hopefully you will be home soon..
pkocinski29-Nov-2015 13:17
Very interesting reading. Hoping you're feeling a little better as the healing process starts.
Gill Kopy29-Nov-2015 04:50
It certainly turned out to be interesting experience for you, and us, your adventure followers :) Do hope the discharge goes through without a hitch and you're all recovered soon.
Jola Dziubinska29-Nov-2015 00:33
Helen, sorry to hear about your painful accident. And thank you for the glimpse into Saudi hospital reality, you are always the best reporter even in such uncomfortable situation. V.
William Barletta28-Nov-2015 17:22
Interesting report. It seems that you found a way to divert you mind from the physical pain. Also, the hospital operations sound like they meet conventional American standards unlike my only encounter with a Roman hospital (which the embassy later told us was the best in town) when I brought my friend to the ER with an acute allergic reaction.
danad28-Nov-2015 17:19
Thank you very much for all this interesting report. Really wish you will feel better as soon as possible, even if I understand it could be long.
joseantonio28-Nov-2015 17:07
Thank you for the report of your experience.Love those reflections on the floor.V
janescottcumming28-Nov-2015 17:04
You certainly made the most of your down time. Interesting observations told very well. Hope you are feeling well today.
Ton, Ben & Rob Nagtegaal28-Nov-2015 15:30
Thats a lot of information, but it is good to see how you spent your days.
Jeff Real28-Nov-2015 14:15
I hope you are doing well, Helen. I hate to hear of your misfortune You have a great story to tell and more adventures.
Isabel Cutler28-Nov-2015 13:50
Thank you for the insight into your hospital experience. I know it will not have been your favorite place to visit, but certainly must have been enlightening.
LynnH28-Nov-2015 13:45
Sounds like you've been making the most of your hospital visit! It all sounds very interesting and I'm intrigued by the meeting of modern medicine and ancient culture. I hope all goes well with your toe and you get back on your feet soon! Did you get to eat that damn turkey that assaulted you?