Finding My ‘Balance’ in Music

Anyone who has treaded the career path of Medicine and Surgery will tell you –  It is a way of life. As all of us try to find the balance between work and living, we ultimately find ourselves juggling between our responsibilities to our patients and our desires to spend more time on our families and ourselves. Some manage to fit their work around their personal lives, whilst others devote their life to their work. One way or another, everyone is continually trying to reach that personal ‘perfect balance’.

Everyone has a Fork in their Life – the moment when they had to make a decision and chose a certain path – mine was between Medicine and Music. I chose Medicine because I wanted to ‘help people’. Unfortunately I found that my music was only helping little kids who didn’t want to practice before they came to their piano lessons. At the time, my very realistic pragmatic parents also had a favourite saying – ‘Music is not a real job, Music is something you do when you are pregnant, barefoot and stuck at home’. I found out that I was as pragmatic as them when, at the age of 17, I relinquished my hard-earned scholarship to the Julliard School in New York. Even though it took six rounds of being the local, state, national and regional finalists and over two years of preparation to win that scholarship, it was surprisingly easy for me to hand it back when it was pointed out to me (by my parents of course) that the only way I could have a regular income in music was to be a teacher – a lot less glamorous than my dream of becoming a performing star. The only regret I had was that my decision broke my piano teacher’s heart.

So since I started my life on the path of Medicine, I have not looked back. Like so many others on this similar path, I made sacrifices – one of which was giving up music, something that I have had since I was six years old. It was a severe case of withdrawal – from juggling piano, flute, cello and singing lessons, regular practice and numerous ensemble rehearsals, to nothing. Nothing but studying, lectures, labs, ward rounds and libraries.

I ploughed my way through medical school with four part-time jobs, and then did the obligatory overtime as a junior doctor to get onto a surgical training program. During which I was overdosed on fluorescent lights within hospitals and LED lights in operating rooms. After that, setting up private practice and running between public hospitals consumed my so-called ‘spare-time’. There weren’t enough hours in the day for my work – let alone for myself. People often asked about my hobbies – and my standard answer was: Eating, Sleeping and Remembering to Breathe. Did someone say Balance? What Balance?

One of my favourite times in the day had always been early morning – while I drove between hospital ward rounds. I often listened to Classic FM in the car, and as I drove past our local performance arts centre on the way, I often allowed myself to pretend that instead of being a surgeon going to hospitals (and listen to my patient complain), I really was a musician going to rehearsals (not that I knew of any musicians who went to work at 6am).

For me, ever since I started medical school, apart from going to the occasional concert, and tinkling on the piano at home occasionally, music hasn’t really been part of my Life.

Just me…. tinkling…..

And I missed it. Everyday.

Then I decided to join our local Medical Orchestra (MO).

Two years ago, after doing another 7-day-80-hour week, I decided that it was time I put time aside for myself. It came at the same time when our local MO was recruiting players for their next concert. My love for making music had always been very personal to me, so joining an orchestra was naturally ‘doing something for myself’. During my first rehearsal, I was pretty nervous – I didn’t know anyone, I hadn’t read music for years, and the last time I touched my flute was before Medical School! Not to mention the embarrassing condition my flute was in – it was so black that I had to spend an hour before the first rehearsal cleaning my flute with a silver polishing clothe, and then trying to explain the friction burns on my hand from doing it too vigorously…..

American Pieband camp

Ok – enough with the flute jokes.

I could not believe the buzz I got during that first rehearsal – for once, I wasn’t pretending I was a musician going to a rehearsal – because I was a musician in a rehearsal. It didn’t matter that I finished a bar earlier than everyone else (hey, haven’t we finished that movement already?) and that I was playing in a different key to everyone else (with our conductor screeching ‘G sharp!!!’ at me across the orchestra).

I was making music.

The first concert I was involved in was both exciting and nerve-wrecking for me – not having performed in public for over ten years. The Orchestra made a magnificent sound at the sold-out concert. I have to admit that it helped that it was held in an old museum, so the acoustic was like singing in the shower – nothing could actually sound bad. I even had to congrat myself that I finished the last note at the same time as everyone else.

It was then I realised that in the last twenty years of immersing myself in Medicine, I had forgotten how much I loved making music. The exhilarating feeling of finding an old love totally took me by surprise. It was an indescribable feeling. The amazing thing is that, even after two years, I still relive it every time I play my flute in the orchestra.

So for all of you out there who have forgotten how much you loved doing something before your career took over your life, maybe it’s time you do something for yourself.

 

 

 

 

10 Things I Hate About You

10things410things3

To my dearest pig-headed husband,

There are some days you drive me insane with frustration. There are times when you make me want to smash something over your stubborn big head. There are instances where I could scream at you at the top of my lungs. And there are moments when I have to exercise extreme control not to slap you silly.

Today is one of those days.

It is a good thing that you don’t read my blogs, (as you think it’s a frivolous waste of time – which I am sure you think would be better spent on you). It is a good thing, sweetie-pie, because I am about to tell you how much I hate you. Right at this moment. Right now.

