When I started this blog entry is was 7:44 am and I was with my friend at the hospital. My friend awoke at 2 am with earth shattering pain in his abdomen. It continued, coupled with vomiting and sleeplessness until he admitted himself into the local hospital. I was relieved when he finally gave in to the idea of going to see a doctor, as I had no idea what to do and was beginning to panic a little. So with the help of my friend's lovely roommate, Batsetseg, who served as translator on this bleary morning, we piled into an SUV and headed to the hospital.
Contrary to what popular opinion might hold, hospitals in Mongolia aren't all that bad. True, it is a poor country wracked with poverty and hunger, but the Soviets left many infrastructural blessings, such as hospitals, that local populations maintain with vigor. The hospital in Hovd is not too warm but clean and friendly nevertheless. It's neither sketchy nor grimy.
When my friend was admitted, he was shown to a wooden bed in the room next to the check-in desk. After a while a doctor entered. Doctors in this country are all female and are paid the same pittance as teachers. The woman who walked in had a round, shining face lined with good-natured wrinkles. She barely cleared my shoulder but walked with great competence. Something tells me she's birthed a lot of babies and let many an ailing patient slip away; she's seen it all. My friend then proceeded to vomit and feeling proudly useful after a morning of medical impotence, I procured a bed pan with lightening quick reflexes. I then washed the contents of the pan down the sink. Unfortunately it turns out that the doctor needed the products of my friend's heaving and tisk-tisked me gently. Oh to be good at medical stuff.
Our little band was shown to a room across the hall where my friend was injected with muscle relaxers and an IV drip. My friend started shivering violently which was most concerning, as he was shifting in and out of consciousness. But the doctor just creased her brow, leaned over him, tucked the blankets in around his body and took up his hand. She used her aged fingers to rub life back into his hands and thus the rest of his body, kneading his palm with her strong thumbs. Watching her do this, I was reminded of a day earlier in my Mongolian life. In October or so the library where I work was in a volleyball competition. Before they discovered that my volleyball skills are seriously limited and deemed that I was of no use on the court, I was made to attend practices. One afternoon, I stood waiting my turn to play watching tipsy men and rotund women in tiny track pants dove aimlessly after stray balls. There is no heat in the gym so I was left chattering my teeth and bouncing to avoid freezing to death on the sidelines. An older woman I'd never seen before nor have seen since was standing next to me and eyed my futile attempt to warm up in her periphery. Without glancing from the game, she took my hand in hers and proceeded to rub it, squeezing and pressing away the cold. Mildly uncomfortable at first, I let myself give in to this gesture and stilled myself. The woman's hands were similar to the doctor's, strong and deeply wrinkled. The kind of hands that are soft to the touch but underneath the velvety skin, incredible strength resides. These hands can no other be but a product of a lifetime carrying water, kneading dough, holding children and chopping wood. They are the hands of the women who have watched Mongolia become what it is today, marking history wrinkle by wrinkle. In her touch my body warmed and my chilly, jittery mind slowed. It was bizarre and wonderful to give over to such motherly intimacy from a stranger. When my masseuse was finished, she dropped my hand from between hers and didn't move. She simply stood there as she had before, watching the practice. I smiled sheepishly and thanked her before jogging onto the court to take my place in front of the volleyball net. She simply smiled.
Sitting in the hospital room I watched the doctor roll my friend's hand between hers and I could feel the way it must have felt, though the doctor had never touched me. I see these woman as having the same hands in a way, they simply do what they can with what they've got and this gesture of giving unites them. My friend's shivering stopped; I think he subconsciously responded to the strong matriarchal grasp just as I had. Shortly after he was asleep.
It turns out that my friend had a rockin' case of food poisoning and within a couple of hours there was color in his face and pep in his step. We left the hospital as the sun peered over the mountains and drove off through sparse coal smoke and bird songs. Now a few days have passed and my friend thankfully is in full commission. Even though that panicked morning is all but a distant memory the strong touch of wrinkled hands echoes in my mind.