Thursday, March 15, 2007

Final Exam, A Surgeon's Reflections on Mortality - A Book

My impression about doctor was formulated while I was at a very young age. Back in 1950s, trip to a doctor meant a scary injection and stomach churning bitterness of powdered remedy. At the time the cold medicine was not made in such a civilized pill form, to swallow those powdered medicine was dreadful for most of the children my age.

When I was in fourth grade, I developed a kidney disease. For weeks, I went to school feeling tired and exhausted. I normally looked frail and weak, somewhere bordered under nourishment. During those weeks I actually looked a little plump. One day, my elder sister noticed that my hands and feet were swollen, and later I was diagnosed having kidney disease.

I was confined in bed for three months. but was glad to be out of school. During that trying time, I couldn't get up from my bed to do anything, and the only regular food that I had was "To-Fu" with no salt and no seasoning in it, and occasionally I will have a feast of noodle soup my parent ordered from our nearby noodle shop. One time, my parent forgot to tell the shop not to put salt in it, I thought that was the most delicious bowl of noodle that I had ever had. My parents found out later, but it was too late, I ate them all. After my recovery from the illness, I stayed away from "To-Fu" for a very long time. Enough was enough.

I have four siblings, but it seemed that as soon as I was declared sick, I was quarantined and isolated from the rest of the family. During that period, nurse and lice were my constant companions. Since my parent were busy attending our little shop, they arranged a nurse from the hospital to come by and give me injection twice a day in the morning and in the afternoon. After several days of being bored to death, the nurse presence was very much welcomed. I got to chat with her ever so briefly and persuaded her to give me those little used medical glass bottles so that I could play with them later when I got bored and needed something to do to kill time.

The weather where I was brought up was hot and humid especially in summer, it is one of those signature climate of semi-tropical island. I did not remember having my hair washed during those months. My hair was always damp, smelly, and soon my scalp became the perfect residence of lice species. Lice was populated so many in my hair that I could grab hold a bundle of my hair and pulled several of them out easily. Soon, I became a very efficient terminator for lice population. I grabbed hold of them and popped it, a small speck of blood stained in my hand. Believe it or not, this was one of my pastime during those months.

During my illness, I had close encounter with nurses, but with doctor, my impression was that they were always looming larger than life, distant and unapproachable, as if sitting in a pedestal. Whenever they stepped down from that pedestal, there sure was predicament from someone somewhere. Gradually from all these years numerous doctor's visit, each doctor seemed to be a little more human than the previous one.

We tend to look at doctor as a different species, a logical, distant and unemotional bunch, with very little compassion for every day folk. They treat our disease as a matter of factually without lending much psychological and mental support. The truth may be a lot different than our perception.

As I read the book, Final Exam from Pauline Chen, it opened up a vista of understanding of how surgeons are trained. They are miracle workers set out a mission to save life, and yet during the course of their career death would be the inevitable other side of equation of saving life. This book probed into the real dramas of patient and surgeon relationship. Surgeons are human, what the difficult situation they face in their hectic and grueling daily professional life are a lot more crucial, demanding and challenging than our own. I, for one, at least do not need to face death each day.

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