January 14, 2007

When my British friend Colin moved to New York, the first thing I gave him was what every New Yorker needs: a list of good doctors and their phone numbers. My GP, dentist, chiropractor, ophthalmologist. The basics.

When I first got to London, what did people give me? An A-Z. How does that help? I'll be dead before I can locate a hospital on one of those maps.
So. Over the holidays, I came down with a very bad cold. Or, as I saw it, bird flu. Possibly even worse. Not having a doctor of my own in London, I called my friend Sam and asked for the name of hers. "It's not like in America, where everyone has their own doctor," she said. "You have to be registered."

I quickly discovered the choices in the UK were limited. I could walk to the local clinic and maybe they'd see me, but as it was Boxing Day, chances are they'd be closed. Or I could go to A&E. My symptoms were getting worse.

I called another friend and when she heard my voice she was concerned and suggested I see a doctor. "Do you have one?" I asked. She didn't. What was going on? All I wanted was the name of a doctor I could call and make an appointment, like a normal person.

Maybe Colin could help. He was back in the UK. "Call NHS Direct," he said, "and tell them you're not a UK citizen but that you need medical attention." Clearly, nobody had ever asked him this question before.

I took matters into my own hands and went to the neighbourhood pharmacy. I told the pharmacist I was sick and he asked me questions like was my phlegm yellow or green? Finally, a productive conversation.

He offered a variety of products I'd never heard of, such as Betadine antiseptic iodine gargle for throat infections. There were lots of "antis" on the label: anti-viral, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal. Loved it. Olbas Oil, an inhalant and decongestant, Robitussin cough syrup, Redoxon Double Action vitamin C with zinc, Tyrozets antibiotic throat lozenges, etc. I got them all. I purchased more items in one visit than most Brits will buy their entire lives.

As soon as I got back to the flat, I opened up all my boxes of medications. It was my version of Christmas morning. I set them up and the kitchen resembled a chemistry lab. But there was a problem. On the directions for the Betadine gargle, it said to dilute 10ml with water. 10ml? How much is that? Not wanting to overdose, I called the pharmacist. "I'm not sure if you remember me, but I just bought a bunch of items..." "I know who you are," he said. "The American."

Precisely. Once I had his attention, I asked if he thought it would be okay if I continued with the Lemsip even though it said on the label that people with Raynaud's disease should seek medical attention. "Have you felt any loss of feeling in your fingertips?" he asked. I felt them. They weren't tingly - yet. "What if it's a delayed reaction?" He said if that happened, to call a doctor.

Later I called NHS Direct and they recommended a hospital walk-in service 2.9 miles away, in Hammersmith. So I used the map. I had my 10 minutes with a doctor. But it took an e-mail from my doctor in New York to make me feel better. Not because of the medical advice: that was secondary. That he wrote back was enough.