1. You have a pathological obsession with sports

So Today, after spending a long day at work, with an overbooked clinic and long, frustrating operations, I arrived home, to find you sitting on the couch, screaming and yelling at the television. I watched you from the doorway. You alternated between slouching across the couch, to jumping excitedly on the couch. You were unshaven, hair mussed, and still wearing your pyjamas – the very same ones from this morning when I left the house. Empty beer bottles littered the coffee table, empty dirty plates scattered on the ground. On the screen was the Stanely Cup Finals.

I texted you before I left the hospital – to ask you if you had dinner ready, or I should get takeaway. There was no reply. I was starving on my drive home. Now I am just simply HANGRY.

I don’t understand your obsession with sports, why you can’t switch it off when I am home (since you have plenty of time to watch it when I am at work). I can’t fathom your need to turn it up so loud that the whole neighbourhood can hear our very expensive surround-sound system. And why do you keep yelling at the television or mumbling to your imaginery fellow spectators? You are not at the Staples Center, in a crowd of 18,000LA King fans. They can’t hear you, and it’s a good thing – I cringe at some of the obscenities you were screaming.

Then, when the game was over, and the house was back to its usual peace and quiet, you subjected me to a blow-by-blow account of each pass. Every exciting moment that you relived with relish, I have to feign interest with a smile that felt like a grimace.  If I didn’t respond appropriately, you accused me of ‘You never listen to me when I am talking to you.’

This may be hard for you to swallow, sweetheart, BUT I DON’T GIVE A RAT’S ARSE how that puck got into the net.

And why can’t you just be interested in one sport? Now that the Stanley Cup is over, I have to deal with this all over again with the World Cup. I have already had to listen to a lecture about how soccer was ‘just a bunch of pussies chasing after a rubber ball’. Kill me now.

2. You cannot drive and talk at the same time

And so, once the television was unplugged, much to your vehement protest – yes, those obscenities were now directed at me. You finally grasped the concept that a hangry wife can be dangerous to your very existence. You decided to feed the beast quickly, which meant eating out rather than risking your life in making her wait while you cooked. So we left home in our car and headed to my favourite restaurant. The drive was excruciating.

Did you know that you slow down to 40km/hr when you talk and drive at the same time? Did you know that when you were throwing you arms about demonstrating some stupid finer points of how the puck flew past the net, your foot lifted from the accelerator? Did you notice the Toyota Patrol behind us – the one whose bumper bar was almost up our ass?

Could you – for God’s sake – just SHUT THE F%@# UP AND DRIVE?!?!

3. You do not have the word ‘Romance’ in your vocabulary

You know, I have always been a little annoyed with the fact that you would never open my car door for me. Or any doors for that matter. You have always told me that you would never insult my intelligence by presuming I was not capable of opening a door for myself. That ‘excuse’ is wearing a little thin.

And chairs. You never pulled out chairs for me either. In fact, when the waiter took us to our table, and pulled out a chair, you stepped in front of me and sat down. It may have been amusing for you to see the appalled look on the poor waiter’s face, but it was just plain embarrassing that you showed no consideration for me in public.

If you belittled or denounced Romance, I would have tried hammering some sense into you, but you simply just, don’t get it. You looked at me in confusion when I mentioned the ‘R’ word, you asked me frustrating questions after watching a romantic comedy at the movies, and you laughed at some lucky woman’s husband when he attempted a romantic gesture. I guess I should have known things were dire when you took me on our first date to watch Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ‘Eraser’, followed by Sylvester Stallone’s ‘Daylight’ for our second date the week after.

Oh, and I know about that Vacuum cleaner you bought for my birthday when we first moved into a house together. If it wasn’t for my friends talking some sense into you, you would have not lived to see our wedding day. I saw the exercise bike and the iron in the garage too. What about the bread machine – the one with the card that said, ‘I love the smell of fresh bread in the morning, I hope you will like this present.’? I don’t suppose the machine came with a bread fairy that loved getting up at dawn?

I know it’s not from lack of trying, but honestly, your efforts have simply just been…. pitiful. Your attempt at a compliment when I was wearing my favourite heart-shaped earrings was, ‘You are wearing hearts on your ears, but I see hearts in your eyes.’ Ok, everyone, please groan in unison. That wasn’t just corny, it was downright miserably cheesy. What about your romantic ‘moves’. You reached out for my hand when we were walking back from the shops last weekend, I was so touched that you initiated this romantic gesture. But, why was I not surprised when you started making fart noises with our hands? Oh, and your timing had always been impeccable; like at night while we were both lying in bed, and I rolled away when you turned to me with that hopeful glint in your eyes. Oh, don’t worry, I heard your heartfelt declaration, ‘But I love you, baby.’ How often have I told you that horizontal-I-love-you’s DO NOT COUNT?

4. You have a severe case of domestic blindness

Another thing. I am SICK of looking for your missing things. I hate it whenever you yelled at me asking where things were. It doesn’t take an Einstein to figure out that the coffee beans sit in the cupboard, or that the milk resides somehwere in the fridge. And I don’t know where your other sock is, as far as I am concerned, there is a sock eating monster in our washing machine – or maybe our housekeeper has a fetish with your socks and she hoards them. Maybe if you go to her house, you will find one sock from each pair is hung up on her dresser in her bedroom, around a photo of yourself – as a shrine to your importance.

