My Other Half

Anaesthetic

A surgeon is incomplete without an anaesthetist. I cannot perform surgery without one, I cannot concentrate on what I do without knowing that there is someone looking after my patient. A surgeon and anaesthetist are like husband and wife, yin and yang, each half of a twin, right and left hand……

The success between a surgeon and an anaesthetist is based on complete trust. The anaesthetists trust us not to harm our patients during an operation and we have implicit trust in them to keep our patients alive and stable while we perform the necessary tasks. As much as we love to be-little each other in jest, we are completely cognizant of the fact that we couldn’t do without each other; as I said, like an old married couple.

Often, conversations flow during a procedure, particularly long operations. This could range from clinical discussions, to personal relationships. These conversations are like those when one is lying in the dark with one’s best friend, where deep personal thoughts are said out loud, and honest responses are given. These earnest dialogues take place over the top drapes separating the anaesthetic corner from the surgical field. – so-called ‘blood-brain barrier’ – because the anaesthetists are the ‘brains’ or the smarter doctor (so they think) and we are often jokingly known as the bloody butchers. It is not uncommon to have my anaesthetist’s head peering over this drape, reassuring me when I become hesitant in an operation, comforting me when I lament on difficult patients, encouraging me when I am struggling with a particularly challenging procedure, and humouring me when I rant and rave about injustices in my personal life. But not all of our verbal exchanges are serious, often well-aimed insults are fired regularly across the patient, in an attempt to evoke witty repartees.

Last week, I lost my anaesthetist. She wasn’t just my other half, but she was my friend, my confidant, my rock, and part of my life. We started our careers in private practice together, we supported each other through some difficult times in our profession, and we shared many stories, experiences and challenges in our personal lives together.

It is difficult for me to accept that she is gone from my life. She was like a pair of comfortable old shoes, someone who knew me, someone I didn’t have to pretend with, an old friend whom I could just pick up an old conversation where we left off a week ago. Her sense of humour and directness fitted my moments of moodiness, her logic and reasoning soothed my indignant outbursts. She gave me sympathy when I needed it and empathy when I got frustrated.

She put my patients to sleep safely and efficiently, many times anticipating what I required in the anaesthetic without asking me. She never doubted my judgement or questioned my requests; she knew when to speak up and when to pipe down. She knew that in times of emergency, the last thing I needed was to have to spell out specific instructions to her, whilst trying to deal with my own stresses.

She had traits that frustrated me, and yet made me laugh at times. She had no sense of direction. Sometimes I would walk past her on my way back from the recovery unit, and see her wandering towards the change rooms. When I asked her if she was going off on a toilet break, she would say she was heading out to see the next patient in the holding bay (which was in the opposite direction). It didn’t matter that she had been working with me in that theatre complex for the last 5 years, from time to time, I still had to physically steer her towards the correct corridor, and the right direction.

She had a thing about firearms, which was amazing considering the fact that she was from South Africa and was given her first pistol at the age of 18 as a birthday present. When I took her to the local gun club to trial clay pigeon shooting, she was nervous and afraid, she pulled the trigger even before the clay pigeons were being flung! There were a few holes in the walls of the trap house where her gun was pointing at. At the time, even though we both laughed so hard at her inept attempts, I was particularly proud of the fact that she overcame her fear to give it a go.

One of the things I admired most about her was her ability to do as she pleased without worrying what others thought of her. She didn’t care about unflattering photos on Facebook. She didn’t mind dressing up as the dorkiest bride at a friend’s party celebrating Prince William and Princess Kate wedding. She tried everything and anything without judgement and reservation. She did her best for the patient even if it meant hassling or inconveniencing other colleagues. She did what was right even if it meant she had to take the long way round or spend extra money. She talked about her life and her opinions openly, without fear of being judged for what she believed in.

She was generous. And she was considerate. She bought me a pair of expensive padded theatre shoes because I was complaining of shin splints and calcaneal spurs after being on my feet 18 hours a day. She ordered coffee for everyone in the operating theatre whenever we were having a particularly long day. She would tell me to un-scrub and take a break if I was doing a long case.

She treated everyone the same. She knew all the anaesthetic nurses’ family members by name. She never failed to ask about their pets. She would treat the orderlies with respect, and she would tell me off if I had inadvertently offended her. She spent the time and energy teaching new nurses and technicians, and she would patiently explain her particular preferences even though she had been working at the same place for the last five years. She gave her best clinical skills to the thief who came into the emergency theatre after crashing a stolen vehicle, and to Nelson Mandela when he had eye surgery in 1994.

