By now, I have no doubt that everyone has heard about Jeddah’s Black Wednesday. I am sure that everyone has read the reports, seen the pictures and watched the videos that tell of a tragedy which is unparalleled in our city’s history. The city was flooded by the heaviest rain it witness in 3 decades.
The official death count of 109 people including many children and women is a clear underestimation of the actual numbers according to many sources. Hundreds are missing and thousands of homes, stores and vehicles have been gravely damaged.
I’m not going to address the causes of this tragedy that could only be described as shameful and a disgrace in such a country and in such a city with this much potential and available resources. King Abdullah’s recently issued royal decree is everything we need.
If you open any local newspaper you will find at least 10 articles and 10 columnists discussing this incident. However, I want to voice out a personal opinion of mine as a physician that hasn’t been expressed yet by someone else, at least to my knowledge.
On Saturday, December 5, all house officers, residents and senior doctors are supposed to come back to work at KAUH. It’s true that the hospital has been evacuated and there is only a minimal number of patients in the wards and ICU units. However, that does not mean by anyway that we should not come to the hospital.
When reports surfaced that rain is expected during this weekend and on Saturday and Sunday, I’ve been getting calls from many fellow house officers, medical students and family members inquiring about the state of the hospital as I have worked for 2 days there after the crisis. Everyone is scared and fearful for his/her own life which is their given right but I noticed something else.
Many people have been trying to pressure me into not going to the hospital and into not going to my scheduled on-calls. Those include close friends and family members who kept telling me don’t you fear for your life? What if something happened? What if floods happened all over again and you were stuck in the hospital? This past Wednesday when I was on-call there was a small shower of rain there near the hospital at noon and immediately everyone was thinking of going back home and telling me to leave.
Being stuck at the hospital during that time of crisis is where I want to be. Staying at home and being idle doesn’t suit me. My family went crazy when I said I wanted to go to the hospital in the second day after the floods to offer any assistance I can. I would have gone but those I knew within the hospital told me that it’s not easily accessible so I didn’t but I so damn wanted to go.
It is during those times that we, as doctors, should be at hospitals and clinics. We shouldn’t be the first ones to flee the ship when it’s sinking! We shouldn’t abandon our workplaces. I have seen and heard of many fellow doctors who wouldn’t come to work for fear that something might happen using the excuse that there’s nothing to do at the moment. But when something happens and there’s a need for physicians, the hospital will be empty, unprepared and inaccessible because we, the ones who are supposed to help others, decided to help ourselves only. I’m not saying that it is somewhat understandable though.
I guess it’s just a personal choice depending on your own beliefs. You could be the one trying to save lives and to cure the ill albeit the danger or you could be the one fleeing the ship to safety and no one will blame you because it’s your right too.
That was the first break of many to follow. Too many broken promises, too many prayers to make things right, too many apologies and tears, too many sleepless nights, too much pain, guilt and swallowed pride had had their toll on us. We still loved each other. We wanted to fix things between us badly but wanting to fix things is not enough if you do not know how and we did not.
We were on our second break when the 6th year’s finals started. I locked myself in my room and did not go out unless I had to. I burned myself studying. It was the only thing left that I had control over. I was determined to prove to everyone that the crutch I depended on did not hold me back. I was going to become a good physician and nothing would stop me from achieving that. In the middle of the exams, Layla sent me a short message asking how I was doing and I replied with a shorter one saying that I was fine. When the exams were over, a strange sense of emptiness conquered me. A part of my life was over and it made me feel hollow. I had replaced my family, friends and even Layla with mute books and now it seemed even books were abandoning me.
Do you know what it feels like talking to an old friend whom you had lost touch with a long time ago? Even though you used to be close and you share many fond memories together, somehow you do not know where to begin or how to pick up from where you had left. The once friend has turned into a stranger. I called Layla the night I was done with my exams and that is how I felt. It felt weird asking her about work and her family in general. Our words were precise and short. We were simply polite towards each other as if the call was an obligation. For the first time I remember in our relationship, I did not have much to say to her. Ten minutes later, we hung up and sadly, I was relieved we did.