5. You reuse your dental floss

I don’t think I need to expand on this one. Simply. Gross.

6. You have a personal trainer called Nirvana

You must think I am gullible. You disappear for a few hours three times a week, telling me that you have a training session with your PT. And I asked you what your trainer’s name was. Nirvana. Right, and what was that she trains? Art of love, pole dancing, or just generally a good time? Ok, maybe I did go a little overboard with the stalking, and followed you into the gym (and caused a scene at the reception because I didn’t have membership access). It didn’t help that I coped an eyeful of the blonde, toned, long-legged Nirvana. Of all personal trainers at that gym, you couldn’t have chosen some old hag with a name like Gertrude? Or better still, how about a beef cake called Sven?

Don’t worry, I may not like it, but I have forgiven you. Oh, did you know I suffer from a really bad neck from doing surgery down a microscope at work? Well, I am on the prowl for a good physiotherapist with masseuse qualifications. Yes, I am afraid nothing less than a blonde Swedish Hercules will do.

7. You give my friends offensive nicknames

I know you don’t like some of my friends, and I do appreciate that you are never rude to them. But do you really have to give them nicknames like ‘Hooter Lady’ or ‘Junk-in-the-Trunk’? I am not sure whether I should hate you more for looking or for making me notice those things about my friends. What frustrates me more is that everytime I talk to you about my friends, I actually have to repeat those nicknames so you know who I am talking about. Which means, in my head, I am calling them ‘Stripper Legs’ and ‘Big Hot Mama’. One day, I know I am going to slip up when I talk to ‘Big Puppies’ and you will be to blame for either the end of our friendship or me being mistaken for a closet lesbian.

8. You never rush

I really really hate the fact that you never rush, especially when we are running late. For someone who plans her life down to the second, it boils my blood when we only have fifteen minutes to get somewhere, and you are still in your beloved Nike sweat shirt and pants, sipping your mug of coffee on the sofa.

Last Friday, I rushed home from work to pick you up so that we could get to dinner with our friends, and instead of waiting for me at the front door, you were lying in bed, in nothing more than just your socks and jocks, typing away on your ipad, laughing at some stupid sexist video your friend had posted on facebook. I was not fooled by your innocent looks. I knew for a fact that you deliberate dragged your feet and pretended to be indecisive about  what to wear because you were secretly laughing at me. You thought my obsession with punctuality was a joke, you knew exactly how to toy with me to stress me out when we were in a hurry.

When we did eventually get in the car, you drove like a grandma. When the light was amber, you rolled to a stop. When there was a traffic jam, you allowed other cars into the queue. You derived immense pleasure in increasing my tension by taking the scenic route to our destination. I was so mad I could have kicked you out of the car an taken over the wheel in a fit of rage.

I hate you even more for the fact that no matter how late we seem to be and how long it takes for us to get there, we are never late. Without fail, you always turn to me with that look. You know the look I am talking about – the ‘What-is-your-rush’ look, accompanied by that smug ‘I-told-you-we-will-get-here-on-time’ smirk.

9. You won’t stop wearing those old, ugly boardies

For those readers who aren’t Australian, boardies are loose-fitting swimming shorts that reach just above the knees (as opposed to the European ‘budgie-smugglers’, tight underpant-like swimming trunks that superman wears). They have a tie waist, and a velcro fly. The thing with boardies, is that the synthetic material is quick to dry, but often they can be passed off as just regular shorts.  They are, however, made for the beach.

I think 12 years, is long enough for a pair of boardies. Or for any piece of clothing for that matter. I know how much you love them, how you wear them throughout, summer, autumn, winter, spring, over and over. I can’t stand the fact that you sometimes wear them to work to see patients, and do your weekend ward rounds in them. I can’t believe that sometimes it takes me weeks to realise that they have not been in the wash. Considering the fact that you don’t wear anything under your boardies (as most boys would do when they are heading into the surf for a swim), wearing them for consecutive weeks is just….. Eeeeeewwwww.

They are grey and checkered. They may have been in vogue ten years ago, trust me, sweetie, they look like grandpa’s shorts today. You need to lose them. God knows I tried to lose them for you, and I tried to replace them. But somehow, the housekeeper managed to find them. She placed them into your wardrobe, above the new stylish Ralph Lauren shorts I bought for you last Christmas. This was despite oodles of bribery. When I questioned her about their miraculous reappearance, she mumbled something about death threats from the boss?!

10. You tell me things I don’t really need to know

I am not naive. I know what you and the boys do on your nights out. I know what you and your bestie do when you go on a ‘golfing’ trip to Las Vegas. I can imagine the conversations you have with the boys in the locker room at the gym, and the ‘fun’ you experienced when you were travelling Europe and North America with your hockey team years ago.

So stop sending me selfies of you and your best man drinking whiskey and smoking cigars, with couple of Vegas dancing girls in your lap. There was also no need for you to be so honest when I asked you why you had a wad of ten dollar bills. Pleasure money? What’s that? Oh, right. So that you can sit on the front row of the strip club and….Really? they have a place in their corset for you to put money there? Uh huh, must be terrible to have them rubbing their sweat-drenched brassiere in your face.

