A thin teenage boy limps into my consulting room. His file gives his age as fourteen. He accepts my offered hand and shakes, his narrow face opening into a shy smile. His English is slow, studied, like his gait. Mum, accompanied by a three-year old son, enters with the bigger boy. She is trim, confident in English, smiles readily. This reversal in facility with English is curious: more commonly the parent’s tongue limps in the new language while the child’s races ahead and translates for the parent.
I examine the painful foot which is swollen and tender at the top of the instep. The diagnosis eludes me. “I don’t really know what has made this foot sore. But I can try some treatment which I think will help.”
Fourteen-year old appears happy with this. Mum says, “Thank you.”
The three year-old wanders quietly around my consulting room, locates all its fittings and gadgets, investigates their workings and adjusts all to his satisfaction.
I guess from the family’s surname they come from Vietnam. The older boy confirms this.
I hand the boy a prescription and prepare to write a letter for him to take to his own doctor.
Mother, smiling, shakes her head: “He doesn’t have a doctor.”
“I can write a letter for your clinic and you can take your son there. Will that be OK ?”
“Yes”. Another smile.
The letter written, the family rises to leave.
Mother turns to me. “He has been here in Australia two weeks only. Until now he was in Vietnam. And we have been without him.”
“How long have you been apart?”
“One year and a half a year.”
“Did you miss each other?”
The boy nods. Mother says, “We miss very much. Now happy. Now family all together.”
She thanks me and heads for the door, then adds:”You are the first doctor he sees. Thank you for being so kind.”
At the door, the three-year old folds his arms across his upper trunk and bows.
Mother says: “In our culture that means he show you respect.”
Another consultation, this one in 1971. I take a phone request to visit a patient in Altona who has a fever and is unwell. I make my way to the address, which turns out to be the migrant hostel. The sun is setting as I park my car in the enormous parking area. Ahead of me in the gloom I sight squat oblong buildings that proliferate wherever I rest my gaze. All have the same design. My instructions are to proceed to “Room Number Seven”.
But number seven in which building of these many? I cannot know. (Mobile phones have not yet been invented.)
Dismayed, I look around. I see buildings that are anonymous and many. Of residents I see none.
Ah, here one nemerges from the gloom, an adult of maybe forty years. I hail him and enquire for number seven.
“I English” – a shrug – “Not.” – apologetically.
I feel lost. The man sees my unhappiness. He brightens and gestures for me to follow.
Perhaps he has suddenly remembers he speaks English.
I try again: “You know number seven?”
But he hurries ahead, full of purpose now, turning every so often, ensuring I follow.
We stop at a closed door. I look in vain for a number. My guide knocks, the door opens, my guide speaks in a Slavic-sounding language to a person not seen.
The unseen person emerges and says in clear English: “Good evening, doctor.”
The person is a lady. She looks well.
“I am glad I found you,” I say, “You have a fever?”
“Not me. No fever. I have just English. I take you.”
The lady strides ahead as I follow with gladder tread.
We walk from one modular building, skirt a second, arrive at a third and as we scoot around a final corner, the number on the bricks says – in clear Arabic – “7”!
My guide knocks, a conversation at the door, and I am admitted to the room by a young lady. On a couch lies an older woman, evidently her mother. A worried looking older man stands at the patient’s side. He applies a damp cloth to her brow.
Grateful to be where I should be I ask the young woman how I can help.
“You are doctor, yes?”
“Mother has coughing and fever. Only today, on the flight from Portugal.”
I examine mother, who breathes fast and tries not to cough on me. Her chest is eloquent – she has pneumonia. I administer a shot of penicillin. (In 1971, germs have not learned how to mutate to resist penicillin.)
I wonder:”How did you know how to contact me?”
“We did not. We want a doctor but we do not know how. You just arrive.”
I give helpful advice, including the number for emergency calls, and tell them to try to see a doctor near to the hostel tomorrow. And turn to go.
“How do we pay you?”
“You don’t. I came for someone else and I could not find her. You are my payment.” It is dark. The paths to the carpark are unlit and clouds cover the moon. Eventually I locate my car and drive away.
It is 1973 and I am working in an obstetric hospital when I am called to Labour Ward for a complicated birth. The patient is a newcomer whose accent betrays Iberian origins. Acting as an interpreter is a visitor to the hospital, a friend of the patient. Like everyone in the room she wears a mask. Above her mask her forehead looks familar. After the birth she removes her mask, revealing a face that I cannot place. But definitely familiar.
“Have we met before?”
“At the hostel. On our first day.”
“Yes! Now I remember. Your mother – she recovered well?”
“Yes. Thanks to God.”
“Do you know, I never learned how I found you.”
“We knew. You were an angel: God sent you.”