A few nights ago, I attended a dinner gala event held for a surgical conference. I sat at a table with a group of surgeons I knew very well, many of whom I have either gone to med school with, or gone through training with. We are a miscellaneous group, with each of us in different surgical specialities. When I went through surgical training, there were very few females, so my table was filled with men, except for two other women who were the wives. Two of my closest friends, Daniel* and Rohan*, sat on each side of me. My husband also sat at the same table, and he knew that back in the days before I met him, Rohan and I had a very brief relationship. Dan was Rohan’s best friend, so he treated me like his baby sister – that was, until he and I started dating when Rohan left me to chase someone else in skirts (yes, yes, it was all a bit complicated). Fortunately, for our friendship, Dan and I realised it was a mistake before it got untidy. My relationships with them made me the envy of other girls in med school. If Grey’s Anatomy was around at the time, these two would have been the epitome of Dr McDreamy and Dr McSteamy.
Now, most people would have considered our current dinner seating to be an awkward situation, but this is the funny thing about the medical fraternity. A lot of doctors have relationships with each other, some turned out well, some not so well. At some point in our careers, all of us will end up having to work or deal with each other in our profession. And that is the price you pay for having a relationship with another colleague – apart from the wagging tongues of nurses, other doctors and whoever else thinks it’s their business. You learn very quickly, if you are dating colleagues, to separate personal life from working life. Majority of break-ups between doctors end amicably, and being fairly intelligent people, we get over it pretty quickly, because the only way to be professional at work is to clear the air and get on with what’s important.
I have been lucky. Rohan and Daniel patched up their friendship after Dan and I went our separate ways. Although there were some awkwardness moments for couple of months, we all became very close friends, especially after I entered surgical training. When my husband entered the scene as my boyfriend, they also became good friends, so it was not unusual for the boys to hang around our place to watch a football together or for all three of them to go out for a drink after work. Daniel got married four years ago, and his wife is expecting a second baby.
Rohan, on the other hand, is another story altogether.
Rohan was a new cardiothoracic surgical trainee at the time when I was an easily impressionable naïve 2nd year med student. Tall, dark and handsome with startling turquoise eyes, he was pretty much irresistible to women. And he knew it. I was flattered that he paid me any attention, but I was forewarned by the nurses on the ward of his predatory ways. They said he targeted young medical students and interns, and there was not a single young female surgical intern who had been able to resist his charm. He left a trail of broken hearts in every department.
I was determined that I wasn’t to be his next victim. I kept my distance and laughed his invitations off. I pretended not to be affected by his flattery, and concentrated on being diligent with my studies. I tried to impress the seniors on the team with my hard work and knowledge. I stayed in the operating room later than others to watch procedures. One night after a long case, he invited me to share a burger with him downstairs at MacDonald’s. Thinking it was just a casual ‘lets-grab-a-bite’, I agreed. I don’t know whether it was the fatigue or just plain stupidity, the rest was history after that.
The relationship lasted 3 months. Two weeks after I changed from a surgical rotation to a medical one, and left Rohan’s team, he announced that he wanted to date other people. It was a statement, not an invitation for a discussion. Even though I had always known it was coming. I was hurt. I cried on Dan’s shoulder. They were nice broad shoulders and Dan, a neurosurgical trainee, was also tall dark and handsome. And so the story went.
Anyway, back to the dinner. While we were walking towards our table earlier in the evening, my husband commented on the increasing number of female doctors in surgery and how young they looked. He got a jab in the rib from me for his efforts. He teased Rohan that there’ll be plenty of girls for him to chose from during the conference. Dan commented on how short and tight the mini dresses were these days, and I joked that he was not supposed to notice these things now that he was married with 2nd baby on the way. Rohan then mourned the fact that the majority of the girls in short tight sheaths are not of the correct BMI to wear those outfits. My husband chuckled and shook his head as another one in tight short dress wobbled by in her platform heels or ‘stripper heels’ as he fondly called them.
Once we sat down for dinner, we did our usual catch up of what each of us has been up to. Rohan couldn’t resist firing a few digs about Dan’s marital status, as he had always viewed Dan’s marriage as the ultimate betrayal of his loyal wingman. In the meantime, Dan made a few comments about Rohan’s womanising ways, which he now viewed as a one-way dead end to self-destruction. Then both them started launching an avalanche of abuse at my husband across the table for taking the best woman off the ‘meat-market’. (Yes, that would be me preening at the compliment and attention). He returned fire with a friendly retort, ‘hey, you guys had your chance and screwed it up.’