She was passionate. She loved the wild, and her homeland. She travelled to South Africa regularly to visit her family, and to spend time at her beloved chimpanzees and gorillas reserves. She was forever posting links about wildlife conservation and the cruelty of game hunting. She was constantly reminding us not to become complacent in protecting species that were less fortunate than us in protecting themselves.

Most of all, she was prepared. One could never pull the wool over her eyes. She saw reality as it was, life and death as it happened throughout her career. She saw cancer patients younger than her daughter, and accidents that changed young men’s lives forever. She and I often lament about how life is too short to bear grudges, to hold back and to be afraid. She wanted to protect those she loved, as we all found out when she passed. She had prepared an envelope for her most trusted closest friend, just for an unexpected time such as this. Her affairs were organised down to the last detail, and her will was legality iron-clad with no contestability. The fact that she took such pains to stipulate everything as the way she wanted, not the way she was expected, showed that she was a realist, with the foresight and consideration for those around her.

She was 59. One year short of the big 6-0. She didn’t look her age, because she lived her life with the enjoyment of someone who was experiencing everything for the first time. She was taken away from us too soon. Too unexpectedly. We are all still in shock, as to how it could happen to someone who was so full of life.

I am finding it difficult to grasp, that she is now gone.

When I walked into my operating theatre today, you weren’t there. Even though I went through the motions and completed my list without a hitch, I felt lost.

I felt lost because you weren’t there.

So I cry, because I know you will never be there with me again.

 

Watch out girls, Dr McDreamy is in Town

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.

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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.

Just a bit more eye candy for my readers.

Just a bit more eye candy for my readers.

* names have been changed to protect privacy of individuals

The BMW Club: Meet the Members

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.

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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

Just a Matter of Pride & Vanity

So, on Friday night, I found myself in my wardrobe, amidst clothes flung on the floor, jewellery spreaded out on my dressing table, shoes strewn along the carpet, and a very frazzled looking, insecure woman staring back at me in the mirror. The dress I held in front of myself flew out of my hand onto the floor in an exasperated sign. Another one bites the dust. I tried chanelling Angelina Jolie…..

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I  looked up at the reflection. Messy, frizzled hair cascading around my bare face devoid of makeup, loose pyjama top stained with food remanents, tracksuit pants that are two sizes too big, and peeling red nail polish on my toes. I looked closer. Damn, is that my gray hair peeking through my last hair colour 8 weeks ago? Brown eyes are so boring, maybe I should get eyelash extensions to enhance my eyes. I made a pout – my lips are so thin, it’s hardly worth the effort of putting on lipstick. When did those lines started to become so prominent around my eyes and forehead. Hubby is right, I really frown too much, maybe I should start giving myself some Botox……

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It hit me then. Oh God. I have become one of them.

Them – being my cosmetic patients. The ones that sit in my office, telling me over 45 minutes about the extra fat bulges that shouldn’t be sitting on heir hips, the breasts that are too small for their designer dresses, the waistline that is not well-defined enough like a washboard, the fine wrinkles that give their age away, the flat cheekbones that makes their nose look big, the turkey neck that makes them look old, the receding chin that lacks character etc etc etc. Usually by the end of the consultation, my eyes have rolled to the back of my head, listening to their lists of imperfections. Sometimes I am tempted to whip out my ipad and show them pictures of women whom I have had to remove facial and body parts for cancer, just so that they can appreciate what God has given them.  Sometimes I work really hard at being patient and sympathetic. Because after all, I am a plastic surgeon. Making people as beautiful as they want to be is my job. Although I have to admit, the biggest frustration of my job is that sometimes my definition and their concept of being ‘beautiful’ can be two vastfuly different things.

So I digress.

What has put me in this state?

Earlier this month, I received a message via facebook from Georgina. She was coming for a conference. She was dying to catch up because she hadn’t seen me for years. She just got married last year to the hottest guy and would love me to meet him.

She hadn’t seen me for 12 years to be exact.

Georgina and I have known each other since first year of high school. We were family friends. Our mothers car-pooled. My mother took us to school and her mother (Mrs S) took us home. We went to the same private girls’ school, lived two streets away from each other, had the same piano teacher, attended the same ballet school, she was a swimmer and I was a rower, so we trained at the same time. When we grew up, we went through medical school together. She is now a specialist working in another state.

