ER, third-world style

Monday, 1 February 1999

Another beautiful Saturday in Cape Town. Aura took a solo ride on a camel named Jabaar ("the strong one", named after Kareem-Abdul). We drank tea out on the lawn, bought delicious fresh home-made mozzarella, trailed our toes in the waters of the Atlantic, and drove past Cape Point to Simonstown. Then up the old Cape road past Silvermine, down to Tokai onto the M3 and on to Constantia Road toward Wynberg.

As we crossed the intersection of Bower, Kate saw a woman lying on the sidewalk ... bloodied, looked like she'd been stabbed. A hasty U-turn later, we pull off the road onto the kerb. Kate is out of the car and running across the road to where the woman continues to bleed while onlookers keep a discreet distance. And I'm calling the emergency line on the cellphone ...

"MTN Carecall, may I help you?"

Me: "Yes, Cape Town, corner of Constantia and Bower in Wynberg. I need an ambulance and police. I have what looks like a stab victim."

MTN: "Stay on the line sir, I'm transferring you..."

A few pops and squawks later. "Hello, Metro..."

Me: "Cape Town Metro?"

Metro: "Yes."

Me: "I need an ambulance and police, corner of Constantia and Bower in Wynberg."

Metro: "I can't get the road name, the line is bad..."

Me: "Bower, b-o-w-e-r, Bower."

Metro: "Oh, you mean Bauer?"

Me: "Whatever. Ambulance, and police."

Metro: "Is this an assault case?"

Me: "How the fuck should I know? The woman's unconscious and bleeding. I need an ambulance, dammit."

Metro tells me the ambulance is on its way. I tell Aura to wait in the car, and head across to join Kate. A worried-looking man leaves his 1950-something Mercedes ragtop parked across the road and joins us. He is fuming.

"There's an ambulance service just up the road," he says. "I've called them, but they won't come unless she's got medical aid. How can they say that?" He breaks off in mid-sentence to yell: "HEY, LEAVE HER ALONE! SIT DOWN THERE!"

The object of his yelling complies, grumbling. He's a thoroughly disreputable looking drunk -- torn shirt over tattooed chest pushed aside to reveal a filthy bandage over his upper arm. "She poked me a knife," he says in Afrikaans, pointing to a scratch between his fingers. It would appear this is his way of justifying the fact that he's beaten the shit out of her -- cracking open her skull and smashing in her teeth. "Come on, let's go!" he says to her -- as though this is going to miraculously cause her to regain consciousness.

We hear a siren and heave a sigh of relief, assuming it is the ambulance. It isn't. It's the bomb squad, which tears past us, disappearing in the direction of the Wynberg Police Station. I get on the phone to Metro again.

Me: "Yes, I just want to get confirmation that the ambulance is on its way to the corner of Constantia and Bower?"

Metro: "Sir, they're very busy this evening."

Me: "How much time? How long before they get here? This woman is still bleeding from her mouth. Are we going to have to move her to hospital ourselves?"

Metro: "I don't know. We're in Bellville and they're out in Pinelands."

Me: "You mean the ambulance has to come out from Pinelands to Constantia?"

Metro: "Yes, that's where the depot is."

So I take the direct number and call Pinelands. After interminable rings...

Me: "I'm calling from the corner of Constantia and Bower in Wynberg. I want to know how long before the ambulance gets here."

Pinelands: "I don't know. They're changing crews now. Then they'll send someone out ..."

Ask yourself, South Africa. Were the ambulance crews busy? Were all of them rushing to the bomb site at Woodstock? Or did they not want to work past their knock-off time of 7pm on a Saturday?

I predict there will be outraged responses to my version of these events from the various emergency services today. I also predict that not one will say, "Sorry, it's my fault."

This terrifies me.