There are certain things in life that I would prefer to have my head stuck in the sand for. This include all the fart, boob, masturbation, and cock jokes from the locker room. The details of an ice-hockey groupie orgy, and I definitely have no stomach for the positions that stripper girls can achieve on your lap. There are just some details in your life which are on a need-to-know basis.

Oh, and honey, When your friends tell you something that starts with ‘don’t tell you wife’, they mean exactly that. DON’T TELL ME. It is your fault that I could not look at your colleague in the eye because I knew he wore his wife’s high heels at home. It didn’t help me when your friend’s girlfriend asked me whether he was having an affair, and it definitely made me cringe when your gym partner asked me if I can order KY-jelly in bulk for his wife (when you have just told me he’s a closet gay). Please respect that there are things in this universe which are meant to stay as secrets between two man-buddies.

 

So you see, I really hate you. I have exercised restraint by limiting this list to only ten things.

Here, I find myself quoting P!NK :

Sometimes I hate every single stupid word you say
Sometimes I wanna slap you in your whole face
There’s no one quite like you
You push all my buttons down
I know life would suck without you

At the same time, I wanna hug you
I wanna wrap my hands around your neck
You’re an asshole but I love you
And you make me so mad I ask myself
Why I’m still here, or where could I go
You’re the only love I’ve ever known
But I hate you, I really hate you,
So much, I think it must be

True love, true love
It must be true love
Nothing else can break my heart like

By the way, if you buy that Perazzi shotgun I have been admiring – the one with the ‘For Sale’ sign in the glass cabinet at my Trap-Shooting Club, I might just find it in me to list 10 things I love about you.

No? Oh Babe, don’t be like that. Of course not, I have never thought of you as an idiot. Annoying, arrogant, stubborn bastard maybe. But never an idiot.

Because it takes an idiot to love one, and I may love you very much, but I am definitely no idiot.

 

From your pissed-off wife,

T  xo

Invisible People

BellboyMaid

When we were in medical school, we both had several jobs. At the time, M (my then boyfriend and now husband), was an overseas student, so we were paying over $30,000 in university fees. Because our relationship was not ‘sanctioned’ by either of our parents, we had no financial assistance. We slept in a $60-per-week hospital dormitory room (consisting of one bed the size of a two-seater sofa, a small cupboard, an inbuilt desk, and nothing else). There was a strict rule of one person per room, so I had to sneak into the dormitories via the service lift while the wardens weren’t watching. We lived on left-overs from restaurants and hotels we worked at. Our lounge-room was the medical library on campus, and our kitchen was the doctor’s tea room in the hospital.

M was a dish pig. The lowest in the kitchen hierarchy of a restaurant. Not just any restaurant either, it was a swanky seafood restaurant. So, apart from washing tons of dishes, pots and pans, he had to peel over 500 prawns a day, wrestle with crayfish that had woken up from their freezer-induced coma, grapple with live giant mud-crabs’ claws, and de-beard over 50kg of mussels each shift. For a boy from a land-locked central eastern European country, these were creatures he had never seen before. I remembered the first time he tried to tell me what he did at work, he said, ‘I had to peel a lot of sea-cockroaches.’ It was rather adorable in that sexy Eastern European accent….

At the end of each shift, he had to clean the kitchen, which included an hour of hosing and scrubbing down the mats in the kitchen that often had bits of seafood stuck in the its rubber grid. I still remember the stench whenever he came home from work – I knew he was in the corridor even before he knocked on the door. He would walk through the room, straight onto the outside balcony, and take off his clothes (luckily it was often past midnight by the time he arrived home, not that he had a bad physique to show off in public!). His jeans were so stiff with a mix of dirt, cleaning agent, water and salt, that the pants remained standing on its own even after he stepped out of it. He then headed straight down the corridor in his briefs to the communal bathroom. Only then, did I get my hello, kiss and hug.

I was always surprised that he took on and stayed in that job for the 4 years of medical school. M was born into a very well-off, prestigious family in his town. His mother was the superintendent of the local hospital and his father was a civil engineer, a partner of a construction company that built several towns in Russia, one of which was named after him. M grew up in privilege, and has never had to work or ask for money from his parents. He just needed to request what he wanted, and he got. After he finished school, he became the captain of their national ice-hockey team, he was quite the local celebrity with all the perks that accompanied. And yet, there he was, scrubbing the kitchen sink and grills at midnight, for $9.50 an hour. Not once during those years did I hear him whinge. To him, it was simply the means to an end.

I had several jobs myself, some were rather glamorous, some not so. My higher end jobs included modelling for cosmetic companies, teaching piano privately, and playing background live music at hotel bars, restaurants and lobbies. I also had more income-reliable menial jobs like waitressing, cleaning, hotel maid, pet-sitting, typing and shelving/photocopying medical journals in the library (yes, this was in the pre-technology days).

One thing we both learnt from those days, was that some people are invisible.

When I was a cleaner, hotel maid or even as a waitress, and while he was a dish pig, we were invisible. At work, people did not see us, or acknowledge our presence. Even though being invisible was advantageous in being able to watch and observe others freely, not to mention the lack of ‘noticeable’ responsibilities, but I, personally hated being invisible as if I didn’t exist. I often lamented about this, but M pointed out to me that we were supposed to be unseen, because those ‘higher-up’ didn’t need to be bothered with what we did, how we did it or what we thought.

