When my parents went to the States to fundraise, they would leave me to hold down the fort in Sofia. On one such parental trip, my cell phone rang--an odd occurrence. It was Petko, who had semi-officially taken over the Rakovitsa church after Ivan got kicked out for accepting bribes from political figures (a car and perhaps a keyboard from the King’s party) to sway the congregation their way.
“Andrew!” he began, out of breath, and then proceeded to tell me the story of a child. A recent birth from a couple in their church had come with severe complications, and the child had had one operation and was waiting on a second, but needed some special medicine not available in Bulgaria and my parents were in the States so couldn’t they please do something to help?
As far as I got, it was spinal bifada, and possibly hydrocephaly. Petko didn’t actually say the words for either of those conditions, it just sounded like it based on the description, which came to me via the telephone game: the doctor to the couple in their second language, they to Petko in everyone’s native language, then finally Petko to me in his and my second language on a cell with a bad connection.
It caught me by surprise, but I thought to ask: what is this medicine that they need? “It’s one of four things,” he replied in a rush. “Any of them will do--I’ll send you the names!”
Really? I thought. Fucking really? The doctor can think of four separate things that will work and none of them are available? It’s not the nineties anymore, you can get stuff, and if there’s four different things that work then surely he can think of a fifth that they actually have in-country rather than pulling the asshole move of telling poverty-stricken gypsies from a small-town ghetto that their mortally ill child desperately needs something from abroad. “Okay”, I said, “look--there’s a couple issues here. America isn’t like Bulgaria. You can’t just go to the drug store and buy whatever you want. I don’t know what these are, but they might not be available in America (he had mentioned they were French), and if they are my parents might not be able to buy them. Also: America has funny rules about what you as a private citizen can ship (thanks, Canadian Internet pills!) and it’s not actually legal to ship a lot of medicines. They’re also travelling and I don’t know when they’ll be able to get to this, but even if they drop what they’re doing and go to a drugstore tomorrow, and even if the drugstore has these meds, and even if it’s legal to buy them, and even if it’s legal to ship them, then it will still take time to get here and be really expensive--”
“We’ll pay whatever they spend!”
“--Yes, but there’s still the time--”
“Whenever they can!”
“--Listen! Your best bet is to go back to the doctor--or to go to a different doctor!--and to ask him for something that is available in-country. Got that? If it’s as urgent as you’re making it sound, then shipping from the States isn’t the best option even if it’s possible. You need to go to the doctor and demand something that’s available here.”
“Okay, I’m sorry that--”
“We’re counting on you, Andrew!” he said as he hung up, his voice actually sighing in gratitude and relief. Fuck me, how do I always get involved in this shit? You’re counting on me. Great. Try listening to me instead. Now I was actually kinda proud of that response, because I had gotten this out-of-the-blue phonecall with the breathless insinuation that I was all that stood between a newborn babe and certain death, and had still managed to tell them the best thing that I could have told them.
Well I wrote the parents, and they didn’t write back. They were travelling, and between the nonstop running about and the staying with older friends who only sorta knew how the wifi worked and the schmoozing and their own medical stuff, they almost never checked their email while in the States. It was too early their time to call, and their weird schedule also meant that they had a knack for either not charging their phone or for turning it off and forgetting it. I eventually got in touch and they promised to look into it, but couldn’t promise much. In the meantime I took the list down to my pharmacy and asked the girl if she had ever heard of any of them; she gave me the sort of look normally reserved for elderly relatives’ Facebook politicking; I took this as a ‘no’ and made some face-saving remark as I headed out the door.
For the next week Petko called me nearly nonstop: “I’ve passed along the message, there’s nothing else I can do, I’ll call you as soon as … yes, I have your number … the one you’re calling me from right now, I can see it if I pull the phone away from my ear … look the best thing really is to go back to that doctor, or to a different one, and to--”
“We’re counting on you, Andrew!” *click*
I eventually found out what the “medicine” actually was: a dietary supplement/super-power formula, basically to fatten the kid up for the next operation. Mindboggling: all the kid needed was nutrition, and the doctor tells these panicking, uneducated parents that only this stupid French formula will work? And they go out of their minds--and nearly drive me out of mine--trying to find it? Truly his dickery knows no bounds, and this was compounded by the Bulgarian attitude towards medicine. It’s not like the States, where people go off their antibiotics the first afternoon they perk up. No, in Bulgaria, you have to take the medicine. Even if it’s two weeks later and it was an antihistamine and you’re no longer stuffed up, the doctor said ‘Take it!’ and buddy you gotta take it. So when the doctor pulled this French bullshit? That was the sole possible and magically efficacious cure for their dying child.
After about a week M&D called up to say that they were heading back to Tennessee, and they would try to work something out with [a doctor friend] to see if she could get access to this stuff and possibly ship it over. By that time I was thoroughly disillusioned with the whole affair--not only in my own power to actually obtain the “medicine” in question, but in the likelihood that doing so would actually affect the situation in any way. Still, it was something.
Then the next day Petko called and said the kid died. So … nevermind, I guess. “But thank you for your help,” he added. Sure. Lay it on. Why not.
The parents called back to confirm something-or-other about the situation: “The kid died, so … don’t worry about it,” I said.
“Oh,” they said.
And then we proceeded to the next item of business.