Nightmare in Jambi
Story and Photo Published in Dateline Bangkok 1st Quarter 1998; The Nation (Bkk) October 29, 1997
Author’s note: In 1997 Indonesia was in chaos, it’s economy at rock bottom and the country facing disintegration. Today it is a shinning beacon of democracy in the region with a free and lively press, and a thriving economy. Its arts and music among the best in the world.
FCCT Prez Philippe Decaux had an unexpected brush with death in October when he traveled to the smoke-shrouded Indonesia island of Sumatra. Covering the ongoing haze crisis brought on by thousands of forest and bushfires set by plantation workers and developers, Don Philippe, 57, was accompanied by ace Bangkok-based freelancer Kim Gooi. The following is a firsthand account of el presidente’s ordeal as told by Mssrs. Gooi and Decaux…
Philippe and I arrive in Jambi on the evening of October 3. The whole town is enveloped in thick pungent smoke. Even the lobby of the Novotel where we stay is filled with a film of haze. It is an unbelievable sight. Like a horror movie, daylight has been blocked out for months, visibility at times is just 20 feet. The untold damage done to human and animal Iives, birds and insects driven away by the pungent smoke must be staggering. This man-made disaster is something the world has not seen before on this scale. Unlike a horror movie. the inhabitants are walking about and doing their business as if nothing has happened. And the people we talk to say the government has not done anything to help.
Philippe is having difficulty in breathing.
“I could not sleep a wink last night. I need oxygen to breathe,” he tells us the next morning.
“Please get me a doctor and oxygen tank.”
When he steps or lifts something with his hands he is breathless and about to collapse, he says.
Anthony, the French manager of the hotel is informed of the emergency but no doctor nor ambulance turn up the whole day. Philippe sits on the edge of the bed unable even to lie down the whole day and waits in vain. Towards evening when we approach the front desk. We are told that the hospital has no vehicle or ambulance so the doctor cannot come. The hotel has dispatched a car to bring the doctor, the front manager says.
At 8 p.m. Dr. Sentosos and nurse Megawati arrive with an oxygen tank. They begin to take Philippe’s blood pressure but the equipment is faulty and the young doctor from the military hospital telephones for a replacement. It is another half hour before the equipment is brought in. Philippe’s blood pressure reads 180. He has to be admitted to the hospital, the doctor says.
A long discussion ensues. The hotel room with its air conditioning is the safest and cleanest place in town. Philippe has a fear of a primitive, Third World hospital in this backwater. Can a saline drip and more oxygen and a nurse be brought to look after him in the hotel room? No, it cannot be done.
Finally Phillipe alone has to decide to go and take the risk or stay in the hotel room and go without treatment. The doctor assures Phillipe he’ll put him in a spacious air conditioned room in the general hospital.
Reluctantly Philippe agrees. His premonition turns out true.
From the frying pan…
“I am going to die .. .! can’t breathe, please, please … ah ah!”
Pandemonium and panic breaks out in the car as it speeds through the darkened smog-filled streets of Jambi toward the hospital.
Seated in the middle row of the fourwheel drive and sandwiched between a nurse and a hospital assistant is don Philippe, pulling at the oxy¬gen mask and grasping for air.
Three guys are in the back row struggling with the oxygen tank. I am in the front seat beside the driver. I turn around put my hand on his lap, the nurse and assistant stare silently, there is nothing they could do.
“Please, please … oh please!” Philippe heaves as he gasps for air. His eyes bulge and his face turns paler and paler. He pulls out the oxygen mask.
“(I can’t breathe. I am going to die … please … ” His eyes roll backwards and his struggles slows and then silence, except for his heaving and pounding heart we could almost hear.
“We should have listened to him and treated him at the hotel room,” I tell the nurse. She looks concerned and nods in sympathy.
The 10 km. drive from the hotel to the hospital seems like an eternity. To make matters worse, the car hits an army truck full of Indonesian soldiers at a road junction. Someone shouts, “don’t stop, speed on, they are in the wrong.”