A week later when our results were posted, I found out I had finished 7th on my class which is a huge achievement. I called Layla immediately to tell her the news. “At least the month in which you completely ignored me paid off,” she said. We had an argument over the phone and I hung up on her. After such a thing, no achievement would have a taste or a meaning. Friends called to congratulate me and I was not in festive mood anymore. That night, my family put together a small celebration for me. I felt neither proud nor joyful.
“I’m going to Egypt tomorrow with my family. I need to get away for a while,” she said. I knew what she could not say. She needed to get away from us, from me. I told her to enjoy her time and that we will talk when she gets back in a couple of months. I was going to Dubai myself with my family so we both hoped that the time and distance would help us clear a few things.
In Dubai, I went berserk on my mother one day. My brother and sister wanted to go to Wild Wadi, an aqua park, but she refused to let them go because I was not capable of accompanying them. “Your big brother can’t go so you’re not going, too. It will upset him if you two went without him,” she had told them. I yelled at her, “If I’m going through shit then I will go through it alone. Others don’t have to. Noor and Badr shouldn’t suffer because of me. It’s enough the amount of things they endure for my sake. You need to stop worrying about me and then letting out your frustrations on someone else. I try to avoid you when I’m not feeling alright but then you come and while you’re trying to make it better, you make it worse.” I stormed out of the hotel room. I came back later and apologized but the damage was done.
When Layla came back from Egypt, I had started my internship. We tried to resume our dysfunctional relationship. Things kept going down hill. Layla was content on remaining the passively hurting part with occasional outbursts of anger while I continued being the aggressive attacker. She waited for a sincere apology that will take effect in my actions towards her but hollow words were all I offered.
Our families tried to help us. In the beginning, they served as a good diffuser for us and we liked having them around. However, eventually, we started dragging them into our arguments and they did not appreciate that. We used them as fuel, weapons and armors in our fights. Our friends tried to help us too but it was something we had to fix ourselves.
We tried to survive on memories of a better time but how long can you do that? At first, it makes you think what a shame it would be to throw something as beautiful as what we once had away and therefore you try to make things right again but after some time and failed attempts, it becomes a cause of hurt and disappointment. Looking back at what we used to be and comparing it to what we had become. How did we get here? We would ask ourselves over and over again. The hurt and disappointment are only made worse when the contrast between the past and the present is so obvious, so heart wrenching.
The final straw that broke the camel’s back was when I started smoking. Layla would not have it. “Since when do you smoke?” she asked me, shocked, when she found the pack of cigarettes in my car. “Over a month now,” I told her. “When were you intending to let me know?” I shrugged and did not answer. I told her that a few cigarettes a day do not make me a smoker but she said that one is as good as an entire pack as far as she is concerned. I do not really recall why I started smoking to tell you the truth. I had just gotten out from a long tiring shift when I met a friend of mine smoking outside the hospital. I asked him for a cigarette. “But you don’t smoke,” he said, surprised. “I do now,” I told him. It burned my mouth and I did not like its taste. Nevertheless, I finished it. I liked the way it made me feel.
Nine months of my internship had passed then. A few days later, Layla’s father called me and asked me to meet him at their house the next day. I went, not knowing what to expect. The entire time my relationship with Layla was deteriorating, he did not get directly involved. He simply remained distant. He watched from afar waiting for her to turn to him and admit that she was indeed wrong and that perhaps I was a mistake in the end.
“Son, I think you and Layla should leave each other for good,” he said. Just like that. Without any introductions, without any warnings or signs of any kind, he threw this bomb at me. I blinked my eyes then opened them wide in disbelief. “What?” I said, thinking that maybe my ears had fooled me. “You heard me. I had spoken to Layla and convinced her that this is the best thing to do. I watched you torture my daughter for over a year now and I won’t let you do that anymore. Do you have any idea how many times you have upset her and made her cry? Do you have any idea how unhappy she is? I hardly ever hear her laughing from her heart like she used to. She is a bright spirit but you crushed her soul. Her only fault is that she loves you. Do you think you’re the only one who suffers? Trust me. She feels the pain you feel if not more. I had a bad feeling about you from the very first day. I didn’t know why but I had a hunch that you’ll make my daughter miserable and time proved me right.
You are both still young and it would be a shame for you to destroy each other’s chances of happiness in the future. I will not sit and watch my daughter spend her days in agony over something that is not worth it. She deserves the happiness you obviously can’t offer her. So if you truly care for her, you have to let her go.”
