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.

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.

mcdreamymcsteamy4

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

Just a R&R on Allergies

allergies

Humour me – I need to do a R&R (Rant and Rave) on patient’s allergies.

I am sick of people with ridiculous allergies.

My anaesthetist once told me, that if a person put down more than three drug allergies, then he/she is most likely crazy. I have had patients who ran out of space on their pre-consultation questionnaire for their allergies that they started to list them on the back of the form. I understand that there may genuinely be people who have multiple allergies, but these people are extremely rare. Their allergies are often proven with forma allergy-testing.

I have had patients who have listed every class of antibiotics under their allergies, so I have had to tell them that I couldn’t operate on them, because if they got an infection, I won’t be able to treat it.

Then there are the patients who put down ‘allergic to general anaesthetics’ when they check into hospital for their operation. Really? Would you prefer a sledgehammer instead? You can’t be allergic to general anaesthetics – to put someone to sleep it requires a finely-balanced cocktail of different intravenous drugs and inhalable gases. Sure, there are known idiopathic reactions to specific anaesthetic drugs, but these are rare – often the specific agent can be identified and the patients are informed in detail. The generalisation of being allergic to general anaesthetics just shows patient’s complete ignorance to their true allergies. Nausea and vomiting or a mild rash after a GA is common – it doesn’t mean you are allergic to it.

Patients who are allergic to multiple pain killers are a complete headache to surgeons. When patients put down that they are allergic to all narcotics except Pethidine, they shouldn’t be surprised that medical and nursing staff treats them like Pethidine addicts. Pethidine is a narcotic, it’s hard to fathom that someone could be allergic to all narcotics but not Pethidine. Most often, people who get a high on Pethidine prefer Pethidine injections to any other narcotic as their pain relief. There are also patient who claim they are allergic to simple analgesia like paracetamol/acetaminophen, or anti-inflammatories, but can only take narcotics. That to me, also sounds pretty suss.

Then there are patients who think they are hilarious. When I ask them what they are allergic to, the response is, ‘doctors’, or ‘pain’, or ‘hospitals’. If only I had a penny for each time I get the funny patient, I’d be a millionaire by now. What about patients who write ‘hay fever’ or ‘eczema’ in the box next to ‘Drug Allergies’. Really?! Do they know of any doctors who prescribe ‘hay fever’?

Food allergies, however, are important to disclose, as some people who are allergic to seafood or crustaceans can also be allergic to iodine. One of the intravenous anaesthetic (propofol) also has egg protein in it, so can cause severe allergic reactions in those who are allergic to egg. As for being allergic to cat? Well, we don’t normally prescribe cat, and the well known cat-gut sutures are actually made out of sheep gut.

People need to understand the difference between side effects and allergy. Nausea, indigestion or even itch sometimes, is not an allergy; it is just a common side effect. These side effects can be avoided if advice or treatment is sought. Being sensitive to something is not an allergy. Patients love telling me they are allergic to all tapes.  When tested, they are usually not allergic to any, because the ‘red rash’ they describe are just irritation from the sweat which has accumulated under the tape on their sensitive skin. Some people are also quite ‘sensitive’ to medications, and although understandable, is still not a true allergy. All that is needed is a dose or timing adjustment or even treatment to prevent these sensitivities.

Sometimes I have to admit, it can be the doctor’s fault that patients think they are allergic to numerous things. When a patient reports a side effect, the doctor is often quick to blame the drug and put it down in the allergies column, instead of explaining to the patient that it is not a true allergy, and find out if the drugs were taken correctly.

Why is it so annoying to a doctor when patients put down allergies which are not true allergies? Because once you have written it down as an allergy, medicolegally, we find it very hard to give that particular drug to you, even if you need it desperately. So if you put down that you are allergic to an antibiotic when all you get is a bit of nausea, we have to give you a second-line antibiotic choice to treat your infection because we don’t want to be sued for drug reactions. If, instead of putting it down as an allergy, you tell us that you get a bit of nausea with the antibiotic, we will dose it so that you can take it with food and maybe some antacids to treat the side effect, but you will now get the best antibiotic for your infection.

So next time you write down your allergies, think twice before you start listing them.

What about the patient who told me that she was allergic to light?

I told her that it was ok. I can operate in the dark.

 

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.

Sex and City2

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

Not for the Sceptic

palm reading 3

I had an interesting conversation with a patient last week; about fortune –telling, clairvoyance, crystal balls and knowing one’s future. When a patient tells me that she trusts me, I feel flattered. But when she adds to this compliment with ‘because I can see your aura, it is beautiful, it tells me that I can trust you with my life.’ I become a little sceptical. Like all science-based professionals, I am guilty of harshly judging those who live by their beliefs in the supernatural powers, mystic theories and psychic phenomenon. With me, what I see is what I believe, and what is explained in logic and science is how I make my decisions.

