by Brian Kerstetter
According to the Center for Disease Control, travelers to the West African country of Ghana should be vaccinated. And re-vaccinated. And vaccinated again. To gain legal entry into the country, visitors are required to present a medical certificate as proof of vaccination for yellow fever, cholera, hepatitis, typhoid, and tetanus. You’ll also require a two month supply of malaria tablets, whose side effects include violent nightmares. O. and I were planning a trip to Ghana for a week to film scenes in the capital Accra – in the marketplace, on the beach, in the streets, and on a mound of smoking trash with an assortment of homeless kids.
A month before our departure, O. organized our vaccinations by googling “Ghana vaccines NYC” and randomly made an appointment with a Dr. X on Broadway. In route to the doctor’s office I asked O. why he’d selected this particular physician. “I liked the Web site,” he responded. “It had a cartoon of a green dog convincing a pink cat not to snack between meals.” I thought about this for a moment and it seemed to make sense. O. had an impressive track record of making decisions, both great and small, based on his reaction to a Web site. He’d once led his wife, Makiko, half-way around the world to an island resort off the coast of Australia simply because he’d noticed an Illy espresso machine in the background photo of the resort’s homepage.
When O. and I arrived Dr. X’s office, of course it no longer existed at that address. It was now a Dunkin Donuts. We ordered two Boston Crème doughnuts and two coffees, while O. called the doctor for the new address. Dr. X’s new office was in an old warehouse with a rusty fire escape zigzagging along the front of the building, like New York buildings in Martin Scorsese movies from the 1970s. We rang the buzzer next to Dr. X’s name and a voice said “fourth floor” and the door buzzed open.
The building seemed to be deserted, as we climbed the four flights of stairs. Above the second floor landing, a plump black fly was buzzing around an exposed light bulb. “Dumb fat fly,” O. said, climbing the steps two at a time. On the fourth floor we met a sweating workman unloading boxes. He was tall and wore blue jeans and a t-shirt. “Hello,” he said, seemingly surprised to see someone in the building. “We just moved. Go right in.”
The waiting room looked like a children’s nursery – toys, dolls, race cars, trains, puzzles, and candy covered the floor. The room was empty, except for a pale woman with her hair in a bun and a young boy with dried blood on his lip, sitting on the floor pushing a red sports car back and forth, generating a revving sound with his puffy lips. Suddenly the woman stood up, took the boy by the arm, and quickly pulled him out of the office and down the stairs. The child looked back at us, touching his lower lip.
At the receptionist’s window, O. picked up a business card. “Dr. X, MD, Pediatrics.” “Can I help you?” a voice from behind the glass asked.
“Dr. X is only for kids?” O. asked the receptionist.
“Most of Dr. X’s patients are children,” she replied, handing us each a clipboard of papers to fill out.
“So the needles will be smaller?” O. asked, smiling. The receptionist looked up at him, blinked and slid the glass window closed.
O. and I sat alone in the waiting room, filling out our forms. A box of half-eaten Gummy Bears kept O. company on the seat next to him. The final page on our clipboard read FOR PARENTS. O. slowly walked back to the receptionist.
“Do I need my parents’ signature for my vaccines?” he asked through the glass pane.
“How old are you?” she asked matter-of-factly, not getting O.’s attempt at humor.
“Thirty-six” he replied.
“No,” she replied, pinching the word out with both lips and returning to her keyboard.
We sat in the waiting room in silence looking at the toys. I picked up a worn copy of The Sesame Street Alphabet Book for Toddlers and read through the alphabet, quietly moving my lips. On the page for the letter -B- there appeared to be two drops of fresh blood smeared on the page. Was -B- for bunny or blood? Meanwhile across the room, O. had discovered the puppet of a monkey and a hippo and started a conversation between the two animals, employing a different voice for each. It unfolded something like this:
“Why are you so goddamn fat, Mr. Hippo?” asked the monkey in a high voice.
“Because I eat too many stupid fucking monkeys,” the hippo replied in a low voice.
The intellectual animal conversation continued like that for fifteen minutes, until the nurse called our names and led us down a dark hallway into a sterilized white office that contained a doctor’s table, a chair, a telescope and a large poster of a cartoon giraffe taking its own temperature. A moment later the workman who had been unloading boxes at the entrance came into the office wearing a white lab coat and carrying our clipboards. “Hi again,” he said. “I’m Dr. X.”
O. and I looked at each other. Noticing O.’s confusion, Dr. X replied, “Oh, you mean the boxes…” and didn’t say anything else. The nurse from the front desk knocked and entered with a tray carrying two rows of six miniature vials filled with clear liquid, twelve enormous syringes with orange plastic tips, and a mound of cotton balls.