September 28, 2007

A Simple Task

One of the jobs I do at the clinic is find a person’s medical record so the nurse can review it when it’s the patient’s turn to be seen. Easy job, right? Just ask the patient their name, go over to our alphabetized 5 by 8 index cards, pull the record, hand it over, and move on.

It might be easy if this was Canada or the U.S. or England or any place where people had names I was familiar with like “John Smith” or “Jennifer White.” I could probably even handle Spanish or French or German names with a little practice.

But everything becomes much harder in Xhosa. For one thing, when I ask someone their name, it just rolls of their tongue so fast I can barely tell what was the first name and what was the surname. (I quickly learned the word for “surname” in Xhosa so I could ask them to repeat just that.) And Xhosa names all seem to be a minimum of eight syllables long. And they all start with either M or N, even when it sounds like they start with another letter. (We have 8 drawers of index card records and 4 are solely for the Ms and Ns.) So, for instance, the last name that sounds to my ear like DAH-mass is actually spelled N-D-A-M-A-S-E. And then many names, of course, have clicks so I have to decide if it sounded like an “x,” a “c,” or a “q” click (and if it was a diphthong, like “gc) and insert that into my mental spelling of the name.

Most of the patients are, well, patient with our attempts to get their names and most of them can write their own name so when all else fails I just give them pen and paper. Still, it is not uncommon for me to ask a patient’s name 6 or 10 times before I find it and I generally count that a success.

The other day, for the first time ever, I found a patient’s card and he only had to tell me his name once. I was ecstatic.