However, I humoured her. I asked her how she can tell with an aura. She said that she has a gift passed down by her grandmother (I quietly and discretely rolled my eyes). She said that some can read cards, palms and faces, others can see and talk to spirits, but for her, it was touch and auras. She said she sees an aura around every individual, and it tells her things about them. When she touches someone, she could sometimes see their thoughts. I asked her if she could see into their futures. She said no, her gift is not like a crystal ball. She said her grandmother could see the future by touching and examining a person’s face and eyes, but she herself never had the gift. She said that most true clairvoyants who can see the future are sad individuals, because people’s futures can become a burden which they carry with them. She said she is not interested in seeing the future, because she wants to believe that we make our own destiny.

By the end of our ten minute conversation, I was impressed, so much so that I had stopped rolling my eyes and became her captured audience. I could see that she truly believed in everything she said and maybe, she does see an aura around people that ordinary people like I will never comprehend. Cheekily, I asked her if I could become a psychic too. She laughed. She said that I would stop being a good doctor if I could see everyone’s future. I was taken aback by her incredibly insightful comment.

Then she took my hand. I remembered thinking that her hands were so soft and warm, completely incongruent to the weathered, wrinkly hands of an elderly lady in her 80’s. She said my hands were cold, because I keep a lot to myself, then she said softly, ‘you have changed so many people’s lives, and that’s not just with your hands. You see things that others cannot see.’

I suddenly remembered all the other patients sitting in my waiting room, and decided to let her comment slide. I led her outside to reception, and she smiled at me as she said her goodbye. But her words haunted me for the whole week. It wasn’t because of the cryptic end of her statement; it was because I have heard it before. Twice.

When I was born, I was discoloured, floppy, deformed and premature. There were concerns, as I lay lifeless in neonatal intensive care, that I may not grow up to be a normal child. In my culture, a newborn’s name is everything. The true traditionalists believe that each character in a child’s name will determine his/her future. Names were picked to try and change the predicted course of a baby’s life. Specific characters were used to supplement what the child will be lacking in his/her future life. Each child’s fortune was told before he or she has a name. My grandmother took a piece of my umbilical cord with my birth date and time to the oldest temple in my home town. There she sought out the most senior monk for advice, and returned to the hospital with my foretold future and name.

When I was twelve, I told my mother that I hated my name. It is too masculine, and throughout my school life, teachers and students were always surprised when they met me that I was a girl. So my mother told me about my grandma’s conversation with the monk.

The two characters in my name had specific functions. One is the name of Confucius’ first disciple, they were both great scholars. The monks were concerned that I will struggle with the process of studying. They were right. I did struggle with studying – I had no problems with comprehension and understanding, but I found it very hard to sit down for long periods as I was very easily distracted. I was placed in multiple remedial classes throughout primary school, and was held back to do year 4 twice. I had multiple tutors throughout high school, just so that I could sit down long enough to complete my homework and assignments. I barely scraped into medical school on a second round offer. Then I struggled through the first few non-clinical years on university campus, attending lectures and spending hours sitting in the library staring into space. It was when I started my clinical years in the hospital grounds that I started to thrive both personally and academically.

The second character had the water element – he toldmy grandmother that I will be ‘lacking in water’. This turned out to be true. I have a serious ongoing problem with not drinking enough water. I am amazed I haven’t yet suffered kidney stones or renal failure. My average daily ‘water’ intake is one cup of coffee in the morning, one bottle of juice at lunch and one cup of coffee after lunch. At the top of my New-Year’s-Resolution list every year is ‘Drink More Water’. I am still working on it. I just hate the tastelessness of water, and not to mention, the inconvenience of having to unscrub during long operations to pee if I drank too much.

The monk told my grandmother about my future. He said that this baby girl has a weak heart, which will be broken multiple times in her life. Grandmother asked if that meant her granddaughter will be unlucky in love, he shook his head. He said that there was no need to worry, because one day, she would meet and marry a man who is an expert in the matters of the heart. Grandma asked if the baby girl will be fortunate. He said that she will be most fortunate, but will never gain anything with ‘luck’. He reassured grandma that the girl will enjoy a very comfortable, pampered life, but she will always be sad, because she will would never be able to have the one thing in life that she wanted above everything else. Grandmother asked if the baby girl will be smart and do well in life. He said that she will work very hard, not because she has to, but because it is her destiny to change many people’s lives. He then said that the baby girl is different, she is very sensitive, so she will see things other people can’t see.  This will be her price for a fortunate life, she will have to carry the burdens of other’s misfortune in what she sees. She is easily frightened and lacks courage. She will have dreams which carries the truth.

For a thirteen year-old it was all rather cryptic and I dismissed it as an unimportant tale; a tale, I thought at the time, which was a sorry excuse for giving a girl a masculine name.

Then when I was sixteen, we went back to visit my home town. My mother took me back to the temple. Astonishingly, the same monk was still there. He was over ninety years old. He had short white stubbles on his chin, and walked hunched over with a cane. I watched him shuffled slowly from one chair to another. He was blind. We went up to the old monk, and my mother told him that I was one of the young babies he had named. I thought at the time that he must have named thousands during his lifetime at the temple, and there was no way he was going to remember me.