It wasn’t long after we had our entrees before various young female doctors started to approach our table. They stopped by ‘just to say hi’ to Rohan. He, of course, lapped it up like a cat with a bowl of fresh cream. Daniel was getting his share, but he knew better than to misbehave since his wife (who was back at hotel with the baby) is an anaesthetist. For those who are unfamiliar with the socialisation of the surgical fraternity, anaesthetists have nothing to do during the operation except talk, or surf the net (apart from keeping the patients alive, of course), so they are like the accelerators on the gossip grapevine. The best source of juicy updates on any surgeon’s personal life came from the anaesthetists; they often work with several surgeons, so the sources are usually reliable. Dan knew if he was up to no good, she would be the first to know. Meanwhile, I was busy watching these young nubile things walk around the table to stop by my husband’s seat and his oh-so-friendly smile at their sweet-talking.
‘Stop snarling, Tiff.’ Dan chuckled next me. He only laughed harder when I denied it. ‘If looks can burn, those girls would be needing skin grafts by now.’ I reluctant looked away and tried to stop grinding my teeth. To distract myself, I started watching Rohan’s interactions with his swarm of admirers. Dan and I started a commentary on each.
‘Nah, too short,’ I said. ‘Look at how high those heels are.’ I really was just jealous at the fact that she could actually walk in them.
‘He doesn’t mind the short ones.’ Dan said, ‘Not one of his rules.’
Oh Yes. Rohan’s rules. We knew them well.
Rule Number One: Don’t sleep with nurses. According to Rohan, sleeping with nurses is like sleeping with the enemy. Once you do it, you will fall under their influence and rule. It was not to be done.
Rule Number Two: Don’t sleep with anyone in your own department. This is pretty self-explanatory, according to Rohan, it’s like shitting in your own backyard. Break-ups can make your life hell and one should never mix business with pleasure.
Rule Number Three: The size of her butt must fit the bum scale. So, he is discriminating against large girls. The bum scale is basically the width of two hand-spans (his hands of course). Sometimes I catch him holding up his hands – spreaded to check the width of some random girl’s butt size. Luckily, he has very big hands that wear size 8 gloves, so there was a good deal of girls who fit the bill.
Rule Number Four: No older women and anyone within 5 years of his age. Mature women want relationships, marriages and babies. It wasn’t for him, and he hated expectations. He wasn’t into mature women (which I pointed out meant he wasn’t mature enough to handle them.) He blithely agreed and continued on.
Rule Number Five: The younger the better. I asked him once if there was a limit (apart from the legal one of course). He said that the youngest ethically acceptable age would be his age divided by 2 plus 7. So basically (he’s 40), the youngest for him would be 27. I have no idea where he got that from, but I shudder to think that when he is 60, he’ll be chatting up 37 year olds! His response to my skepticism was ‘You are only as old as the woman you feel.’
I know he sounds despicable and is obviously an incorrigible womaniser, but Rohan is not a bad person. He has a good heart and goes out of his way for others. He is always clear to the girls he dated that he was not into relationships of any sort. He never lies, and doesn’t mistreat women. He always lavishes affection and attention on the girl of the moment. He is loving and generous, and never holds a grudge. He is kind and loyal to his friends. He makes people laugh, and is surprisingly dependable in times of need. I have watched him stand up for a bullied upset junior doctor against another surgeon once. The junior doctor was one of his many past conquests.
I once asked him why he asked me out when I was a med student, since I didn’t fit all the rules. I had always suspected it was because I turned him down so many times. He said that truthfully, he didn’t know, but he was in awe of my work ethic and intrigued by the fact that he enjoyed having long conversations with me. I guess he had never dated girls for their conversation skills before me. He told me: ‘You were my one exception.’ Awwww.
‘Oh Shit,’ Dan tapped me on the shoulder. ‘He is going in for the kill.’
I realised suddenly that Rohan had his head bent down way too close to a young lady crouched beside his chair. His hand had moved up to her shoulder. He complimented her on her outfit, a tight sheath which enhanced her perfectly athletic BMI. I sighed in resignation. Dan leaned over me, trying to catch their conversation.