Now that I work as a surgeon in hospitals, I have noticed that the catering staff, the cleaners and the orderlies are often also invisible to other staff members, or sometimes, even to the patients. This often makes me mad.  I consciously make an effort at every opportunity I have to learn everyone’s names, and to stop and talk to them. I acknowledge their presence when they are in the room, and I try my best to include them as part of my team. After all, as far as I am concerned, we are all there for the benefit of the patient. What I find even more infuriating is the fact that some people treat others depending on what they do as a job. I have very little time or patience with patients or colleagues who sweet-talk me because I am surgeon, and yet, behind my back, they are rude and insulting to other staff members.

A colleague of mine once pursued me relentlessly to join his practice. I asked him why he wanted me to share his business so much. He said that it was because I treated everyone equally, that my demeanor and attitude to the cleaner was the same as that to the professor of surgery. It was a good thing for business he said, because I would be courteous to the staff, and respected by patients. Then he said, that I must have had a good upbringing.

Looking back, he hit the nail right on the head.

When we were little, we had a maid and a driver. The maid was an elderly woman, who was a generation older than my mother. We were to call her ‘ma’am’ because we had to respect our elders, and we were not allowed to give her cheek. Ma’am had a shoulder problem, and I remembered that mum used to empty the top cupboards for her to clean, and bought her light ladder so that she didn’t have to reach up too much. Once Ma’am dropped a plastic jar full of biscuits, it cracked on impact and the biscuits spilled all over the floor. She was about to bend down to the floor to pick up the crumbs when mum stopped her. ‘Oh no, Ma’am, you have only just recovered from your back surgery, don’t get down on the floor.’ She turned to us children and said, ‘kids, show your respect, there’s no need for someone older than you to squat down to the floor when you can do it for them.’ My brothers and I dutifully dropped to the floor and started sweeping and picking up biscuit crumbs.

Once when we were home early from school, Ma’am was on her hands and knees polishing the wooden floor, my bothers and I were aghast at this sight. We picked up our own polishing clothes and started to do our own rooms, because we couldn’t possibly have her clean up after us, on her hands and knees! Couple of weeks later, as we were in the supermarket with mum, we tried to sneak a polishing mop into her shopping trolley. Considering the fact that the mop and its handle was twice our size, it was hard to hide it from mum. She asked why we wanted to buy one, so we told her that we were going to give it to Ma’am so that she didn’t have to get down on the floor anymore. Mum didn’t say anything, but I was sure I caught a smile when she turned to pay for it at the cashier. We were so excited when we got home, my older brother raced up the stair with the mop to the bathroom where we could hear Ma’am tinkering away. When we told her that we bought a mop for her, she gathered us in a hug so tight and long that we started to whimper. When she released us, tears were running down her face, so hard and fast that we were all alarmed. My brothers and I started crying because we thought she was upset with us. It took a lot of hot chocolate and cake before my mother could pacify both Ma’am and us children from turning into a big slobbering mess.

Mr Lee was our driver. He was a gentleman who, despite being the same age as our parents, looked twice as old. He was often seen, leaning against the car, dragging anxiously on a cigarette, waiting but would quickly put out his smoke as soon as we approach. Mum used to lecture him from the backseat about looking after his health, to stop smoking and spending his money on gambling. He used to drive us to and from school, piano lessons, dance classes, to visit grandparents and looked after Dad on his business trips. One night, I was woken up by noises from the lounge, so I climbed out of my bed, headed down the corridor and quietly looked through the glass sliding doors. Mr Lee was sitting with his head in his hands, slouched on the edge of the sofa. Both mum and dad were sitting on each side of him and talking quietly to him. Dad had a thick wad of cash in his hand, and he gently pried Mr Lee’s hand from his face, and placed it in his hand. Mr Lee tried to give the money back, but Dad refused. I couldn’t hear what mum was saying, but the words ‘your wife and children’, ‘gambling’, ‘debt’, ‘must stop’, filtered through the frosted glass door. Mr Lee put the money into his jacket, collapsed onto the floor on his knees in front of mum and dad, and started bowing to them. Mum and Dad got up quickly, and tried to help him up from the floor.

When I was 9, Mr Lee picked me up from school to take me to my ballet lesson. I had a fight with my best friend – and for a 9-year-old, it was considered a very bad day at school. When we arrived at the dance school, I refused to get out the car. There was no amount bribery or cajoling from Mr Lee that could make me leave the car. I was behaving like a spoilt little rich princess. Mr Lee gave up after twenty minutes, and drove me to the nearest park, where we went for a little walk and he bought us some ice cream. He took me to the playground, and pushed my swing for me. When we went home an hour later, my mother was anxiously waiting at the front door.  Apparently she received a phone call an hour ago from my dance teacher to say I didn’t turn up to class. She was furious and demanded to know where we had been. I was terrified because I knew I was in big trouble. Mr Lee bundled me out the car and ushered me toward the door. He apologised profusely to mum, he told her that he was late picking me up from school, and by the time we got to the dance lesson, it was so late, he didn’t think there was any point dropping me off. He said that I was very upset that I had to miss my class, so to make up for his sloppiness, he took me for ice-cream. Mum berated Mr Lee angrily and told him that next time he should just bring me straight home. He apologised again and asked for Mum’s forgiveness. Mum was so mad, she threatened to fire him as she turned away, marching towards our front door. I was alarmed and cried out, trying to catch mum’s attention. Mr Lee turned to me and put his finger to his lips. ‘Go on, little girl, go inside with your mama.’  I did what I was told but when I looked back at him with my sad face, he winked at me with a great big smile, displaying all his crooked yellow tobacco-stained teeth, and gave me a thumbs-up sign like he didn’t have a care in the world. I was so relieved to see him waiting to take me to school outside our front door the next morning that I ran to give him a hug before he could put out his cigarette.

