I get tired of paying people’s medical bills. Particularly children. Well, that’s not entirely true. I get tired of parents refusing to pay their kid’s bill. The kid is innocent. But I’m still much more hard-hearted than Danae. I may be vomiting my guts out from malaria, but I still would rather round myself on pediatrics than let her do it. I can’t afford otherwise. Danae’s too soft. She always agrees to pay for every child’s medical bills. She’s already paying too many medical bills on the maternity ward, despite most of the treatment there being free. It would be cheaper for her to stay home and not get paid than for her to work and pay everybody’s bills.
In the last four+ years, I’ve tried multiple methods of coercing parents to pay their bills. At first, I tried the optimist/pragmatic approach. “You know if you buy these medicines, your kid will get better, right? And if you don’t, he’ll die, right?” It didn’t work.
So I switched tactics. I tried the guilt tactic. “What kind of father won’t pay for his kid’s medical bills?” That didn’t work either.
I tried the financial approach too. “You realize it’s a lot cheaper to pay for these medicines now than it is to pay for the kid’s funeral.” That never convinced anybody, even though it’s true. And they’d find the money for the funeral.
I tried shaming. “Dude, you have a super nice watch. You have a cell phone! Go leave it at the pharmacy as collateral. Once you pay off your bill, you can come pick it up. Or your bicycle. Or your cooking pot. Anything! Seriously? Your cooking pot is more valuable to you than your child’s life!” Even this didn’t work, boggling as it may be.
I tried threatening. ‘You know, kids are expensive. They don’t come out of the vagina holding money in their hands. You need to feed them, pay for their medicines, pay for their school. They are expensive. If you can’t afford to pay for the child’s medicines, we give birth control away for free here! Male condoms, female condoms, pills, shots, intrauterine devices, implants, vasectomy, you name it! Free! I’ll even pay tie your tubes! If you can’t afford this child’s medicines, he will die. Then you’re just going to have another one! And guess what?!?!?! I can promise you that next child will be sick eventually too. And you won’t buy the medicines for the next child either?!?!?!?! And they will die too!!! And some day, you will need to answer to God how you decided to have a bunch of kids that you refused to take care of, chose your cell phone and cooking pot over, and allowed to die, all because you couldn’t pay $2.10 for intravenous quinine!!!’ I was always screaming by this point. Hence the exclamation marks. Remarkably, this had been my most effective technique.
But the other day I was rounding on pediatrics again. Once again, a very well-educated and well-dressed couple inform me they won’t be able to pay for their baby’s medicines. $2.10. I remind them we gave them free medications the day before and we told them they would need to spend the day looking for money to buy today’s medicines. I also remind them they are from Bere, so surely have plenty of friends, family and neighbors who will loan them $2.10 to pay for their kid’s treatment. The father starts a not-unfamiliar tirade about how I am an American and can’t understand because Americans only have two or three children each, maybe four. It’s easy to pay for only four children. I agree with him. Why do you keep having so many expensive children? Why not just stop at four and take good care of the four you have? He thinks about it for a while. Then decides he had better just stick to the party line. We don’t have any money.
I know this tactic well. This is when parents enter the game of chicken. They lock you into a stare down. If the kid is just a little sick, this game can go on for days. If the kid is a lot sick, and they don’t realize it, the kid can die. Or if the kid is a lot sick, and they do realize it, the parents figure it’s futile and a waste of money and no way will I cough up the money as the father, but if you want to pay for my kid as the visiting missionary I suppose I could be sufficiently gracious to allow you to do that. Usually, the parents will finally produce the money. Occasionally, rarely, I lose the game of chicken and I agree to pay. But I’m not ok with the innocent child losing in this game. This is so frustrating. Taxing, even.
At this point, after seeing this child suffering and talking to these resourced parents, and after taking part in this ludicrous dance each day of the last four years, my soul sighs. Somewhere deep within, I feel my heart inhale deeply and then fall, letting it all out. I give up. I am no longer angry. I am barely even sad. I am simply tired, at the end of my rope and letting go.
So I turn to the mother.
‘Did I have sex with you?’
The mother’s jaw drops. Her eyes get wide. The husband takes a step back (which, I note, is better than a step forward). Even my nurse turns and looks at me.
The mother is quite certain she doesn’t understand the French this crazy guy is speaking. ‘Huh?’
‘Did we sleep together?’ The neighboring kids’ parents are overhearing this and are getting curious. Boy, imagine that! We may have quite the story to tell in the market about what the white missionary is doing in town!
‘You’re sure?’ I’m wading pretty far outside of what was taught at the three-week missionary training course we took. Although, admittedly, I did skip a lecture and the asking-the-national-if-you’ve-ever-had-sex-with-her topic may have been discussed in my absence. And Danae is a lousy note-taker.
‘We never slept together.’
‘You are absolutely certain you and I have never had sex with each other? I mean, I’m a heavy sleeper and I’ve been known to sleepwalk. And every time I have malaria there’s about three days I’m completely out of it and don’t remember a thing. Maybe we had sex and I’m just forgetting it.’
‘No. You never had sex with me.’
I turn to the husband. ‘Did I ever sleep with your wife?’
‘There’s no doubt in your mind?’
‘You never slept with my wife.’
‘Ok. Then that baby isn’t mine.’
The lights come on. The relief is evident. The husband smiles. The wife starts cracking up. All the eavesdropper in the room, and even in the next ward over, start laughing out loud.
‘So I never had the pleasure (presumably) of sleeping with your wife. This child will never work in my fields. And this child will never take care of me when I am old.’
And then the coolest thing happens.
With a smile, the father of the baby shakes my hand, nods his head recognizing I just out-maneuvered him in his own game of chess, pulls a large bill from his pocket, and walks off to the pharmacy.
I feel my heart inhale again. I feel a smile on the corner of my lips. Respite for the soul can come in the strangest of circumstances.
(I’ve used this same method now repeatedly. And astoundingly, it works every time. Everybody smiles and laughs and the father digs out some money to pay his bill.)
Restore a Child has given many significant donations via Adventist Health International to pay for bills on pediatrics. It’s been a huge blessing. So now Danae can round on pediatrics again without emptying out our safe! But it’s always a challenge trying to determine who is truly needy and won’t be able to pay their bill and who is playing the deadly game of chicken.