‘If you are not doing anything after the dinner, can I take you out for a drink?’
Dan and I burst into laughter. At the confused look on the young girl’s face and Rohan’s warning growl, we both put on our most innocent butter-won’t-melt-in-our-mouth smiles on, and directed our attention back to the baked red grouper in lemon sauce and mango salsa.
Watch out girls, Dr McDreamy is in town.
* names have been changed to protect privacy of individuals
Humour me – I need to do a R&R (Rant and Rave) on patient’s allergies.
I am sick of people with ridiculous allergies.
My anaesthetist once told me, that if a person put down more than three drug allergies, then he/she is most likely crazy. I have had patients who ran out of space on their pre-consultation questionnaire for their allergies that they started to list them on the back of the form. I understand that there may genuinely be people who have multiple allergies, but these people are extremely rare. Their allergies are often proven with forma allergy-testing.
I have had patients who have listed every class of antibiotics under their allergies, so I have had to tell them that I couldn’t operate on them, because if they got an infection, I won’t be able to treat it.
Then there are the patients who put down ‘allergic to general anaesthetics’ when they check into hospital for their operation. Really? Would you prefer a sledgehammer instead? You can’t be allergic to general anaesthetics – to put someone to sleep it requires a finely-balanced cocktail of different intravenous drugs and inhalable gases. Sure, there are known idiopathic reactions to specific anaesthetic drugs, but these are rare – often the specific agent can be identified and the patients are informed in detail. The generalisation of being allergic to general anaesthetics just shows patient’s complete ignorance to their true allergies. Nausea and vomiting or a mild rash after a GA is common – it doesn’t mean you are allergic to it.
Patients who are allergic to multiple pain killers are a complete headache to surgeons. When patients put down that they are allergic to all narcotics except Pethidine, they shouldn’t be surprised that medical and nursing staff treats them like Pethidine addicts. Pethidine is a narcotic, it’s hard to fathom that someone could be allergic to all narcotics but not Pethidine. Most often, people who get a high on Pethidine prefer Pethidine injections to any other narcotic as their pain relief. There are also patient who claim they are allergic to simple analgesia like paracetamol/acetaminophen, or anti-inflammatories, but can only take narcotics. That to me, also sounds pretty suss.
Then there are patients who think they are hilarious. When I ask them what they are allergic to, the response is, ‘doctors’, or ‘pain’, or ‘hospitals’. If only I had a penny for each time I get the funny patient, I’d be a millionaire by now. What about patients who write ‘hay fever’ or ‘eczema’ in the box next to ‘Drug Allergies’. Really?! Do they know of any doctors who prescribe ‘hay fever’?
Food allergies, however, are important to disclose, as some people who are allergic to seafood or crustaceans can also be allergic to iodine. One of the intravenous anaesthetic (propofol) also has egg protein in it, so can cause severe allergic reactions in those who are allergic to egg. As for being allergic to cat? Well, we don’t normally prescribe cat, and the well known cat-gut sutures are actually made out of sheep gut.
People need to understand the difference between side effects and allergy. Nausea, indigestion or even itch sometimes, is not an allergy; it is just a common side effect. These side effects can be avoided if advice or treatment is sought. Being sensitive to something is not an allergy. Patients love telling me they are allergic to all tapes. When tested, they are usually not allergic to any, because the ‘red rash’ they describe are just irritation from the sweat which has accumulated under the tape on their sensitive skin. Some people are also quite ‘sensitive’ to medications, and although understandable, is still not a true allergy. All that is needed is a dose or timing adjustment or even treatment to prevent these sensitivities.
Sometimes I have to admit, it can be the doctor’s fault that patients think they are allergic to numerous things. When a patient reports a side effect, the doctor is often quick to blame the drug and put it down in the allergies column, instead of explaining to the patient that it is not a true allergy, and find out if the drugs were taken correctly.
Why is it so annoying to a doctor when patients put down allergies which are not true allergies? Because once you have written it down as an allergy, medicolegally, we find it very hard to give that particular drug to you, even if you need it desperately. So if you put down that you are allergic to an antibiotic when all you get is a bit of nausea, we have to give you a second-line antibiotic choice to treat your infection because we don’t want to be sued for drug reactions. If, instead of putting it down as an allergy, you tell us that you get a bit of nausea with the antibiotic, we will dose it so that you can take it with food and maybe some antacids to treat the side effect, but you will now get the best antibiotic for your infection.
