Sunday, March 01, 2009


After seven days, I returned to the third-class children’s ward of the Menteng Hospital in Bogor. In the simple sunlit room, there was a smell of unwashed bare feet and sweaty anxiety. I was feeling jittery; almost reluctant to look at anyone’s face. But I could see Agosto; he was still alive. In fact, although he still looked a bit shrivelled, he was reasonably alert and able to sit up. Ciah, his mother, was smiling a wan smile.

"His fever’s down," said the nurse, a pleasant, plump, matronly woman. "Now he needs to put on weight."

"How’s Suhartini?" I asked. The little girl’s bed was occupied by a new patient, a cheerful boy.

"Gone," said the nurse, in a soft voice.

"What happened?" I asked, my heart beginning to beat faster.

"No longer here," said the nurse, soothingly.

"Dead?" I asked, in a louder voice.

"She’s left this world," said the nurse, putting on a little smile.

Other visitors were looking in my direction and also smiling. It was that smile that tries to lessen the impact of bad news.

My stomach tightened. I wondered if she would have survived if she had got her typhoid medicine a bit sooner. It seemed criminal that when she had first arrived at the hospital she had apparently not been given any medicine.

"The government’s supposed to give hospitals money," I said to the nurse, with more than a hint of rage. "For free medicine; for the very poor."

"People have to pay," said the nurse quietly.

"Does this hospital get money from the government?" I asked, determined to press my point.

"The money runs out very quickly," said the nurse, giving me a smile with a hint of cynicism.

"I’ll give you my telephone number," I said to the nurse. "Phone me if there’s another case like Suhartini."

She never did phone.

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