Excerpt: 'When a Crocodile Eats the Sun'

In the critical care unit the next morning, my mother is in a querulous state—tearful and angry and indignant. She has woken up to find herself paralyzed from the waist down. After having been able to use her legs the day before, she assumes that there has been some awful nerve damage. Then she discovers that during the night, without any complaint of pain on her part, the nurses have taken it upon themselves to turn the epidural way up. This is contrary to all the principles of pain management, she declares, which is to keep medication to a minimum. She strongly suspects the staff has knocked out patients so they can enjoy a hassle-free shift. When she complains to the white physician on his morning rounds, he eyes the nurses over at the ward station. "I see," he says, nodding gravely. But my mother doubts he will do anything.

Later that day, after her legs regain some feeling, she is returned to her own room, relieved to be back within the warm realm of a head nurse she knows. I take her a bunch of tall yellow and blue crane flowers, and she seems calmer, rousing herself to berate me for trimming the flowers with her good nail scissors.

But things soon deteriorate as the national strike takes effect. Most of the nurses get stranded in the townships where they live, as there is no public transportation. Food supplies are erratic. Milk runs out, then bread. Strawberry-flavored jelly begins to feature heavily on the menu.

On our next visit, Mum looks pale and shaken. Late that afternoon she was taken out to the end of the veranda to enjoy the last rays of the winter sun, but no one came to collect her—with the staff shortages, she was forgotten. She shouted weakly for help, but no one heard her. Hours later, in the gathering gloom, a nurse finally stumbled upon her, in tears, trembling with cold.

But it doesn't stop there. In the middle of the night, when she needs to use the bedpan, she presses her buzzer again and again, but no one comes. Eventually, she can hold it no longer and wets the bed.

The entire hospital is hanging by a thread, with just a few senior nurses keeping it going.

That afternoon I decide I will ignore the visiting hours and camp out there to make sure that she is taken care of. By now she looks terribly pale and subdued, crying at the slightest problem. I fuss around, fetching her books and water and adjusting her bed. She asks me to pick up the comb she dropped on the floor, so I feel around under her bed for it. The cement down there is wet and sticky to the touch. My fingertips are coated with a viscous red substance. At fist I think it might be floor polish, but then I realize it is blood.

"Jesus!" I peel back her blankets to look at the dressing on her wound. It is bright red. When the surgeon arrives, he says she lost two pints of blood during the operation and more from the wound.

"She needs a blood transfusion," he says.

"Not bloody likely," says Mum, and rolls her eyes.

He leaves us alone for a moment, my cue to persuade her. But no one knows better than her how high the country's AIDS rate is. "Let's just say that the screening of blood stocks is less than perfect," she says.

As I draw breath to begin bullying her into compliance, she hands me a copy of the Daily News. "There's an ad in there from the National Blood Service," she says.

I open it and page through until I find the half-page advertisement announcing that it has essentially collapsed. It has no fuel, no foreign currency for plasma, no "refreshments," which are used to entice indigent blood donors.

The head nurse comes in, and I try to recruit her to my cause.

"If you were in my position, would you have a blood transfusion?" asks Mum.

The nurse looks around to make sure the doctor has gone. "Nuh uh," she says, and she shakes her head vigorously.

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