He politely thanked my mother for bringing me back to visit and invited us to sit down for tea. He brought out a pencil and notepad from his pocket and scribbled the characters of my name. It was impressive considering he couldn’t see and my mother didn’t actually tell him my name. He spoke to my mother. ‘I remember this little girl.’ Mother laughed and told him that I wasn’t little anymore, I was a young lady. He reached out blindly and asked me to stand in front of him. He took my hand and felt my face. He chuckled.

‘You are still a scaredy cat.’ He turned to mum. ‘She is frightened of the dark.’ It was a statement. And a true one. Mother nodded, and lamented that I was a chronic sleep walker when I was younger. ‘Are you still having dreams?’ He asked me. I said yes, I have vivid dreams, mainly about people, but sometimes I can’t remember who they were once I have woken up. ‘It’s ok, you are helping them. It is better that you don’t remember them. You can see things that others can’t see.’ He rubbed my hands. ‘These hands will change lives.’ He then curled my fingers into my palm, and said in a very serious tone, ‘but you must not let anyone read your palm.’ With that, he waved us off because it was prayer time. As I watched him shuffle off to the main hall, I wondered about what he said.

Being a histrionic teenager, I ruminated on his last words, so much so that I started to think of all possible meaning it could hold. By the time we were leaving town, I came to the conclusion that the reason he said I shouldn’t have my palm read and my fortune told, was because something really bad was going to happen to me and I shouldn’t know about it. I had worked myself to such a hysterical state, with multiple sleepless nights and distraught crying; my mother could do nothing but to take me back to see the old monk.

He was waiting for us at the tea shop in front of the temple. When we approached him, he said very sternly to me. ‘Nothing is going to happen to you. Your palm holds a very good future. The more you know and the more people read it, the more your fortune will be stripped away and change the course of many lives. Be brave, don’t be afraid.’ He then stood up, turned around and shuffled back towards the temple. I was reassured, and left it at that.

When I was nineteen, I went to the local fund-raising market with a friend. We stopped by a palm reading stall. My friend regularly attended fortune-telling stalls, so she headed straight in, and I thought that having my palm read once probably wouldn’t hurt that much so I decided to follow suit. I paid the woman her ten dollars, and laid my hands palm up on the table. She looked at them, and then she curled my fingers into my palms to close my hands, just as the monk did. She handed me back my ten dollars. ‘Honey, don’t let anyone read those palms.’ I looked at her with a guilty smile, said ok and left, while my friend gaped at the lady in shock, wanting to know what she meant by that comment. I have never let anyone read my palms again.

There is no doubt I am a sceptic. But let me tell you something about my life so far. As a premature baby, I had a weak heart, and I developed some heart problems throughout my childhood. As a grown adult, I have been plagued with cardiac arrhythmia problems requiring corrective procedures. So yes, as a machine, my heart breaks down easily. I have definitely not married someone who is sensitive, romantic and understands everything about love. I have married a heart & lung surgeon who burned a path pacing in the cath lab corridors each time I had a procedure. I work hard, averaging 80 up to 90 hours a week. I am surgeon, I know I change people’s lives, it is a privilege I do not take on lightly. I work so hard not because I have to, but because I want to help people who need my skills. I have never won anything in life that required ‘luck’. Not even the school raffle. I do, however, enjoy a very comfortable and fortunate life. We have everything we need, but I have wanted to be mother more than anything in the world.  Going through 10 years of infertility treatment, one ectopic, one termination and two miscarriages later, I have had to finally accept our childless future. It was, and still is heartbreaking for me. I still find myself sitting quietly with silent tears some nights, thinking about the unfairness of it all.

The Dreams. I have been having dreams of random people for as long as I can remember, mostly people who have distressing stories to tell. Occasionally I see them multiple times in different dreams, sometimes we are just conversing, other times we are experiencing the ordeal together. I often wake up feeling their pain and anguish, but their stories always seemed so muddled once in the clarity of daylight and I could never remember their names. Sometimes I would wake up in such sadness that I find tears running down my face. My husband often tells me that I can be a very restless sleeper, or cry out in such distress that he had to wake me up. The dreams always seemed so real, but I have never seen any of these people in real life. I think I would die of shock if I ever did! I told my mother once about it and we both put it down to me having a very imaginative mind and my burning desire to become a creative writer so I must have had lots of story-lines in my head.

So is it coincidence or is it clairvoyance? One thing I realised, is that fortunes told are cryptic for a reason, as it can be interpreted in many ways. The way things happen, could still be unexpected, and only realised in hindsight. I don’t think about it a lot, but it is hard to ignore when different people tell you the same things repeatedly. I am not a Believer, and I am not particularly keen to know my future. I still prefer the idea of being able to make my own decisions and determine my own destiny, and hope that my future is not written in stone.

But apparently, just in my palms.