Recently, I realised, that despite the fact we live very comfortably after scraping and saving through medical school, we haven’t changed. Neither has my parents. We stayed at the very swish Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong for Chinese New Year earlier this year. We had my parents along for the trip. It was stinky humidly hot when we landed, but luckily we were transported in fully air-conditioned private car. When we arrived in the driveway of the hotel, Dad was concerned for the bell boys in their full uniform carting luggage in the heat. My 68-year-old Dad insisted on taking his own luggage out of the boot. It was only when I told him that he will get the bell boys and drivers in trouble with management by doing their job, that he backed down. Dad was so distressed that he didn’t have any Hong Kong dollars on him for a tip, I had to ask the bell boys if they accepted Australian dollars. Mum then wanted to buy bottled drinks for the bell boys standing outside so they didn’t get dehydrated. She gave me money to pop down to the local seven-eleven to get some soft drinks. My husband jokingly said that we should just give the bell boys the money so that they can go and get themselves something to drink. He got a jab in the chest from me and a command from Mum to go and get some drinks from the supermarket. It was a hilarious sight to see my 5-foot-grey-haired mum, handing out bottles of Coke to the bell boys. A couple of days later, Dad was at the morning fruit market buying lots of mangos. I asked him why he needed to buy so many, since we couldn’t take it back with us, he told me to mind my own business. That afternoon, when I was coming back to the hotel from a shopping trip, there was Dad, at the front door of the hotel, handing out his mangos from a plastic bag and telling each one of the bell boys how they must refrigerate it first, so that it would be more delicious and sweet. He repeated the whole exercise at the concierge desk.

My husband and I are not much better ourselves. When we arrived in St Moritz for our ski-trip last year, we had a butler with our suite at the hotel. We didn’t know what to do with him. He offered to unpack for us, but the thought of him handling my underwear made me hurriedly decline his services. He then kept hovering around the room which made us feel very self-conscious. I realised that it was because he wasn’t invisible to us. We had to send him away, even if it was just so that we could take the itchy woolly winter layers off and walk around in our underwear. Our butler got the hint for the rest of our stay and really became invisible. He made sure that all our laundry and ironing were picked up and put away while we were out, and our pyjamas, and delicious nightcap-treats were laid out while we were at dinner. The fire was always on in case we came back early from skiing. At one stage, we caught the front door bell boy whispering into his walkie-talkie as we strode through the front door – no doubt to give our butler warning. The one time we actually saw him was when we locked ourselves out of the room. He appeared out of thin air and apologised profusely for the 50-second-wait we had to endure.

Although we have become very accustomed to having just about everything done for us, not just in our travels but in our everyday life, I am so glad these people have not become invisible to us. I hope that our natural curiosity about people and respect for their lives will keep it this way, because after all, they are here to make our lives easier and they are simply fellow human beings, just like everyone of us.

So Thank you, Mum and Dad, for showing me that no one is invisible.

 

 

Pranks in a Hospital

Pranks at work take on a whole different level when one works in the health industry. I think I could have made some substantial claims from worker’s compensation as a result of the permanent psychological consequences of all the pranks that I have had to endure during my epic climb from a medical student to a specialist. Some were particularly memorable….

When I was a final year medical student, I was known as the ‘yes’ girl. I was one of those bushy-tailed, bright-eyed eager beaver who would do anything that I was asked to do by the medical team I was attached to. One evening, the senior resident on the team told me to go and check on a patient in Room 14 as the patient has had fainting episodes during the day. I was so chuffed thinking that my team trusted my judgement enough to give me such a responsible task, that I almost skipped down the corridor. I knocked on the door of Room 14, and there was no answer. I pushed the door open quietly and peeked. The room was dark and the patient was asleep. I headed back to the main desk and told the resident that the patient was asleep. He frowned at me and asked if I actually touched or saw the patient, I said no. He then asked me how I could tell the patient was actually alive under the blanket. ‘Go and wake her up so you can examine her.’

I felt so stupid that I hung my head in shame as I walked back down the corridor. I pushed the door open and approached the bed. I didn’t want to wake the patient up rudely by turning on the light, so I gently reached for her shoulder to shake her awake. Her pyjamas felt cool as I touched it and there was no response. So I grabbed the blanket and folded it back to wake her up properly. The minute the blankets were drawn back, the whole person flew/bunced/jumped out of bed and smacked me in the head. Apparently my scream was so loud on the ward, the nurses raced down the corridor with the resuscitation trolley. Not to mention some of the patient also wandered out of their room and followed in curiosity.

