Something is Going Around

Apparently there is no escaping the Dubai flu. When we first arrived we were warned that everyone gets hit with it their first month here. Something about the change in climate, the recycled air indoors, the desert wind. But we emerged unscathed that first month, everyone in good health, just bone-tired and running on adrenaline. Then month two passed and maybe it was the busyness of everything—finding a routine, moving into a new house, preparing for the arrival of our first guests—that there just wasn’t time to get sick. Our bodies adapted easily enough to our new environment and we didn’t notice much when the air thinned to a paper-like quality or when the temperature fluctuated 20 degrees in the night, driving us to open-close-open-close the windows in the house as we ached for fresh air. We even grew accustomed to the occasional blanket of fog in the morning, a sight that always felt a tad misplaced in this part of the world and was a painful reminder of how much we miss the real thing back in San Francisco.

But none of that seemed to affect us—at first. Flash forward to month three where the weather changes on a dime and our otherwise well-adjusted bodies are now hotbeds of infection. Everywhere we turn– at the office, at school, on the mom blogs — it seems someone is wagging a finger at us warning, “something is going around.” And so, like a monsoon in the night, down it poured on the McMahan house this past weekend: first with the hubs coming down with a stomach bug, then me with full blown fever and then, in quick succession, each of the boys. Bad. And so I’ve been dreading this day, not because I’m unprepared to handle a house full of sick people (I’ve spent entire winters nursing the infant, toddler and man-flu all in the same week) but because living in Dubai requires me to seek out a system of medicine I really do not understand and would rather pretend I don’t have to. Delusional? Totally.

Ok, there are plenty of things I want to explore while living in the UAE, but getting up close and personal with the health system is not one of them. Not that there is anything wrong with it—quite the opposite, if you look at the data. Since the UAE gained independence in 1971, the country has gone from having 7 hospitals and 12 healthcare centers to now boasting more than 92 hospitals and 1,162 specialized clinics, centers and private hospitals around the country. And it is constantly expanding. This year its investments
in healthcare will total more than $16 billion —investments that are needed to curb costs and meet the growing demands of a massive immigrant and expat population whose expectations are on par with the developed world. Meanwhile, for the 9.1 million Emirati citizens that live here healthcare is free, which makes a fascinating backdrop in Dubai about the balance between public and private sector care.

All of this should’ve felt reassuring, yet I still crumbled at the thought of having to take my kids to the doctor. Healthcare is confusing enough without the added handicap of being in a foreign country. Even short trips to the pharmacies set me in a panic.


For example, see (above) Exhibit A: a typical cold medicine you find at pharmacies. The rational part of my brain (the one that went to college) tells myself not to worry, it’s all the same. The other part of my brain is telling me to run. Where are the usual blue boxes?? You know, the ones with tiny moons and stars and pictures of happy sleeping people?? This is what happens when you live overseas.

But by now the kids have full-blown fevers, the school is calling for an early pick up and we’re almost out of the only asthma medicine I packed. [Where is that extra albuteral?? Someone look under the couch!!??] So I muster my courage and dial the name of a pediatrician my lovely new neighbor recommended. Her office answers right away. As I prepare for the usual brief about being a new patient and brace myself for an appointment later this summer, the woman on the other line asks me how tomorrow looks. Tomorrow? As in, 24 hours from now? I give her my details and wonder what kind of doctor this is. I’m more than a little suspicious.

By the next morning, my older son’s cough is deepening and he’s wheezing in short breaths (a tell tale sign that things are getting bad fast) so off to the doctor we go. As we make the drive there I try not to let the 10 minute door-to-door trip bias me. We arrive to a brightly lit, spacious office where a trio of smiling faces hands me two thin pieces of paper to fill out. I heave my file of insurance cards and medical records onto the counter but she shakes me off. Just the double-sided sheet, she instructs me. I am really getting used to this. There were a couple of other families in the waiting area, but not anywhere near the high-trafficked zone I was expecting. On the right is a door that connects to a dental office. Smart, I thought to myself, and marveled at the one-stop ingenuity of it all.

Within ten minutes we are being called into our room where a very friendly female doctor is waiting. In the corner is a generous sized table of toys that keeps the boys occupied while I chat with the doc, who interestingly enough grew up in Dubai. She listens intently, asks lots of good questions and patiently talks me through all of the concerns I have. No rush, no clock checking, just good conversation. She also explains why some medicines aren’t available here but reassures me that there are equivalents and jots down their names. She also gives me a quick tutorial on the different hospitals in Dubai and points out how the private hospitals are good for straightforward issues like high temps, broken bones, stitches, etc. while the government hospitals offer a lot in terms of specialists and certain equipment that you may not find elsewhere. It’s fascinating and I make a note to learn more.


As we leave I’m escorted to a small window with a sign that says “cash counter.” Ah-ha, I’m thinking. The ruse! I fish my wallet out of my backpack as my heart palpitates thinking about the exorbitant sum I’ll have to fork over. I’m doing quick math in my head– two kids, two medications, one blood test ordered… By now I’m writing off summer camp entirely.

“You’re all set,” she says with a smile. I look at her blankly. I must have misheard. No co-pay? No deductible?

“Nope,” she says. “You’re covered. The doctor will fill out the rest of the forms and submit directly to insurance. We’ll see you next time.”

I collect the boys and head for the door, checking my watch as we leave. It hadn’t even been an hour and we were released. I can see my older boy has his face pressed against the glass of a bakery next door, tiny smudge marks where his hands are. They are begging me to go inside and get a treat.

“Sure,” I tell them. “We all get a treat.” Even though, what I’m really thinking is that Mom already got one.


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