Thanksgiving took on new meaning this year. It was supposed to be a holiday like all the others with enough food, wine and politicizing to last for days. My parents had come over from California to celebrate with us and we were restless with excitement. This was their first time in Dubai—first time in the Middle East, in fact—and they had hauled nearly six suitcases between them filled with toys, Christmas gifts and various expatriate essentials.
But as soon as the table was set, my mom said she wasn’t feeling well and went to lie down. At first, I didn’t think much of it. Mom had been feeling out of sorts since she arrived nearly a week ago. We presumed it was the jet lag since we’d had many a houseguest struggle for days to acclimate to the new time zone. It’s quite severe traveling to the Middle East—the 12-hour time difference wreaks havoc on the body and it’s not unusual to experience episodes of extreme fatigue, GI issues, or a weakened immune system. It kicks your ass.
When I went to check on her later she was feverish and warm. We suspected she had a virus or flu, the unfortunate consequence of being housed among small germ bots such as my children. Both my sons had been home from school the week prior with an assortment of maladies. In the last three months since school started our house had become a roving hot zone. I can hardly remember a week when no one is coughing or wiping their nose or itching something. Tylenol goes faster than milk around here. So I grabbed a couple of familiar boxes from the medicine cabinet and sent her to bed with several pills and some water.
But then the next day was worse. Mom had spiked a fever overnight of 102 and the ibuprofin was barely keeping it at bay. Her face was flush and burning, she couldn’t get out of bed and it was a struggle getting her to drink fluids. She went back to sleep and I started to worry. How could she get the flu this badly?
Before she arrived in Dubai she had gone to see her doctor to get all of the recommended vaccinations—influenza, pneumococcal, shingles. She was 72 but a healthy 72—no underlying health disorders or conditions like heart disease, diabetes or the like. I called the doctor—time to take her in.
When we arrived the doctor checked her vitals and took a urine sample. It appeared she had some kind of infection–possibly pneumonia or worse, septicemia–her blood pressure was dropping and she needed to go to the hospital. Right. Now.
I tried not to panic as I helped my mother into the car and set the GPS for the hospital. I was vaguely familiar with the hospitals in Dubai, my experience was limited to horror stories recounted on Facebook and the one time I took my son in when he swallowed a metal bolt (I couldn’t make this stuff up). Frankly, when you live in a foreign country you try not to think too much about a scenario where you become intimately familiar with the health system. I hoped we wouldn’t be here long enough to use it that much. But from that single experience I remember it being surprisingly modern and clean, the staff professional and friendly. So I decided to take her to the only hospital in town I knew, Mediclinic City Hospital.
We pulled up into the ER in the late afternoon and I could see my mother’s health was failing. She was becoming confused and pale and when she raised her hand her whole arm shook. I was terrified.
I checked us in and within minutes we were seen by the nurse. It became immediately clear that my mother was a ‘level 1’ triage case, the nurse kept referring to her as “elderly” which infuriated my mother (at least I could tell she had some of her faculties intact). From there it was a matter of minutes before we were sitting in a room with Mom hooked to an IV and talking with a doctor. He was certain there was an infection and suspected pneumonia so they began prepping her for X-rays. I watched on horrified, my mind a circuit breaker about to smolder.
Getting sick in the US is frightening enough, but getting sick in a foreign country where everything is new and strange and confusing and you don’t know anything about the doctors or the drugs or the payment system is downright terrifying. Which is when I started to panic. How will we afford this, I wondered, knowing my parents didn’t have any localized health insurance. I had no idea how long she would remain in the hospital, what kind of doctors would attend to her, whether I could stay with her. I felt grateful that everyone spoke English but I cringed to think about the credentials of the staff. Were they as highly skilled as in the US? Were the standards the same? Would it be clean??
And yet, what we experienced was a lesson in global citizenry. Not only did the medical staff hail from all over the world– India, Saudi Arabia, Canada, the Philippines—but they were highly competent and knowledgeable and all trained in the west. They spoke flawless English and the equipment they used was state-of-the-art. By the time they put my mother in her room (a spacious and clean private room with a towering view of downtown Dubai) I felt embarrassed by my misgivings. My mother had a fleet of staff checking on her 24/7 and her room was even equipped with room service and WiFi. Sure, it’s no picnic being in the hospital but at least Mom could experience Dubai at its finest.
Each day my mother did a little better. She responded well to the medications and the IV, and her vitals had returned to their normal levels. Her stubborn fevers had subsided. The headaches still lingered but by the third day they were almost gone completely. All the signs of recovery started to show—she was eating regular food again, moving about the room and—perhaps most importantly—sparring with my dad. Everyone agreed she was finally well enough to come home.
We’ve had to change my mother’s flight to stay another week in Dubai and recuperate. I view this as the silver lining. Now I get to turn the clock back and start our holiday over again, albeit at a much slower pace. I never want to feel the hollowness and dread I felt when I left the hospital each day. I will never take for granted the time I have with my mother, and I will never let a holiday pass where I don’t feel an abundance of gratitude and thanks. Thanksgiving is now the one holiday I don’t mind celebrating year round. It’s been a blessed year.