When the lights of Room 14 was switched on, there I was, on the ground, frantically batting away at the blow-up doll on top of me. My senior resident was laughing uncontrollably in the corner, and the head nurse stood over the side of the bed, shaking her head. Sniggers and giggles broke out in the crowd that gatherd in the doorway by the time I realised that I was not being attacked by a patient. All I could do, was to put the doll aside, give my senior resident a deathly stare and walk out of the room with whatever dignity I could gather. It was the first and final time I cried from a prank, because after that experience, I learnt that non-malicious pranks were actually a form of endearment bestowed upon favourite junior staff members by some of the senior staff.

However, that particular senior resident was apparently also very popular, because he was found ‘accidentally’ locked in the laundry cabinet three weeks later; it took 2 hours for hospital security to come and break the lock because someone had ‘lost’ the key.

My first job as an intern was on the gastroenterology and renal medicine ward, as part of the kidney/liver transplant team. On my first day, I was super excited because there was a kidney transplant to be done, and I was asked by the professor to help out in the operating theatre as they were short of surgeons.  The morning started with an introduction to all the nursing and allied health staff on the ward, then a ward round was done with the professor so I could get to know the patients. He and the other doctors headed down to start their big case, and I was told to follow once I have finished the paperwork from the round. The head nurse made me a coffee as I sat in the office, and told me that it was a welcome gesture from her and the other nurses. I thought that it was an awesome start to my career – everyone on the ward was friendly, and I was going to assist in a kidney transplant on my first day!

I was wrong. It was the most miserable day of my life. Little did I know that the ‘welcome’ gesture contained more than just Nescafe granules. The nurses added some PicoPrep (the stuff patients have to drink before their colonoscopy so that their bowels can be cleared out). Needless to say, during the kidney transplant two hours later, I had to excuse myself and unscrub 5 time within two hours. I tried so hard to hold it in that I had to change my pants three times because I didn’t make it to the bathoom.

By the end of the day, I was dehydrated, shaking with cold sweats running down my face while painstakingly suturing my first surgical wound. Commando.

Yep, no underwear, just in my scrub gear.

diarrhoea

My second job as an intern was in the Emergency Department. This particular ED I worked in was attached to the State Mortuary. So, one of our jobs a ED doctors, was to check, examine and certify the bodies brought in by the police so that appropriate paperworks can be completed to issue a death certificate before the they take it down to the morgue.  Majority of the time, all that was required was a brief look at the history handed to us by the police, a quick zip open of the bag in the boot of the police van, check of the carotid pulse over pasty-white neck skin and couple of signatures on a clipboard.

One day, there was a lull in the usual steady stream of patients.  Two police officers walked in. The senior doctor waved at them and offered to do the certification. The officers grinned and stopped him from heading out the door. ‘Is it a freshie?’ The doctor asked. They shared a smile. The senior doctor turned to the doctor’s area, ‘Who’s the most junior here?’ I put my hand up. He motioned me over. ‘Can you do me a big favour?’ He lowered his voice to a serious tone, It’s very important.’ I nodded eagerly. He pointed to the officers standing at the door. ‘Follow these two officers, there’s a body in their van that need a certificate.’

I puffed up with self-importance and swaggered outside with the two officers behind me. I should have known even before they opened up the door, but I thought the smell was just the usual bad sewage issues we have always had in the driveway drains. I was even more of an idiot not to stop when a swarm of flies escaped as soon as the van doors were open. Instead of doing what any sensible doctor would do – which is just to open a little bit of the bag, see some evidence of rotting flesh and close the zip quickly – I unzipped the whole bag, and tried to put my hand on the maggot infested neck to check for a pulse. It totally escaped my mind that since the guts were all hanging out in pieces, (obviously exploded from the build up of gas – courtesy of a week’s worth of fermentation), and the eyes were large nests of crawling maggots, not the mention the stench that permeated my whole being which made me want to run as far as I could in the opposite direction, were evidence that the patient is definitely DEAD. Yet I needed to feel his pulse to confirm that he was dead?! The officers were covering their noses with their hands and rolling their eyes at me. Really?? They seemed to say to me, Did you really have to open the whole bag and stick your finger into his neck?  Who found this silly little intern? She ain’t no Sherlock Holmes when it came to dead bodies.

When I grew up to become a surgical trainee, the antics continued in the operating theatres. I never realised how vulnerable a surgeon was when they were scrubbed, until the pranks started. Because the wound and equipment has to be kept sterile, once we are scrubbed, we cannot touch anything that is not sterile. For example, if someone punched me in the face when I  am scrubbed, it’s not like I can just punch them back, since they are not sterile. If I did, I would contaminate my surgical field and will have to take everything off and scrub all over again.

One of the worse things about being scrubbed is not being able to answer the phone. It is very often that our mobile phones go unanswered during surgery. Once in a while, if the nurse or anaesthetist is free and feel kind (as they hate being lowered to the status of the phone-answerer), they will take a message for the surgeon.

Once my senior surgeon was sitting in the operating theatre watching me operate when my phone went off next to him on the bench. He glanced down and said, ‘it’s your husband.’ I shrugged and turned around to say that it’s ok to just leave it unanswered.