Georgina was from a very wealthy family, I was a scholarship girl in a private school. Her father was a medical specialist and Mrs S was a housewife who lunched at the local country club. My parents were migrants who owned and worked in a small mortgaged coffee shop. Our house was old and falling apart around us, my father was forever ‘self-renovating’ it. They lived in an elegant white mansion, with an automatic gate, french window seats, custom-made silk and brocad curtains, a dining room that fitted a long shiny mahogany table which sat 20 guests…. you get the picture. Mrs S used to pick us up from school in her shiny BMW, with fresh Happy Meal boxes from MacDonald’s for us to eat, then we’d go to her house until my parents were home from work. Georgina and I would play dress up in her room, muck around on the piano, swim in her big pool and hang around the cook in the massive kitchen for scraps from whatever feast she was cooking the family for dinner.

Georgina had the biggest wardrobe I had ever seen, and every few weeks, she would give me clothes that she didn’t want anymore. She was bigger than me, so most of the time, my mother had to take in the sides and lengh.  She taught me how to put on makeup and paint my nails. She coached me how to walk in high heels. She educated me in the difference between Chanel and Gucci. She showed me the colours of Louboutin Red and Tiffany Blue.  I was always in awe of her and her family. I thought I was so lucky to have her as my friend. She was a popular, confident girl who excelled in everything, and held different official positions throughout high school. She always changed into one of her beautiful designer outfits when we went out after school.  She was allowed to wear high heels when she was 15. Handsome looking senior guys from the private boys’ school next door used to hang around her. She got asked to the prom every year of high school. I was a typical nerd. I had braces for three and half years. I wore uniforms that were too big for me (because mum couldn’t afford to buy a new one each time I grew). Although I did well in my core-curriculum and music, I was bad at sports, clumsy and awkard. I was constantly in flannel shirts, jeans and scruffy sneakers when I wasn’t in my uniform (legacy of my older brother’s wardrobe). I was shy around boys, and never went to a prom, except mine. I took my older brother.

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Looking back, I can’t say we were really friends. I desperately believed that we were friends, even though we never spoke to each other at school. But when we were at her house, we spoke about everything, from our favourite movies, difficult equations in maths, places we’d like to travel to and our fairytale weddings. I guess we were friends by default. Two very different young girls thrown together by circumstance. We spent everyday together through our teenage years and early twenties. Her house was the only place I was allowed to go to without parental supervision on weekends. The parties I was permitted to attend were those she was invited to. We hung around the same crowd when we were older, our brothers were best friends, so it was unavoidable that we were always in each other’s presence.

Then little incidents started to fall in place for me. There were several, but a few stood out.

Once when I was bored of playing cricket with my younger brother, to escape his pestering, I walked over to her house on a Saturday afternoon. I pressed the bell at the gate. Mrs S answered. I told her it was me and if I could come over and and play with Georgina. She said of course and called for Georgina. I don’t think Mrs S realised that the intercom was still on, because the next thing I heard was Georgina’s whining voice. ‘Is she here again? Mum, she’s so annoying, do I have to play with her? Can’t you just tell her I am not home?’

‘Hush Georgie, be nice to Tiffany. She is a very good girl and you have a lot to learn from her.’

‘She’s such a dag. Mum.’

‘Go and let her in.’

I hesitated. I wanted to leave, but I managed to convince myself that she didn’t really mean it – because if she did, she wouldn’t have let me in. So since that day, I tried really hard not to be ‘annoying’.

When I went to my prom, I didn’t have a dress. Mrs S offered to my mother that I could borrow one of Georgina’s many prom dresses. I was at their house, trying on different dresses, most of which were too big as Georgina was a swimmer and had much wider torso than myself. Mrs S then brought out a dress from her wardrobe. She said it was her prom dress when she was a girl (and when she was a lot slimmer). It was a long beautiful tight shimmering number. It fitted me perfectly. Georgina said that I looked old in it. I thought she was just jealous that I could wear her mother’s dress. Days before the prom night, she told everyone at school that I was wearing one of her mother’s old dresses and that I looked like I had no boobs with a fat tummy in such a tight dress. I went home and cried, I told my mother that I didn’t want to wear Mrs S’s dress. She made me wear it on the night. I spent the whole night sitting in the corner, with my brother’s black Parka jacket over Mrs S’s dress.