So next time you write down your allergies, think twice before you start listing them.
What about the patient who told me that she was allergic to light?
I told her that it was ok. I can operate in the dark.
There are four of us. Three surgeons and one surgical assistant. All girls of course.
Once a month we meet up – Saturday early morning cafe breakfast, Sunday boozy brunch, Friday night at the bar, Saturday night at a pole dancing show, Sunday afternoon on a picnic blanket, Thursday night at the football game, you name it, we’ve done it. It is a ritual that has been going on for years between the four of us. It usually starts as a very civilised girls’ outing, then it deterioates into a BMW (Bitching, Moaning and Whining) fest.
About work, people at work, patients, headache cases, bad days, husband/boyfriend/lover, or the lack thereof. And as the drinks start to flow more liberally, the standard of conversation falls to the level of frank, graphic, rude basics. There would be no subject which was forbidden and no detail that was left out. The aftermath is usually four dolled-up chicks in hysterics, rolling round in their seats, somewhere public. Think Sex and City – without the airbrushed lens.
The rules of the meetings were simple: dress up to impress (or to pick-up for the unattached in the group), no male accompaniment, no bitching between each other (but it’s ok to bitch about anyone else), and if one person pulls out, the ‘meeting’ is cancelled (amazingly has not happened yet, considering that we all work in the field of surgery).
We are not all intimate friends with each other, initially it was a meeting of I-will-bring-my-friend and it-will-be-good-to-catch-up, but over the years, we have become a very close group. It is a group where we can safely discuss all our thoughts, fears and dreams, knowing we can receive honest, and most importantly, non-judgemental advice.
So, Sharon* plonked herself down at the bar next to me, ‘Goddamn patients.’ Obviously one of her patients is giving her grief. I looked at her in surprise, it seems we will be starting the BMW component early today. But then, that’s Sharon. She always sees the negative. If she wasn’t lamenting about her working hours, she was complaining about the patients, or proclaiming doom and gloom about the outcomes. When she’s done with her own misery, she will point out ours, in a sympathetic way, of course. I used to find her constant pessimism tiresome, but then I realised this was the way she needed to unload, because she sure as doesn’t do it at work to the patients.
Sharon is my age. She is tall, and has an eye for upper end designer clothes. Tonight, Her hands and wrists dribbled with BVLGARI jewellery, and her neck supported a Chanel diamond collar. She wore a bright red and gold wrap-around dress from DVF. She is single and lives with her parents. She dots on her nephews and nieces. She has travelled a lot despite a busy practice. She has connections with various famous surgeons around the world and often posts photos on facebook when she has dinners/meetings with each of them. One doesn’t say it out aloud, but we all know she is probably having long distance brief affairs with some of them.
Sharon and I went through surgical training together. We were like sisters, spending our working hours together, then the rest of our time studying together. She slept and ate at our house often and at one stage, our spare bedroom cupboard was filled her clothes and toiletries. We had a lot of fun times and hard times. The worst was when she failed her specialist exams and I had to be her boss for a year. It was hard for her to take clinical orders from me, and there were times when she took liberties which I had to reprimand her for. It really damaged our friendship, and it was because of her, that I decided I would never be ‘friends’ with any trainees and students who were under my team. Being ‘friends’ was detrimental to the ‘chain of command’ especially when it came down to patients whom I was responsible for. That was five years ago. We have since resolved our differences and sunk back to our old comfortable ways.
Sharon is a sophisticated sort. She loves art. She collects them, goes to all the gallery events, and takes art classes. She is also an avid amateur mixologist. She has an encyclopaedia of cocktails on her kitchen shelf with a whole cupboard of equipment, some of which looked questionable in function, but she assured me was for mixing exotic drinks. She regularly experiments on us, some creations went down smoothly like lolly water, others gave us unusual facial expressions which were eternally recorded on our iphones amidst drunken laughter. Once, she made a cocktail which blew our minds, literally, as she got the proportion of Tobasco wrong. Sharon also loved her fashion, she was into classical fashion, that of Chanel, Gucci, BVLGARI and Prada. She obviously spends enough money at these stores that she regularly graces the social pages of the local news rags at some blah blah season launch.