The emergency room at the hospital is barren except for two oxygen tanks and a patient’s bed. Two young assistants in civilian cloths, a couple of elderly guys, two nurses and a couple of people crowd around. They want to lift Philippe onto the bed. I tell them not to because he can only breath while sitting up. Philippe’s face turns sheet white, his finger tips turn purple, his mouth foaming.
A saline drip is administered. They take his pressure, it register 200. A nurse lift his oxygen mask and wipe the foam from his mouth. It is more than 10 minutes before an elderly bespectacled doctor appears. He takes another blood pressure, it shoots up to 210 – a very dangerous level where the patient usually suffers a heart attack.
The doctor puts a wire socket on his darkened index finger tip and reads the cardiograph. A nurse gives an injection on his left arm followed by the doctor who injects on the right arm. The doctor says nothing. When asked, he says wait for 10 minutes before the medicine takes effect. I am asked to go to the front desk to sign some forms and pay admittance fee. The color of Philippe’s face slowly comes to life, his breathing becomes more regular and slowly he opens his eyes.
Philippe is wheeled into a huge air-conditioned room, double the size of a presidential suite.
Recalls Philippe: “If my breath had been working, I could have roller-skated around the damn room. It was so big, it must have been waiting for some government official, with extra furniture, faxes, phones, secretaries, the works. But there was no ‘homo importantis’ to be seen in this haze-stricken area, so the room was bare of any de luxe items. So was the bathroom, equipped with a bathtub filled with stale water, to the great joy of a whole colony of mosquitoes breeding without fear of the haze just waiting for our blood.”
In the corner there is a bed for the overnight helper, Indah, who introduces herself as a nurse from another hospital. She advises us to hire her brother to look after Philippe since the call bell doesn’t work and in the middle of the night someone has to fetch the nurse in case of an emergency. Yanto. the brother, stays up the whole night, the drip has to be refilled, the oxygen refitted, as Philippe drifts in and out of sleep and severe coughing throughout the night. Asthma and bronchitis have set in and complicated his illness.
The next morning, Sunday, the nurses bring a TV into the room. It is ABRI (Indonesian Armed Forces) anniversary day and all morning parade after parade, showing President Suharto and his generals, are telecast live from Jakarta.
Indah brings a prescription, saying it is from the doctor. The patient needs an injection of ‘solu mandro.’ she says, but there is none in stock in the hospital. She says it is for asthma, to ease the breathing of the patient. Her brother Yanto can go to the drug store downtown to buy it. I give the brother 50,000 rupiah. Two hours later Yanto comes back saying all the shops are closed. In the evening a nurse says yes, they have the medicine in the store and she brings it. It is stamped I Oct. but the year is missing.
“At night,” says Philippe, “two new nurses come to visit, or rather see if there is any benefit to be gained from the ‘orang puteh’ (white man). Noticing the clouds of mosquitoes, one of the nurses asks, “You want Baygon?'”
We have to get out, the sooner the better. The quickest way is to drive two hours to Kuala Tunggal and take a four-hour boat to Batam and then a forty minute boat ride to Singapore. But the sea breeze is bad for the asthma, we are told. Jambi airport has been closed for months. The other alternative is to drive five hours south to Palembang, hoping to get a flight to Singapore or Jakarta. With the poisonous smoke around and terrible hospital it is very dangerous for Philippe to remain in Jambi.
All Sunday, I have asked the hospital for an ambulance, oxygen tank and a nurse to accompany the patient for the drive to Palembang. The answer is no, there is no oxygen tank and no ambulance and no nurse to spare. Bujang, a male nurse from the military hospital who helped bring Phillipe to the hospital comes to visit. I request his help to get a driver. oxygen and ask him to accompany us. He says he will try but it will be nine in the night before he could return with the answer.
Towards evening word must have gone around. A nurse says she can get the ambulance and get us to Palembang but we have to pay for two nurses at 300.000 rupiah each (an astronomical amount) and then the other costs. I tell her I got Bujang to arrange it now and he will be back soon. “No, no, his ambulance and ours is the same”, the nurse says. Of course it is a lie. Bujang comes back at about eight, together with a driver and announces proudly that he got everything arranged and we can leave at dawn.