But I was too late, my senior surgeon had already answered the call, ‘Hello.’

I called out, ‘just tell him I am scrubbed. I will call him later.’

He ignored me and spoke into the phone. ‘Sorry, she can’t come to the phone at the moment.’  A pause. ‘No, she’s not scrubbed. She’s busy doing a lap dance.’ A dramatic sigh. ‘In my lap, of course. And she’s very good at it too.’ He cleared his throat and held the phone away from his ear when a barrage of words came through the earpiece. ‘Look, why don’t you ring back later when she’s not busy. I can’t concentrate enough to take a message at the moment.’ He promptly hung up.

At my appalled look, he flashed me an evil smile and said, ‘Well, that will keep his mind busy for a while.’  For the rest of my term with him, whenever I saw his phone sitting on the bench next to mine, I considered ringing his wife. Luckily I refrained, because a few months after I moved onto the next team, I found out that he had left his wife for a young physiotherapist whom he was having an affair with.

When I was a surgical trainee, I was an easy target for the anaesthetists, especially the senior ones. They often told me that I was too serious and needed to lighten up. They wanted me to be different to the arrogant surgeons who couldn’t take a joke, or snap at anyone who tried to make fun of them. I worked hard during my training and spent more hours in the operating theatres than any other trainee in my service, so it was no surprise that I became fair game to all my anaesthetic and nursing colleagues.

Once I was performing a traumatic laparotomy, repairing bowel in a penetrating abdominal injury. There were lots of blood and my junior resident and I had our hands full trying to stop intrabdominal bleeding. It was unpleasant as his abdomen was also full of faeces as the bowel was lacerate in several locations. At one stage, some of the wash fluid, blood and poo were spilling over the sides of the operating table and I remember thinking that my surgical boots will definitely need a wash after work. Half way through the operation. I realised that my feet felt rather…. damp. I shuddered as I realised that most likely some of the crap has gotten in from the top of the boots (as I stupidly tucked my pants into them), and that I was probably standing and squelching in blood and poo. I wiggled my toes and felt my soggy socks slosh freely in fluid.

It was then I noticed giggling coming from behind the drapes at the head of the table (where the anaesthetic staff usually hide). I looked up at them suspicious, then I looked down. There in my boots were two intravenous lines, connected to two bags of saline, and there was water spilling over the top edge of my boots.  My feet were drenched in bucket-full boots. Honestly, you guys have the mentality of 5 year-olds, I said in exasperation. They kept laughing, like children laughing at fart jokes.

One night, we were putting some fingers back on. This can take up to 12-18 hours depending on the number of fingers we needed to reattach. Unfortunately I had to reattach four, which meant it was going to be a very long night. The anaeasthetic consultant came up to me and asked me how long it was going to take. I shrugged and said as long as I needed.  He then waited until I was scrubbed and sat myself down at the operating table. He then crouched under the hand table, and attached small neurostimulator pads on my calf. These are often used on patients while they are asleep, a shock is delivered through these pads into the patient, and cause a small electric shock, siginifcant enough to generate muscle contracture directly under the pads. This tests the muscular tension of unconscious patients to determine how relaxed and deep in sleep they are under anaesthesia. Well, In this particular instance, they were not on the patient – I found them on both of my calves instead.

He then retreated back to his position next to the anaesthetic machine and held up the remote control for the neurostimulator. With a slightly evil look on his face, he announced to everyone. ‘I will turn this on once every hour, just so you know how long you are taking.’

Trust me, if anyone was asleep in my operating theatre while I was pulling this all-nighter surgery, they were promptly woken up every hour with loud obscenities. I tend to get lost in time when I operate and the hourly reminder were coming faster than I expected, and each time, I would be caught unaware by the sudden jolt and contraction of my calf muscles.  These episodes were loudly accompanied by a physical jolt, yell of shock and swearing, repeatedly, in that order. It was only 12 hours later, when I finished the surgery that he told me he was actually giving me a shock at random, basically when he got bored.

To top it off, I didn’t realised that he and the nurses were in cahoots with each other. During the surgery, he apparently rang my mobile phone. I forgot to take it out of my pockets in my scrub pants before I scrubbed, so it was ringing away under my gown whilst I was trying to concentrate. The nurse offered to take it out of my pocket to answer it. I turned around in my chair and she fumbled under my sterile gown and shirt to grab my phone. Obviously, it was too late to answer the phone and she told me that it was a silent number, so I left it at that.

What I didn’t realise, was that the whole exercise was so that she could untied my scrub pants. So, as I stood up for the first time after sitting at the table for 12 hours, my pants fell down to my ankles. Lucky I was wearing my undies that day.

Of course, now that I am all grown up as a fully-qualified specialist, I am proof that good students emulate their teachers – and trust me, I learnt from the best. Although in today’s climate of political correctness, some pranks can be taken the wrong way and one must be very careful with the selection of target victim. But I am a true disciple of my forebearers and my pranks are legendary. After all, a sense of humour can be the life-saver in times of desolating fatigue, despair and desperation. I firmly believe that learning to laugh at ourselves is the key for humiliy and perspective. I have learnt, however, that you have to expect to get as good as you give.