Sunday, March 01, 2009


Next evening I found Iwan and his granny back home at their shack beside the rubbish tip. Granny, dressed in her usual old shawl and smiling her nearly-toothless grin, looked fit and well. But Iwan was not well. He resembled a famine victim; he appeared to have a fever; mosquitoes, lit by the light from a kerosene lamp, were buzzing around a coin-sized, infected wound on his left calf.

"Why did you go off without your leprosy medicine?" I asked him indignantly.

"I wanted to visit my mum." He was looking down at the ground and sounded as if he was ready for a stretcher.

"But you should have waited till you’d got your next lot of medicine."

"Sorry Mr Kent," said Iwan quietly.

I turned to granny. "Why didn’t you bring Iwan back when he got sick?" I asked.

She grinned sheepishly and said nothing.

"And how did you get the wound on the leg?" I asked Iwan.

"I was playing with some children."

An hour later, Iwan, granny and I presented ourselves to Dr Handoko at Jakarta’s smart Kuningan Medical Centre. A nurse cleaned the leg wound and issued some pills. Dr Handoko decided that Iwan would need to be admitted to a hospital. He phoned the expensive Rasuna Said Hospital to check they had a bed.

"Yes, they can take him," he said. "You’d better get there straight away."

Ten minutes later we were at the Rasuna Said, a tall block with dark marble halls, looking as much like a five star hotel as a hospital. I was beginning to feel rather pleased with myself as I explained to the female receptionist how I was helping Iwan. She asked us to wait in a side corridor. A few minutes later we were approached by a woman who could easily have entered a Miss Indonesia contest; she was long-limbed, dressed in a slim grey suit, and wearing a badge that said ‘public relations’.

"I’m terribly sorry," she said, "but we’re full up tonight. We have no beds available."

"I was told you had a bed," I protested.

"That was a mistake. I’m sorry but the boy will need to go to the leprosy hospital in Bekasi."

"Is it because he’s a poor child wearing sandals?"

"I’m sorry. There is no bed available." She smiled a public relations smile.

"But I was told you had a bed."

"He’ll need to go to the leprosy hospital," she said quietly. "People with leprosy can only be treated in the leprosy hospital."

"But it’s late at night. We can’t go all the way to Bekasi tonight. Iwan’s here because of his fever, not his leprosy."

"I’m sorry." She tried to put on her most sympathetic face.

"You’re only interested in well dressed patients. If Iwan was rich you’d take him."

We argued for ten minutes but she wasn’t going to budge. I began to suspect that Dr Handoko at the Kuningan Medical Centre had told the Rasuna Said about the fever but not about the leprosy or the cheap plastic sandals.

Two other nearby hospitals also turned us down. I reluctantly came to the conclusion that it was standard practice that lepers, no matter what additional ailments they might have, could only be admitted to a leprosy hospital. Non-lepers would not want to be walking on the same hospital floors as lepers.

I returned Iwan and his granny to their home beside the rubbish tip and arranged that my driver would take the two of them to the leper hospital in Bekasi the following morning.


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