Post 35—Not Humerus At All

The hospital shortly after it was built  by the navy in 1948. Photo by Dr. Jim Harris.

The hospital shortly after it was built by the navy in 1948. Photo by Dr. Jim Harris.

A thrilling game had broken out at a neighbor’s house, a family who was lucky enough to have already received their coveted household goods. The lid of the packing crate their furniture had been shipped in was leaning up against the side of the house and children lined up to take turns running up the slanted board and leaping off the top just before slamming into the wall. Lack of organized sports had fostered a certain creativity when it came to entertaining themselves.

Carolyn was in her element, running faster, jumping higher and leading the pack in scoring when her flip-flop got caught on the edge of the board and her trajectory suddenly changed from up to straight down. She hit the ground hard and lay there stunned, pretty sure she had just forfeited her gold medal.

It was clear that this was more than a playground scratch when the fallen Olympian refused to eat dinner that night and simply lay on her bed, moaning. Jean had made ham and scalloped potatoes, and Carolyn liked to stoke up when the meals tasted like home. Larry had also been looking forward to the dinner and was annoyed that he would have to miss it, but you can’t refuse to take your daughter to the hospital just because pork is on the menu.

The hospital system here, for want of another term, must be described as “socialized medicine.” Medical facilities and medicines are furnished by the government to all contract employees and citizens of American Samoa. Like any system, it is both good and bad. Obviously, the prices can’t be beat but what you’re saving in money, you lose in time. The usual procedure is to go to the hospital, get your record envelope, give it to the girl at the desk, then wait for your name to be called. There’s the rub. It might be three or four hours before your name is called since every Samoan on the island seems to be there whenever I go over there. The hospital was built by the government when this was a naval base and is one of the largest buildings on the island. The facilities are adequate, but not fancy. Most of the palagis who are hospitalized complain about the noise and the roaches, but not about the treatment. The doctor in charge, plus three others, are Americans. All others are referred to as SMP, or Samoan Medical Practitioners.


The air was sweltering as they waited to be seen by a doctor, with Larry holding Carolyn’s records and Carolyn clutching her arm. The waiting room was cavernous, with a creaking ceiling fan that cast revolving, distorted shadows on the cabinets in the corners. Larry made a joke that the doctor’s name should be Caligari that went right over Carolyn’s head as the doctor finally came into the room. Sweating profusely, he examined the sobbing girl’s arm and shoulder and then wrote a quick note on her chart, handing it to Larry to take over to x-ray.

Carolyn lay on the table staring up at the light. The x-ray machine was off in a corner of a bigger room, with the scary shadows following them from the waiting area. The Samoan technician looked carefully at the chart and then draped a cloth across her stomach. He positioned the arm of the machine so that it was over her pelvis and then moved it slightly to the left. Larry watched, puzzled, as he proceeded to flick the switch and take the x-ray. The technician was repositioning the machine a little lower over the crotch area when Larry yelled, “What the hell are you doing?

The Samoan was startled, and then patiently explained that the doctor had written instructions on the girl’s chart that he was to x-ray “her left uterus.”

“It’s her left humerus,” shouted Larry, trying desperately to hold back the guffaw that was bubbling up inside him. “It’s her arm, not her uterus. And she doesn’t have a left one!”

Carolyn wasn’t sure why her father seemed to be on the verge of giggling uncontrollably in the car on the ride home, but she was happy to be out of the creepy hospital. She just hoped her sisters hadn’t eaten all the scalloped potatoes.

The doctor decided he’d try to avoid a cast since the break was so close to her shoulder so he bound her arm tightly in elastic bandages and wrapped her up like a mummy for a couple of days to immobilize her. Bah, one doesn’t immobilize our Lynnie that easily. Friday night I caught her and Chrissie leaping from bed to bed and bouncing on their fannies like they were on trampolines. The part I smacked had a lot more flesh on it than the arm so I don’t think I fractured anything else, unless it was my hand. I took her in to the hospital again this morning where the doctor unwrapped her and fixed up a sling. He’s going to X-ray again in a couple of weeks, but he seems to feel it will heal without any complications. In the meantime, the Queen sits around with her arm in a sling and a smile on her face while Kathy and Chrissie do the dishes. 

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3 Comments to “Post 35—Not Humerus At All”

  1. Highly descriptive article, I enjoyed that a lot. Will there be a part 2?


  2. About two weeks before we left Samoa in 1982, my older sister Carri broke her arm. The doctor set the arm and put a cast on it, but when we got back to the mainland (California) a doctor has to re-break the arm and re-set it. Horrific, but necessary or her arm would have been forever disformed.

    After two years of going barefoot, my twin brother and I both developed foot infections from wearing new shoes for too long. Nasty red lines running up the ankle. Very dangerous. These ailments grounded our family in a relatives den for over a week while we recovered. As kids, we were more disappointed in having to miss Disneyland.


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