Each word he said felt like a stone being thrown at me, like a dagger being inserted into my flesh. I did not know what to say. I did not know how to respond. “I need to speak to Layla,” I said. He stood up and called for her. “She’ll be down in a minute,” he said and went upstairs, leaving me alone with my thoughts. “You should leave each other for good.” His words were still echoing in my head. Even though Layla and I did not have a wedding yet, we were technically married. He means divorce. He wants me to divorce Layla. People terminated Melkas all the time but I never realized how hard it could be until I was faced with that option. “Divorcing Layla,” I kept repeating that sentence in my head.
I saw Layla coming down the stairs slowly. There was a blank look in her eyes as if she was lost in another world. She sat in front of me and stared at the floor. “Do you know what your father just told me? Do you agree with what he said?” I asked. She did not say a word and just took a deep breath. I tapped on the table with my fingers. It was an unbelievingly uncomfortable situation. “So now what? Do you want us to part then? Is that what you think we should do?” I asked. She kept staring at the floor not saying anything. “Layla, say something,” I pleaded. “I’m tired,” she said then sighed before continuing, “I’m tired of you. I’m tired of me. I’m tired of us. I’m tired of fighting all the time. I’m tired of pain. I’m tired of unhappiness. Do you understand me? I’m tried and I don’t know what to do anymore.” She lifted her head and her eyes met mine for a second before she looked away. There were frozen tears in her eyes.
I knew what she wanted and needed. That was my cue, my sign to rise up to the occasion. She wanted me to take her into my arms. She wanted me to promise her that everything was going to be all right. She wanted me to fight for her, to stand up and say that I am not giving up on us that easily. She wanted me to give her hope that we can still make it through. She wanted me to put together her broken soul. She wanted me to apologize and make up for all the mistakes I have done. She wanted me to be the man she fell in love with a long time ago. She wanted me to say I loved her.
I took a long look at her then closed my eyes so I do not see her face. “Maybe we should go our separate ways. I’m sorry,” I said.
I spent two nights at the hospital before going home. The physiotherapist had taught me how to use the crutches, which I will need to aid me walk hopefully only until the next month at the most if all goes well. The first couple of weeks after the surgery were of the most gruesome weeks of my life. The pain was constant and I counted the hours between the doses of painkillers prescribed to me. I could barely move the first week. I needed help when I had to go to the bathroom. I felt weak and completely dependent on others. I hated that. However, there was a silver lining to that dark cloud; you cannot help feeling loved when so many people come to your house carrying gifts and wishes of well being to you. Two old friends of mine whom I had lost contact with through the years found out by chance and came to visit me. My best friends took turns spending time with me. There was always someone with me in my room to keep me company and I appreciated that more than anyone could imagine.
Layla was my anchor throughout these tough first weeks. The night I went home, even though I was in excruciating pain, I was happy that Layla was going to spend the night at our house. She never did before. Of course, her mother had a condition, Layla has to sleep with my sister in her room but she and we knew that was not what was going to happen but she said it anyway. Layla slept on the sofa in my room because she could not sleep next to me out of fear she might accidentally hit my leg in her sleep or something. I could not sleep from the pain but looking at her angelic face was my morphine. It made the pain fade away a little every once in a while.
A week after the surgery, my rehabilitation and physiotherapy program started. I went to the hospital four times a week for horrendous two hours every time. I was trying my best to improve as fast as possible. I also had a concurrent schedule of home exercises to support my physiotherapy sessions. I felt progression every time but apparently, it was slower than expected. My first moment of fear was three weeks after the program had started when the physiotherapist, Robert, frowned during an exercise in which I am supposed to bend my knee all I could and he would measure the maximum angle of flexion. He said, “Is that all you could bend? Try harder.” I told him that I could not bend it anymore because the pain was killing me. I felt my entire body in stress trying to increase the angle but I could not. He told me that I should be able to bend my knee more than that by now but that it is still not a reason to worry then we switched to another exercise. The next day, I met with the surgeon who had performed the operation and he examined me. My knee was still swollen and he instructed me to keep taking my medications and continue with physiotherapy.
