My office is on a busy downtown street and we are all used to the incessant honking and screeching of brakes that assaults our ears from the thousands of cars that each day zoom by under our window. There is one sound, though, that I particularly dread - the piercing wail of an ambulance's siren. In Egypt, you see, the traffic doesn't part to let emergency vehicles pass quickly through. The congestion is so acute that the ambulance, carrying its ailing or injured patient to hospital, can be trapped for seemingly hours, with the densely packed cars simply having nowhere to go to clear a lane.
The blaring siren goes on and on and on, making my colleagues and I pause for a moment and whisper a silent thank you that it isn't us inside that ambulance. I have always found the thought of falling sick in Egypt rather frightening. During a bad dose of the flu particularly, the lack of family nearby makes the experience even more lonely and as you lie in the throes of fever-induced delirium, you begin to imagine the final days of your life. This could be it, you think to yourself as, eyes watering, you reach for your Tylenol Cold and Flu, praying: "Please God, let me not need an ambulance and die in traffic."
Melodramatic? Well yes, but such fears are not entirely groundless. Health care in Egypt has always left quite a lot to be desired, even though as an expat the treatment you receive is likely to be much better than the average Egyptian can expect. Having had a few run-ins with the health system here has made me regimental about taking my daily vitamin supplement. I now wash my hands like someone with obsessive compulsive disorder.
My first visit to an Egyptian hospital was two years ago when I was sent out on a story about an Egyptian woman who had given birth to seven healthy babies at once. She and her husband lived in a one-bedroom house in a poor village, and she was spending her days in an Alexandria hospital until her babies could leave the incubator. To consider why the woman should go on to fertility pills having already giving birth to two girls would require another column, but it was the condition of the hospital that caught my attention when I interviewed her that morning. Her room was cramped with one bed and a few chairs occupied by members of her family members who looked as though they had not managed much sleep for a while. It was August, there was no air conditioning and the only open window which did nothing to cool the room. The poor mother lay limp in her bed under cheap blankets, sweating profusely with only a rattly electric fan providing any source of coolness. As we talked, a cockroach crawled up the wall behind her head, while nurses chewing gum and wearing dirty scrubs leaned against the doorway chatting, "Yup, that's the woman who just had seven.. can you believe it?" pointing at the mother like she was a circus freak. The paint in the hospital hallways was chipping off, there were no soap dispensers, and the only air conditioner I saw was in the hospital director's office when I went to interview him.
My second shock came nearly a year later when I had to have a vaccination before the Haj. I had to get a meningitis jab and a booster shot and was told I would need to go to a public hospital. Entering the hospital I had to walk past sick people lying by the garden wall waiting to see a doctor, a bale of hay and nurses milling around drinking tea and spitting out watermelon seeds. Inside a room that smelt like a public baths, a woman sat in what was now an off-white medical robe chatting to a man who was smoking a cigarette at a desk. Surrounding them in the room were boxes of medical equipment and an ancient doctor's screen. I told them why I was there, and paid the smoker my fee.
The woman then took me behind the screen. I asked her if she was going to wash her hands. She gave me a dirty look, picked up a bottle of water she was drinking from and splashed it on her hands. As I bared my arm, alarms kept going off in my head but I ignored them as she opened up a new needle. I told myself that as long as the needle was clean I was probably going to be OK ... I hoped. Was she was going to wear gloves or disinfect my arm, I asked. At that point she breathed heavily to show her annoyance at my finickiness and asked me if I had any disinfectant. But you're the nurse, I replied. Well, I don't have anything, she said as she looked me in the eye and jabbed my arm.
Luckily, I lived, but it will be the last time I leave my hand-sanitiser at home. Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo.