I could feel the weather finally start to cool down. It was the first week of October but nearing 1pm the temperature inched towards 90 degrees. I slid on a pair of jeans and a light cardigan and rolled my bike out the front door. I rode slowly towards the center of town, as always marveling in the beauty around me.
As I passed the Dar Chebab where I work I casually looked over my left shoulder, checking for traffic on the deserted road and wondering what Abdelwahb’s family was making for lunch. I hadn’t visited their house in months and as I turned left thought about how excited I was to see them again.
The next thing I knew I was laying on the ground, my lungs burning and gasping for air. A small SUV sat parked twenty feet away from me, the driver still in his seat, unsure if he should get out or just drive away.
Slowly I put the pieces together. I had been hit by the car.
I looked down and realized I could barely feel my left leg. I tried to crawl out from under my bike which was laying on top of me. A crowd of men had already formed and were asking me questions in rapid fire – Do I want to call an ambulance? Do I want to go to the hospital? Do I want to call the police? Do I want to file a police report? – I answered none of them, shock still ringing in my ears and my lungs desperately searching for air.
With the help of two of the men I stood up and hobbled to the side of the road. Someone else found my shoes, which had flown off and scattered in the road, and brought them over to me. I asked for my phone and called my doctor from Peace Corps. She could barely hear me over the shock in my voice and the group of bystanders which had now amassed more than 20 people. I asked her if I should go to the local hospital (which I was explicitly instructed never to do). She said it was up to me. I asked if I should talk to the police. She said it was up to me.
Confused, and crying now, I hung up. The questions from the crowd continued. I didn’t know what to do.
I called my Moroccan dad, but he didn’t answer. Arabic failing me now, I needed someone to make decisions for me. I called one of my best friends, who coincidentally was in an accident in the very same spot just six months earlier, to come help me.
Ayoub arrived on the scene a few minutes later, out of breath as I was being led slowly into an ambulance by the local firefighters. I called another friend and told him to meet me at the hospital.
The emergency room was deserted on that sunny Sunday afternoon as Ayoub led me into the examination room. I was instructed to sit on the examination table and Ayoub was asked to leave. I slowly hoisted my leg onto the table and recalled my last and only other visit to a hospital in Morocco – the Hassan II Hospital in Agadir where Ayoub had surgery on his knee last spring after the accident.
Hassan II Hospital is notoriously known as the worst public hospital in Morocco. When I went to visit him his mom and I had to walk through blocks of rooms that almost looked like large jail cells. Ayoub’s section was dark, with floors that looked like they hadn’t been mopped in weeks. He was staying in a room with five other male patients with severe leg injuries. There was no nurse in sight and if he ever needed real assistance he often had to bribe someone with money to do so. He told me stories about how he had to hide his belongings because people would come in and steal them at night while they slept. He had been transferred there from our town’s hospital more than a week previously, and would have to wait more than another week to receive the surgery that would insert metal rods to repair his fractured knee.
As I pulled my own damaged leg on to the examination table at the Tata hospital, I couldn’t help but think of my friend who sat on the other side of the door and the horrible experiences he had gone through – yet knowing selfishly that if I had seriously injured my leg, I wouldn’t have to go through that. I would be rushed to a hospital in the capital or more likely, flown back to see doctors in America. In that moment the power of my privilege – my citizenship – hurt more than the leg I was unable to move.
Just then my friend Ilyas rushed into the room, panic-stricken and out of breath, interrupting my train of thought. As soon as he saw my face he breathed a sigh of relief while I consoled him – “I’m fine, I’m fine,” a motto I would stick to in the coming weeks while my limp persisted. He stated his purpose as my translator and refused to leave the room.
The nurse walked toward me and began applying red anti-bacterial ointment to the road rash cuts still bleeding on my knuckles and tops of my feet. He never washed them with soap and water. He then began to examine my leg. It had been crushed so hard between the car and the bars of my bike that the swelling was clear from across the room. It was so swollen that I couldn’t roll up my jeans above my ankle for him to examine the injury. He never asked me to change. He moved his hands across my calf and shin, over my jeans, never feeling my foot or above the knee. He stated what I believed to be true already – it wasn’t broken. Then he stepped away from the table and the exam was over.
He never asked if I had hit my head (I did). I was never given tests to check for a concussion. I was never given tests to check for internal injuries. No x-rays were taken. He never physically saw the injury to my lower leg, nor the bruising and cuts on my upper thigh.
The doctor sat on the other side of the room and never examined me. She only asked if I was up to date on my shots, prescribed pain medication, and gave us a serious attitude.
The whole encounter lasted less than ten minutes.
I received a call from Peace Corps the following afternoon requesting that I immediately make the more than sixteen hour journey to the capital. No Peace Corps contracted drivers were available that week so I had to make the entire journey via public transportation, further aggravating the severe swelling to my lower leg.
Upon arriving to Rabat thirty-six hours after the accident I was walking on my own, albeit slowly and with a noticeable limp. I had also developed severe whip lash pain in my neck that made it difficult for me to lift my head on my own. There, in Morocco’s capital city and in the care of Peace Corps, I received all of the tests my local hospital had neglected to give me. My head was checked for a concussion (negative). My body was checked for internal injuries (negative). I had more than ten x-rays taken of my neck, left leg, and left foot (all negative).
Everything came back clear. I was going to be okay.
I’m not writing this story to garner sympathy. I am not concerned about the status of my health care. I know that in the case of an emergency I would be given the best health care Morocco has to offer. In the case of an extreme accident I would be airlifted out. I would be flown to America. I never would have to go through what Ayoub did. I would never be taken to the Hassan II Hospital in Agadir. My citizenship guarantees that.
Someone asked me while I was visiting in America a few weeks ago what the hardest part of serving in the Peace Corps is. He asked me if it was hard to see things that I know I can’t change. This situation is exactly what he was asking about.
One of the cornerstones of being a Peace Corps Volunteer is learning to live just as your community members do. Sure, I speak the local language, I shop at the local markets, I work at the local centers with local women and youth. I eat the same food, drink the same water, live in the same type of house. I don’t have hot water or modern plumbing or air conditioning or indoor heat.
But I have disproportionately better health care. If I so much as cough funny Peace Corps will pay for me to go to the capital to be checked out by our doctors. I see a dentist once a year for a check-up. I know that in the case of strife I would be one of the first people out of the country and out of harm’s way.
My community members don’t have that.
If you’ve ever heard of Peace Corps Volunteers or humanitarians or aid workers talking about the guilt they feel – this is it. The harsh reality that we never will understand everything, never will be fully integrated, never will be just the same.
Because our privilege prevents it.
Over a month after the accident, I still feel butterflies in my stomach every time a car passes me. But it’s not because I’m afraid of getting hit again. I’m afraid one of my friends or one of my students or one of my neighbors will.