“Hi Babes.’ That’s Emma*. She is the party-girl. She is on first-name basis with all the restauranteurs, chefs, club owners and bartenders around town. She is on the guest list of every boutique, restuarant, and club opening. She shamelesly name-drops at every opportunity and she can rattle off a description of the latest collection pieces from all the up-and-coming designers. She is the epitome of all that is chic, trendy, modern and unusual. She wears impossibly high heels and revealing outfits, and that’s at work. Once we were in clinic together, and of my other colleagues looked at her outfit and whispered to me ‘Where’s the disco ball?’ I just laughed, and told him to wait until he’s seen her party outfits.
Tonight, she sashayed in with a tight blue Alexander Wang sheath dress highlighted by a plunging neck, Gianvito Rossi 150mm high pumps and her usual large rectangular cut ‘helicopter-platform’-size sapphire ring on her middle finger. This was her engagement ring. Emma is divorced. Five years ago, her husband (a fellow surgeon) came home one day from work and told her over dinner that he was having an affair with an anaesthetic tech, and that she was having his baby in 6 months’ time. Emma went on a bender then. She started drinking heavily and using crack. She was having an exhaustive series of one-night stands and experimented with various sexual adventures which we didn’t really want to know, but were not spared the details.
She and I have worked closely together for over 7 years. During her divorce, it was a very difficult time for both of us, she turned up to work so high on somedays I have had to send her home. She was reported to the Medical Board by a coworker and was then put on probation. Everyday, she had to be breathlysed, and urine tested before she could commence work. When she wasn’t sober, I had to make her call in sick so that she didn’t have to be tested, because one positive test at work meant being struck off the medical register. During those 18 months, I was carrying the load of two surgeons without a whimper, because I knew, by flying low on the radar, I was holding onto her job for her.
She has since recovered. Sure, she still drank too much on social occasions, and I am sure enjoys a bit of white stuff at some parties, but at least she is now reliable at work and has had a few selected relationships which lasted longer than a weekend. For all her sordid history, Emma is a good surgeon, she’s efficient, decisive and despite her outstanding competency has insight to her limitations. She maybe outspoken, opinionated and bitchy at times, but she has no qualms in standing up for what she believes in. Unfortunately, she has a talent in attracting bad boys with terrible unresolved baggage and messy relatonships in general.
Many have commented on our unusual friendship, as we are like chalk and cheese with vastly different lifetyles. But Emma is a loyal, protective friend who, for all her bitching, will not say a bad word about those who stuck by her, and looks out for her friends at every turn. She once said to me, ‘You are just too nice, Tiff. You need a friend like me to tell people to f$@# off when they try to pile shit on you.’ And she does. She takes patients who give me grief off my clinic list, and then proceed tell them as it is when she sees them. She rings and tells me to sleep in because she has seen all my preops for the next morning and will get the operating list started for me. When my lists are overbooked, she will take off cases onto her list so that I would finish on time. For all her tough talk and party-girl image, Emma has a marshmellow heart. She lives alone with her dog whom has been lavished wth more luxuries than a baby, including a handmade dog collar, custom-made bed and matching cushions.
‘Where’s Lizzy?’ Emma asked. I frowned. It was not like Lizzy* to be late. She is often the first one to arrive. Lizzy is a surgical assistant with a nursing background, who assists several surgeons in town. She is the one exception I have made about having friends as employees. She works for me once a week as my assistant. Lizzy is the goody-two-shoes in our group. She is conscentious, hardworking and punctual. Although lately, there was a shift in her focus from work to a recent addition in her love-life. Lizzy has been single for many years. She had been quite an overweight girl who was intermittently on various unsuccessful miracle diets. Four years ago, she started personal training, and lost over 20 kg. She admitted to me months afterwards that the impetus which finally made her serious about losing weight was my wedding. The day before the wedding, all four of us were lying on the beach, reading magazines, enjoying cool drinks and having our final BMW club meeting before I was to become the only married woman in the group. Lizzy told me that it was the most disconcerting day for her. Sharon, Emma and I were all confidently lounging around in our bikinis, and according to Lizzy – we looked hot. It made her feel very self-conscious of her own body. It wasn’t that we said anything – in fact – we were all fairly comfortable with Lizzy, as we have always known her to be a big girl. It was then she realised that no one cared if she was fat or skinny, that if she wanted to lose the weight, she needed to do it for herself.