The hospital nurse dashes into the room and discussion ensue between Bujang and the hospital ‘mafia.’ Soon Bujang and his friend leave in a huff. It is obvious that Bujang has been told to layoff and not to meddle in their territory.
Evacuation to Palembang
Mon 6 Oct 1997, we leave Jambi at six in the morning with saline drip, oxygen tanks and two nurses. Philippe is worried whether he can make it and survive because he did not sleep a wink last night. The drip was leaking and blood stains are allover the bed sheet and the pillow. This morning he is not feeling well.
“Should I take the injection?” The nurse assures him the ‘Solu medrol’ is good for asthma. Philippe consents and luckily nothing untoward happens during the trip. We stop at Sungei Lilin for breakfast and arrive at Palembang airport at ten in the morning
At the single block-house terminal, officials sit behind a wooden counter non-chalantly willing away the time. What looks like the manager comes over to process our ticket. There is a flight to Jakarta in an hour or so, he says. But Philippe has to get a doctor’s clearance before he can board and there is no oxygen tank on the plane, he explains. The airline does not want to take responsibility if something happens, he adds.
”I’m worried I might not make it, let us check into a hospital and wait until tomorrow,” says Philippe.
We come to the Charitas Hospital and Philippe is put in a first class ward. A clean airconditioned room with a telephone, TV and a small balcony. This is a hospital run by Catholic nuns. What a contrast to the government hospital in Jambi where nothing seems to work, everybody is saying different things at different times, and the nurses are always making money on the side. There is always the official bills and the unofficial ones written on a piece rough paper for the medications etc. The bill for the evacuation to Palembang comes to a million and a half rupiah (about $400), a princely sum in Indonesia.
Nurses crowd around Philippe to administer to his illness, laughing and teasing him. Suddenly like magic his face lights up, he is laughing and joking with the girls. For the first time in three days, Philippe walks unassisted without an oxygen mask, goes to the toilet and comes out to shave. What a miracle, the sense of being in good hands in a competent hospital can be such a powerful medicine.
The next two days all flights are canceled because of heavy smoke. Each time the flight is canceled Philippe’s blood pressure goes up to 160/170. It is not until the third day that we get a flight out to Jakarta and onwards to Singapore.
Thursday, 9 October, dawns bright and clear. Rudy Boer, the rascal security chief of the hospital comes to the room and tells us that a plane is landing at 1 p.m. and we must give him our passports so that he can put us in an ambulance to the airport. Earlier he has tried to convince us to pay him 500,000 rupiah to get us an ambulance. He says this is cheap compared to over a million rupiah we paid for the one from Jambi. I mention this to the senior nurse and they are shocked. The distance to the airport is 10 kilometer and the charge for the ambulance is only 30,000 rupiah. All the charges here are fixed. the nurse reassures me.
I rush to the hospital director to ask him to intervene as the airport authorities say all the seats are booked. When we get on board, the plane is only half full. Hardi. a fertilizer salesman. sitting next to me on the plane, says the rupiah has plunged 55 percent. It is almost hopeless now. Everyone is trying to buy U.S. dollars in Indonesia. He says the money he earns is suddenly cut in half and is losing its value fast. He shakes his head in frustration.
The headlines next morning: ”’Indonesia begs for help from the IMF. Experts are puzzled why the rupiah is free-falling.” From the hospital bed of Indonesia and the haze of Jambi all becomes very clear, we could see the picture of impending doom through the smog, much clearer than all the government experts.
“Next year there will be more haze,” Philippe predicts.
“There is too much money to save or make for the families in power by clearing all these areas.”
“My advice to colleagues covering these man-made disasters,” he adds, “is as follows: First, if you are a smoker, do not stop smoking before going into the mess. Unlike myself, who had put a brake on my 40 cigs a day, two months before. And finally, do not get into the heart of the matter because sooner or later, one month, one year, or more it will hurt your lungs and it is very difficult to get cured.”
“It took me two months of hospital stints. crappy medicines like steroids and cortisone, voice gone and back with a weird sound, sleepless nights, trying to clean it all. That’s no life. folks.”