My unexpected trip to a Libyan hospital

Doctors in a Libyan hospital Image copyright AFP

It was a strange night.

I was woken by two Filipina women in starched nurses' uniforms at the foot of my bed. One was holding a razor.

A little later the lights blinked on again.

A Ukrainian nurse was now gripping a large syringe.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

She shrugged. "This is not your concern."

Let me rewind a little.

A day earlier, I was on the edge of the Libyan desert, outside a town called Bani Walid.

Rebel fighters were racing past in their usual, chaotic manner.

They had been trying to storm the town for days. But Col Gaddafi's forces have bigger guns and better discipline.

Journalists kept edging forwards a kilometre or two, then tearing back after coming under mortar, rocket or sniper fire.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Anti-Gaddafi forces are still facing strong opposition in Bani Walid

It had been the same pattern for a week.

Abruptly, we heard news that a BBC colleague - the brave Lebanese journalist Mohammad Ballout, had been shot just ahead of us.

A single sniper's bullet had killed one man, injured another, and finally come to a stop in Mohammed's chest.

It was serious. But not life-threatening. He has had surgery now and is doing well.

At the time - as dusk fell and we pulled back towards Tripoli - it seemed at best inappropriate to make too much of the stomach pains that had been bothering me for a couple of days and preventing me from eating.

Still, the next morning I was feeling worse and - with the looming prospect of a few nights camped in the desert - I decided to find some antibiotics at a local clinic to sort me out.

Wartime spirit

We were recommended a hospital linked to the National Oil Corporation, in a suburb of the capital.

There were armed guards outside, a noisy crowd in the reception. But down the corridors beyond, I had my first glimpse into a different Libya.

It was a place of wealth, and order, and lots of foreigners.

There were Russian surgeons. A chatty Macedonian nurse. Dozens of Filipinos, and a formidable Scottish matron.

In English, even the Libyans had a broad range of accents.

"I studied in Cardiff," explained the first doctor to have a look at me, as he gently suggested that my guts were not the problem.

All the foreigners seemed to have been in Libya for years.

"Sixteen now," said Maria, the Macedonian.

The pay was good. The well-funded hospital served oil workers rich and poor. Expat life was cloistered but enjoyable.

Of course all that changed when the fighting began.

During the battle for Tripoli last month, the casualties were crowded onto every inch of floor.

The neighbourhood itself came under heavy fire as Col Gaddafi's loyalists withdrew from the city.

"It was terrible," said Maria. "I can show you the bullet holes upstairs."

But all the staff stayed on and by the time I arrived, a month later, a wartime spirit of camaraderie, generosity and optimism still filled the hospital.

I, on the other hand, was feeling trapped and defensive.

The doctors, absurdly I thought, seemed to think it was my appendix. They wanted to operate fast.

I clung to the belief that I must have eaten some dodgy seafood and just needed a few pills.

But the evidence was building solidly against me, and by the next morning I could see that my obstinacy was being interpreted as a lack of faith in their hospital and judgement.

And so, I surrendered, and stared at the ceiling as the surgical masks loomed over me.

I think I remember a Russian anaesthetist, trying to get me to sing along with him. Then the words and the room turned to glue and vanished.

Surgery souvenir

A man called Salahaddin woke me late that evening.

He was on crutches, and had limped in from the next room for a chat.

Salahaddin was 28 years old, a doctor, and a patient.

He had been in the desert outside Bani Walid too. He was in charge of an ambulance crew bringing out the wounded.

A week earlier, he said, his vehicle had been hit by gunfire - a bullet went through his back and out of his leg, shattering his pelvis on the way.

Salahaddin kept smiling, and my grogginess started to feel like bad manners.

During the rebellion, he said, he had treated Col Gaddafi's soldiers during the day at a clinic in central Tripoli, and then slipped out at night to help rebel casualties in the city.

"Now, it is all changed," he grinned. "It is nearly over."

He turned and inched slowly back to his room.

The next morning, the Libyan surgeon walked in with a "told you so" smile. He was brandishing my badly swollen appendix in a plastic jar.

Nurse Maria explained that Libyans like to take home any missing bits to show their relatives and to prove they had not been malingering.

I left mine behind.

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