Lizzy started seeing someone 6 months ago. It sounded serious, with lots of sleepovers and talks of buying cars, furniture, looking at properties. Instead of being so focussed on her work, it was good to see her flourish in confidence and love. Lizzy herself will tell you she leads a very ‘boring’ life. She gets up early every morning to train at the gym, goes to work, grocery shops in the afternoon, hangs out at her boyfriend’s apartment most nights watching TV, visits her parents on the weekends and is usually asleep in bed well before 9 o’clock every nights. She is not naive, but she has led a very sheltered life. Although she is easily shocked and grimaces at some of the details we discuss, she always remain non-judgemental, and seemed to be more interested than horrified, especially when Emma starts going off on a tangent with one of her latest ‘adventures’.
Lizzy is a girl who valued friendships. She is the one who always make an effort to keep in touch. She remembers everyone’s birthdays, anniversaries, and anything that you have ever mentioned in conversation. She would ring to check if everything was alright if she knew you were sick, and text to find out if your dentist’s appointment went well. She brought over hot soups when you have a running nose, and offers to help you clean out your garage on weekends.
‘There she is,’Sharon groaned, ‘about bloody time, I am starving.’
On a lower income bracket than the rest of us, Lizzy’s wardrobe consisted mainly of pieces from Zara, H&M, and Cue. She was the queen of coordination, if it wasn’t matching earrings with bracets/necklaces, it was matching shoes, clutch or belt. The colours were always impeccably organised in her outfits. She never wore heels higher than 8 mm, although the youngest, she is also the tallest of the group. Lizzy is also rather well-endowed, and despite her weight loss, nothing shrunk from her chest wall, much to her disgust. Unfortuntely, being surrounded by three others who rely heavily on padded push-up bras, Lizzy’s bosom, at times, was fair game amongst us less fortunate.
‘Sorry, girls.’ Lizzy smiled. She had large sparkling brown eyes framed by sinfully long eyelashes. ‘I got held up.’ She blushed. We all gave her a knowing look.
As it is always the case when we are with Emma, a waiter appeared out of thin air as soon as she raised her hand. The waiter lead us towards the dining room, and sat us down. Champagne glasses were filled and raised.
The glasses clinked as our laughter echoed around the table.
‘Let’s start this meeting.’
*names were changed to protect pesonal privacy of individuals
I had an interesting conversation with a patient last week; about fortune –telling, clairvoyance, crystal balls and knowing one’s future. When a patient tells me that she trusts me, I feel flattered. But when she adds to this compliment with ‘because I can see your aura, it is beautiful, it tells me that I can trust you with my life.’ I become a little sceptical. Like all science-based professionals, I am guilty of harshly judging those who live by their beliefs in the supernatural powers, mystic theories and psychic phenomenon. With me, what I see is what I believe, and what is explained in logic and science is how I make my decisions.
However, I humoured her. I asked her how she can tell with an aura. She said that she has a gift passed down by her grandmother (I quietly and discretely rolled my eyes). She said that some can read cards, palms and faces, others can see and talk to spirits, but for her, it was touch and auras. She said she sees an aura around every individual, and it tells her things about them. When she touches someone, she could sometimes see their thoughts. I asked her if she could see into their futures. She said no, her gift is not like a crystal ball. She said her grandmother could see the future by touching and examining a person’s face and eyes, but she herself never had the gift. She said that most true clairvoyants who can see the future are sad individuals, because people’s futures can become a burden which they carry with them. She said she is not interested in seeing the future, because she wants to believe that we make our own destiny.
By the end of our ten minute conversation, I was impressed, so much so that I had stopped rolling my eyes and became her captured audience. I could see that she truly believed in everything she said and maybe, she does see an aura around people that ordinary people like I will never comprehend. Cheekily, I asked her if I could become a psychic too. She laughed. She said that I would stop being a good doctor if I could see everyone’s future. I was taken aback by her incredibly insightful comment.
Then she took my hand. I remembered thinking that her hands were so soft and warm, completely incongruent to the weathered, wrinkly hands of an elderly lady in her 80’s. She said my hands were cold, because I keep a lot to myself, then she said softly, ‘you have changed so many people’s lives, and that’s not just with your hands. You see things that others cannot see.’