When we were at uni, my boyfriend (now husband), M, was in her group. I remember thinking that she was my ‘closest friend’ (plus she was also one of M’s friends), so I should let her know that M and I had started dating. She shrugged with disinterest when I told her. She was more eager to tell me about how several male doctors at the university hospital had been asking her out. Two days later, M asked me if i ever had braces. I said yes and asked him why. He said that Georgina told him about my braces and how I used to look hilarious when food got stuck in it. I asked him what else did he and Georgina talk about, and he started telling me some pretty embarrasing things I used to do at school. I got angry and said that Georgina was trying to make me look bad. He just laughed and said that I was over-reacting. He thought the stories were adorable.

Finally, the last time I saw her, we were sitting exams to apply for specialist training. I was studying in the library, in a cubicle desk next to the meeting room. The meeting room is often booked out by study groups. I preferred to study alone. The walls were very thin, I could hear the conversation in the room. Georgina’s voice stood out. One of the girls was admiring her shirt. Georgina said that she got it from an exclusive boutique in the city. The girl mentioned that I worked there on weekends. Georgina laughed, ‘isn’t it ridiculous how long Tiffany has worked there?! You’d think her dress sense would improve for the better.’ When I bumped into her leaving the library later that day, I said goodbye. Then I quit my job at L’Amour Boudoir a week later.

Now I asked my reflection in the mirror. Why the hell did you say yes to this dinner.

Maybe I wanted to give Georgina the benefit of the doubt? Maybe she has changed and matured. She did probably consider me as a friend and has missed having me around to talk to. She sounded genuinely interested in finding out about my life. She really wasn’t such bad person, she had her own insecurities and fears. I’d like to think she was jealous of me, but that would have just been plain silly, because I envied her and she knew that I wanted to be just like her.

Or maybe because I wanted to show her how far I have come in life, that I now live in the same sphere of professional stature and wealth as her family. But why would I care what she thinks of me now? Why did I have the need to show her that I was the same or maybe even better than she is? I wanted to show her that I am now more worldly, and have developed my own sense of style. Looking at my reflection in the mirror – there was no evidence of any of the above. The little insecure teenager in me had been brought to the surface by Georgina’s visit.

Thus my indecisiveness in ‘what to wear’. This was so unlike me. I am used to making a split second decisions on a bleeding internal jugular vein, a prompt judgement on managing severed fingers, not to mention accurate assessment on resectability of complex cancers. And now, I found myself stuck in front of the mirror, dithering over one black dress over another (honestly, they all look the same), and worrying about a few lines on my face. I sighed and threw my hands up in the air.

Then a voice downstairs brought me back down to earth. ‘Hey, beautiful, have you finished dolling yourself up yet? We are going to be late.’ I can see him, sitting on the sofa, flickering through Star Trek episodes on the remote, in his blue-striped shirt to match his eyes, navy linen blazer fom Zegna, crossed legs covered in tailored Armani pants and suede loafers courtesy of Bally. Half an hour ago, I was sitting on that sofa, exactly as I was and he as he was, snuggled up in his lap while he was talking about his day. Then I saw in the mirror what he would have seen.

One thing I have learnt from working in the field of plastic surgery for over 10 years is, the clients that feel truly beautiful, are those that already did before surgery. All I do for them is to enhance the parts which they wanted improvement.

So I berated the bedraggled image in the mirror. You are a well-respected plastic surgeon. You are fit, toned and have a perfect Body Mass Index of 23. You look good for your age, and that’s without Botox. Your husband can’t keep his hands off you because you are gorgeous. He spoils you with classy jewellery. You can afford expensively tailored designer clothes and shoes. You have everything at your fingertips to make yourself one damn stunning hottie.

By the time I had my hair piled up over the gray roots, Chanel make -up applied over the fine lines, Helmut Lang black dress zipped up, Louboutin pumps hiding my neglected toes, Tiffany diamonds in place, and a shimmering Louis Vuitton clutch in my hand, I felt like the envy of all women.  And men. For all my self-righteous tirade on Vanity, I have had to admit to myself that a healthy dose of it does wonders for one’s self-esteem.

Because when I walked into the restaurant that night, it didn’t matter what Georgina and her hunky husband thought, I felt like a million dollars, like Angelie Jolie in The Tourist.

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With my very own Brad Pitt.