Our son woke us at 4am. He was obviously distressed, coughing and gasping, clutching at his throat. Despite this he was quite calm as he informed us, in a matter-of-fact manner, that he had a coin stuck in his throat.
Bad dream? No. He was insistent, and clearly awake. He had thought that the cool metal would soothe the sore throat from which he had been suffering for a couple of days. I bundled him into the car and took off for the hospital.
Contrary to what you might expect, excellent medical care is widely available in Pakistan. Many hospitals here offer superb services and are staffed by Western-trained professionals. We were attended to quickly and courteously. Once they had ascertained that the coin was lodged in the oesophagus and not the trachea – in other words, that my son was not about to suffocate to death – we were sent to the front desk to register.
I walked up to the desk and signed the requisite forms. The man behind the desk glanced up at me with the kind of bleary-eyed brusqueness that one tends to get from hospital clerks who are forced to work at 4am.
“50,000 rupees” he snapped, before glancing back at his computer. In Pakistan you pay for medical treatment before you receive it.
I had come prepared. With one swipe of my credit card the bill was paid. I signed the receipt and was about to walk off when I heard the person behind me exclaim, in panic:
“50,000 rupees? I don’t have that kind of money!”.
It was an middle-aged man, accompanied by his wife and their child, a girl with vomit all down the front of her sweater. The clerk yawned and pointed to a sign above his desk which read “Advance Payment Required Before Treatment Offered”. He shrugged.
The man sighed, turned round, and headed for the exit. He walked out into the night, followed by his wife and daughter. I turned back, my receipt safely in my hand, and walked back to my son.