Two months later, the pain was still present, and I could not stop using the crutch. I only needed one then instead of two. I could not bend my knee to full flexion without feeling the pain rising from within. I could not walk for more than fifteen minutes without feeling the pain rising, too. I became careful with my movement. I could no longer run or carry heavy things. I could no longer drive, stand or walk for long periods of time. Anything that put the slightest pressure on my knee was forbidden to me. I saw a different doctor who requested new X-Rays and an MRI but he could not tell what the exact cause of my pain was, neither could he treat it. The pain was not as bad as it used to be but it was always there, constantly present and exacerbating intermittingly. I would be fine for a few days then without a warning, without any reason whatsoever, I would feel a strike of electrical current in my knee and the mind numbing pain would begin. It usually lasted for half an hour before it went away after taking my pain pills and applying ice packs to my knee.
“Just give it time. Be patient. Inshallah it will get better,” Layla said. “It’s been three months already. I’m tired of waiting and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to get better any time soon. I’ve been to two other doctors now and none could figure out what’s wrong. I’ve done everything they asked me to do. I never missed a single dose of medication. I followed the physiotherapy program fully. I was the most compliant patient a doctor could ask for but my knee still hurts. School starts next week. What am I supposed to do?” I almost yelled at her.
My 6th year, the most important one of my entire study, was going to start and I was walking around with a crutch. I knew well enough that no matter how hard I would try, there will be some limitations to what I can do and learn and I feared it would affect my education not to mention my grades. Everyone kept telling me to give it more time and I hated that. I was running out of time. I was getting tired and impatient. Everyone had some sort of brilliant advice to help me through and I was not ready to listen to anyone anymore. “Pray and ask God to heal it,” my mom said when she heard my voice rising in the living room once. Layla concurred, “Yeah you should. You even stopped praying some time ago and that’s not good.” My knee had started throbbing with pain and therefore I snapped at both of them saying, “I can’t even bend my knee to pray. I don’t want to use a stupid chair when I pray anymore. This wasn’t my choice. I did not ask for it. I did not wish this to myself. You go pray if you want. I’m not going to.” I went into my room and shut the door leaving them with stunned faces.
Showing up with a crutch when school started made me a hot topic. Everyone who did not know about the accident kept asking me what happened and those who had heard about it kept asking me how my knee was. It was obviously a good conversation starter in everyone’s mind and I was getting sick of it. I did not want to retell the story every time over and over again so eventually I ignored any question regarding my knee or the accident and many thought I was being cold or arrogant but I could not care less. I also snapped whenever someone said that he or she understood how hard it must be for me. I would tell them that they do not understand shit about what I am going through. People started calling me Dr. House, who is the main character in a TV show, around the hospital because I became famous with my crutch and bad temper. The smallest of things easily triggered me and therefore I tried to keep my distance from others by constantly burying my nose in whatever medical book I had with me. It actually helped me get ahead in our competitive field and the doctors easily recognized me and admired my knowledge. I never let the pain or the crutch stop me. I pushed myself harder than I should have probably and ignored the pain whenever it came. I simply gritted my teeth and took more painkillers. I pretended to be fine in front of the doctors and did not complain so they do not consider it a sign of weakness. My friends kept telling me to take it easy and that it was not wise what I was doing to myself but I did not listen. All of my attention was focused on medicine. I felt as if it was the only thing that I had left and so I had to excel in it. The pain was getting worse every day.
Layla had the worst deal of everyone else. My family and friends suffered from my bizarre change of character but she suffered the most. I snapped at her whenever she said something I did not like no matter how insignificant it might be. I yelled at her for things that were not her fault. I ignored her for days and would not return her calls. I sent her on guilt trips telling her that she was the cause of the accident. I resented her at times when she was too good of a person to sink to my level and counter my attacks. I made her cry and hurt her more than the coldest heart in this universe would hurt an enemy. I hated myself every time I said a word that hurt her feelings or raised my voice at her. I loathed myself. I tried to understand why on earth I was doing that but I could not figure it out. Why, of all people, would I hurt Layla? I kept asking myself. Not everyone is blessed to have such an angel in their lives but here I was breaking this angel’s wings and pushing her away. I kept promising myself every moment of day and night that the next time is going to be different but whenever pain traveled through my nerves, I felt myself turning into the devil again and I would do exactly what I had sworn I would not do just a few minutes ago. I guess we hurt the ones who love us the most because they let us. That love will make up excuses on our behalf and those who love us will believe these excuses regardless of our actions. This vicious cycle that was sabotaging our relationship was a reason for me to try to stay away from Layla. I started telling her every time she called that I was busy, that I had studying to catch up on and other plainly false excuses.