I suddenly remembered all the other patients sitting in my waiting room, and decided to let her comment slide. I led her outside to reception, and she smiled at me as she said her goodbye. But her words haunted me for the whole week. It wasn’t because of the cryptic end of her statement; it was because I have heard it before. Twice.
When I was born, I was discoloured, floppy, deformed and premature. There were concerns, as I lay lifeless in neonatal intensive care, that I may not grow up to be a normal child. In my culture, a newborn’s name is everything. The true traditionalists believe that each character in a child’s name will determine his/her future. Names were picked to try and change the predicted course of a baby’s life. Specific characters were used to supplement what the child will be lacking in his/her future life. Each child’s fortune was told before he or she has a name. My grandmother took a piece of my umbilical cord with my birth date and time to the oldest temple in my home town. There she sought out the most senior monk for advice, and returned to the hospital with my foretold future and name.
When I was twelve, I told my mother that I hated my name. It is too masculine, and throughout my school life, teachers and students were always surprised when they met me that I was a girl. So my mother told me about my grandma’s conversation with the monk.
The two characters in my name had specific functions. One is the name of Confucius’ first disciple, they were both great scholars. The monks were concerned that I will struggle with the process of studying. They were right. I did struggle with studying – I had no problems with comprehension and understanding, but I found it very hard to sit down for long periods as I was very easily distracted. I was placed in multiple remedial classes throughout primary school, and was held back to do year 4 twice. I had multiple tutors throughout high school, just so that I could sit down long enough to complete my homework and assignments. I barely scraped into medical school on a second round offer. Then I struggled through the first few non-clinical years on university campus, attending lectures and spending hours sitting in the library staring into space. It was when I started my clinical years in the hospital grounds that I started to thrive both personally and academically.
The second character had the water element – he toldmy grandmother that I will be ‘lacking in water’. This turned out to be true. I have a serious ongoing problem with not drinking enough water. I am amazed I haven’t yet suffered kidney stones or renal failure. My average daily ‘water’ intake is one cup of coffee in the morning, one bottle of juice at lunch and one cup of coffee after lunch. At the top of my New-Year’s-Resolution list every year is ‘Drink More Water’. I am still working on it. I just hate the tastelessness of water, and not to mention, the inconvenience of having to unscrub during long operations to pee if I drank too much.
The monk told my grandmother about my future. He said that this baby girl has a weak heart, which will be broken multiple times in her life. Grandmother asked if that meant her granddaughter will be unlucky in love, he shook his head. He said that there was no need to worry, because one day, she would meet and marry a man who is an expert in the matters of the heart. Grandma asked if the baby girl will be fortunate. He said that she will be most fortunate, but will never gain anything with ‘luck’. He reassured grandma that the girl will enjoy a very comfortable, pampered life, but she will always be sad, because she will would never be able to have the one thing in life that she wanted above everything else. Grandmother asked if the baby girl will be smart and do well in life. He said that she will work very hard, not because she has to, but because it is her destiny to change many people’s lives. He then said that the baby girl is different, she is very sensitive, so she will see things other people can’t see. This will be her price for a fortunate life, she will have to carry the burdens of other’s misfortune in what she sees. She is easily frightened and lacks courage. She will have dreams which carries the truth.
For a thirteen year-old it was all rather cryptic and I dismissed it as an unimportant tale; a tale, I thought at the time, which was a sorry excuse for giving a girl a masculine name.
Then when I was sixteen, we went back to visit my home town. My mother took me back to the temple. Astonishingly, the same monk was still there. He was over ninety years old. He had short white stubbles on his chin, and walked hunched over with a cane. I watched him shuffled slowly from one chair to another. He was blind. We went up to the old monk, and my mother told him that I was one of the young babies he had named. I thought at the time that he must have named thousands during his lifetime at the temple, and there was no way he was going to remember me.
He politely thanked my mother for bringing me back to visit and invited us to sit down for tea. He brought out a pencil and notepad from his pocket and scribbled the characters of my name. It was impressive considering he couldn’t see and my mother didn’t actually tell him my name. He spoke to my mother. ‘I remember this little girl.’ Mother laughed and told him that I wasn’t little anymore, I was a young lady. He reached out blindly and asked me to stand in front of him. He took my hand and felt my face. He chuckled.
