We take so much for granted!
The discovery of Penicillin one Friday morning, the 28th of September 1928, has traditionally been described as a serendipitous accident. The scientist in question being a famously poor communicator, it was a good fourteen years before people began using Penicillin to treat infections. It has since been referred to as the ‘wonder drug’ of the twentieth century. The best and strongest shot is delivered via injection.
I have a phobia for injections. I am one of those people who will engage doctors very creatively before any therapy is proposed to establish whether any injections are involved; in order to negotiate for alternatives in advance! My date with Penicillin was different, though. I was still in High School, going through the first term of Form 6, the last year of high school in the A-level system. I had been having headaches for quite some time, so by the time I came home for half-term I knew I had to deal with it.
My Mum organised with a neighbour, Damaris, who was a nurse, so that I could walk with her to the health unit where she worked. On arrival at the health unit, Damaris handed me over to a colleague and went off to attend to her duties. The colleague in whose care Damaris left me gave me a seat and continued to deal with her paperwork as we talked. We talked about school: the school I went to; the subjects I was doing. Then we talked about my headaches: where, exactly, the pain was; for how long I had been having them. She asked whether I had pains in other parts of my body: stomach; back; ears; nose. She took a blood sample. She also took a urine sample. By ten O’clock I think she had pretty much decided what was ailing me and how she was going to deal with it. She did not explain it to me – a mere high school student – and I’m not sure that it would have made any difference. That was long before I discovered that I could avoid injections.
I had assumed all along that I would walk back home as soon as I was done, passing by the nearby market where my Mum had a stall to let her know that I was through. When the nurse asked me to walk over to where she was working, I could see that she was holding a syringe. She asked me to pull up my skirt, and I felt the pain shooting up my hip. Then she asked me to go back to my seat and wait. Instead of going over to my seat, I walked past her towards the wall, asking politely whether “that was a sink in the corner … ”
I don’t know if I ever got to the sink. I don’t know whether the vomit I had felt coming up my throat ever got out of my mouth. I don’t remember the second injection: for once, I did not feel the pain. Lying on the couch much, much later, I remember watching the nurse working quietly at her desk. She did not speak much this time around, but she was constantly stealing glances at me. If I tried to sit up, she would ask, “Are you alright?” Eventually, she told me to relax and wait for Damaris, who finally came by at five o’clock in the evening. The nurse then released me so that I would walk home with Damaris, our neighbour. The walk home took about an hour. We talked about many things. At some point in time, and between totally different things, Damaris asked me, “Are you allergic to Penicillin?” I said I didn’t know, and we continued our leisurely walk home. Long after I finished high school and started working on my undergraduate programme, I came across stories about patients who died because they were injected with the wrong drug – or a drug to which they were allergic.
Ever since then, whenever I walk into a hospital, or a doctor’s office, and have to fill a form, I always start with the allergies section, for myself and my children, and write “PENICILLIN” in capital letters before filling in the rest of the form. Recently I had reason to think that I had had a very lucky escape. A young man, George, who was staying with my sister, walked into a doctor’s office and was given some drugs for the common cold. As soon as he swallowed the first dose, George told my sister that he was allergic to sulfur – sure enough, it was listed as one of the ingredients, which neither of them had looked at before he swallowed his dose.
By the end of two days, George was bedridden, and his skin had broken out into millions of tiny sores, which were soaking bedsheets within hours. When his mother, who lives in a remote, rural area, was finally reached, she recognized the problem instantly, and advised my sister to bring George to the Level 5 public hospital nearest to her. My sister drove through the night, staring death in the face and scared out of her wits. It was a whole two months before George could be released from the hospital, still wobbly and looking like a ghost, but with his skin healed.
© Katheu Mbithi. 2018.