Before the accident, I used to go for a late night jog in the path behind the Hilton Hotel whenever I got frustrated, angry or distressed. It was my safety valve for negative emotions but I no longer had that and therefore things just accumulated inside of me and started blowing up any minute and those who were closest to me the most, got hurt the most. That is not to say that Layla and I did not have some good times because we did. When my brother, Badr, graduated from high school, he applied for medical college. We celebrated when we learned that he was accepted. Layla’s brother, Yasser, surprisingly, proposed to a girl named Shaima’a who went to the University of Birmingham with him and we were happy for him. The difference was that this year, you could actually count the good times rather than the bad ones. Most of that year is tainted by something that I have done. Guilt was probably one of the most prominent feelings during that period of my life. It ate me up inside every day and I could only feed it more by the actions that caused it in the first place. I longed to break free for some time, be alone and fix myself just enough for me to function as a normal human being rather than the angry bitter jerk I had become.
I hated feeling sorry for myself and repeatedly told myself that there are many in this world who are less fortunate than I am and I should be thankful instead of sorrowful but I could not help it. I remember once in Prince Sultan Street, I saw an old man who had no legs and a missing arm, too. He smiled at me and said Alhamdellah after he thanked me when I reached to give him 20 Riyals. I despised myself. This man is smiling and I cannot find it in me to be happy. He is saying Alhamdellah and I am not. I promised myself that this was the last day I feel sorry for myself. That promise did not last for long because a week later, Layla, I and my family went to Java Lounge which we had not been to ever since the accident. Layla was quick to say let’s sit downstairs. I refused and insisted that we go sit upstairs at our usual table. The stairs took me a long time to climb up with my crutch and I felt as if everyone was staring but I was determined. I was in a lot of pain when we finally reached the table and sat down. I cursed silently.
Layla was getting fed up and who could blame her? She started to yell back at me sometimes. She started creating some distance between us from her side. She was getting tired. She had every right to. She was an angel while I was the devil incarnated. She did everything I could ever ask for to help me without me even asking. She was patient and understanding. She was loving and caring. She was more than I deserve. The better she was to me, the more I resented her and resented myself.
A few days following a big fight we had, I was at Layla’s house in a poor attempt to fix things between us. We agreed to go out and so I called the driver and told him to start the car. It still was not easy for me to ride with a driver every time I wanted to go somewhere but I was beginning to get used to it. On our way out, my mobile phone fell on the floor and I reached to get it. I could not. I leaned on my good knee and extended my arm to get it when, I do not know how, I lost balance suddenly and my right knee hit the floor and I felt the pain exploding in my brain. I cursed and stood up grasping my knee in my hands and noticed that I still did not pick the phone. I reached for it again when Layla said, “Wait! Let me get it for you.” I do not know what possessed me to yell at her, “Don’t treat me as if I’m fucking crippled. I’m not. I’m completely capable of getting the stupid phone off the floor myself.” She looked at me with the burning hurt look in her eyes that I am too familiar with and I could not take it anymore. I felt it piercing my skin and making holes in my soul. “Don’t look at me that way. I can’t stand it. I’m sorry if I got into a stupid accident and screwed my knee for good. It’s my fault I can’t even pick a fucking phone off the floor. What do you want me to do? Out of all people, you shouldn’t treat me with pity. It’s annoying as hell,” I yelled again. A small tear was forming in the corner of her eye that made me despise myself. Heavy silence ruled then. The silence that has an actual physical weight you feel pressing on your chest. We just stood there staring at the walls avoiding each other’s eyes. “I think we need a break from each other, at least for some time,” I finally said. She did not say anything and that itself expressed her agreement. I walked past her and slammed the door behind me.
That night, I went for a run for the first time in nearly eight months. I ran until I fell on the ground scraping my palms in the process. I started crying then and there from the overwhelming pain. I could not tell which pain was more sever though, my knee’s or my heart’s.