‘You are still a scaredy cat.’ He turned to mum. ‘She is frightened of the dark.’ It was a statement. And a true one. Mother nodded, and lamented that I was a chronic sleep walker when I was younger. ‘Are you still having dreams?’ He asked me. I said yes, I have vivid dreams, mainly about people, but sometimes I can’t remember who they were once I have woken up. ‘It’s ok, you are helping them. It is better that you don’t remember them. You can see things that others can’t see.’ He rubbed my hands. ‘These hands will change lives.’ He then curled my fingers into my palm, and said in a very serious tone, ‘but you must not let anyone read your palm.’ With that, he waved us off because it was prayer time. As I watched him shuffle off to the main hall, I wondered about what he said.
Being a histrionic teenager, I ruminated on his last words, so much so that I started to think of all possible meaning it could hold. By the time we were leaving town, I came to the conclusion that the reason he said I shouldn’t have my palm read and my fortune told, was because something really bad was going to happen to me and I shouldn’t know about it. I had worked myself to such a hysterical state, with multiple sleepless nights and distraught crying; my mother could do nothing but to take me back to see the old monk.
He was waiting for us at the tea shop in front of the temple. When we approached him, he said very sternly to me. ‘Nothing is going to happen to you. Your palm holds a very good future. The more you know and the more people read it, the more your fortune will be stripped away and change the course of many lives. Be brave, don’t be afraid.’ He then stood up, turned around and shuffled back towards the temple. I was reassured, and left it at that.
When I was nineteen, I went to the local fund-raising market with a friend. We stopped by a palm reading stall. My friend regularly attended fortune-telling stalls, so she headed straight in, and I thought that having my palm read once probably wouldn’t hurt that much so I decided to follow suit. I paid the woman her ten dollars, and laid my hands palm up on the table. She looked at them, and then she curled my fingers into my palms to close my hands, just as the monk did. She handed me back my ten dollars. ‘Honey, don’t let anyone read those palms.’ I looked at her with a guilty smile, said ok and left, while my friend gaped at the lady in shock, wanting to know what she meant by that comment. I have never let anyone read my palms again.
There is no doubt I am a sceptic. But let me tell you something about my life so far. As a premature baby, I had a weak heart, and I developed some heart problems throughout my childhood. As a grown adult, I have been plagued with cardiac arrhythmia problems requiring corrective procedures. So yes, as a machine, my heart breaks down easily. I have definitely not married someone who is sensitive, romantic and understands everything about love. I have married a heart & lung surgeon who burned a path pacing in the cath lab corridors each time I had a procedure. I work hard, averaging 80 up to 90 hours a week. I am surgeon, I know I change people’s lives, it is a privilege I do not take on lightly. I work so hard not because I have to, but because I want to help people who need my skills. I have never won anything in life that required ‘luck’. Not even the school raffle. I do, however, enjoy a very comfortable and fortunate life. We have everything we need, but I have wanted to be mother more than anything in the world. Going through 10 years of infertility treatment, one ectopic, one termination and two miscarriages later, I have had to finally accept our childless future. It was, and still is heartbreaking for me. I still find myself sitting quietly with silent tears some nights, thinking about the unfairness of it all.
The Dreams. I have been having dreams of random people for as long as I can remember, mostly people who have distressing stories to tell. Occasionally I see them multiple times in different dreams, sometimes we are just conversing, other times we are experiencing the ordeal together. I often wake up feeling their pain and anguish, but their stories always seemed so muddled once in the clarity of daylight and I could never remember their names. Sometimes I would wake up in such sadness that I find tears running down my face. My husband often tells me that I can be a very restless sleeper, or cry out in such distress that he had to wake me up. The dreams always seemed so real, but I have never seen any of these people in real life. I think I would die of shock if I ever did! I told my mother once about it and we both put it down to me having a very imaginative mind and my burning desire to become a creative writer so I must have had lots of story-lines in my head.
So is it coincidence or is it clairvoyance? One thing I realised, is that fortunes told are cryptic for a reason, as it can be interpreted in many ways. The way things happen, could still be unexpected, and only realised in hindsight. I don’t think about it a lot, but it is hard to ignore when different people tell you the same things repeatedly. I am not a Believer, and I am not particularly keen to know my future. I still prefer the idea of being able to make my own decisions and determine my own destiny, and hope that my future is not written in stone.
But apparently, just in my palms.