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.

 

 

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

Things you shouldn’t say to your surgeon before your operation

I have had a very long tough day of operating, so please allow me some self-indulgence in writing this blog. I sincerely apologise in advance for the sarcasm and disillusioned humour to follow!

The last thing anyone wants is an annoyed surgeon operating on them. I mean, would you be obnoxious to your chef or the waiter that is serving you? (We all know they will spit in your food) Would you be an ass to your dentist just before he/she picks up the dental drill? So why, oh why, would someone piss their surgeon off just before being wheeled into the operating room?

‘I have been waiting for 2 hours since 8 o’clock.’

My answer: ‘Oh, that’s great, you arrived nice and early so you are now all ready to go in.’

What I really want to say: ‘Sorry, I just finished my 2-hour champagne breakfast, hic.’ or ‘Are you in a rush to go somewhere after your operation?’ or ‘I’d better go faster during your operation then, so you can get home sooner.’

‘Are you sure you have done this before?’

My answer: ‘More times than I can count, you will be ok.’

What I really want to say: ‘No, but there’s always a first.’ or ‘No, but I watched it on You-Tube last night, and I think I got the general idea.’ or ‘Yes, when I was a medical student, on a pig in the lab.’

‘How come this operation costs so much?’

My answer: ‘Because it is a major operation, it takes a lot of time and expertise to do.’

What I really want to say: ‘Because you have come to a surgeon, not the local butcher.’ or ‘You are free to shop around, maybe it will be cheaper if you get it done over the internet.’ or ‘I don’t do surgery because I love helping people, I do it for the money.’

‘Would I have a scar? Will it be ugly?’

My answer: ‘Yes, you will have a scar, just as we discussed before. It will fade.’

What I really want to say: ‘Of course you will have a scar, moron, you are going to be cut open and I may be good, but I can’t perform miracles.’ or ‘No, you won’t have a scar, because I do it all by telepathy.’ or ‘Yes and Yes.’

‘Please do a good job and don’t kill me.’

My answer: ‘Don’t worry, we will do our best to look after you.’

What I really want to say: ‘Ok, for once I won’t make a mess of it, but have you signed a will yet? You know, just in case.’ or ‘Do I get a bonus if you get to live through this?’ or ‘You are expecting too much from me, I don’t think I can handle it.’

‘If the operation doesn’t turn out to be what I wanted, can I get a refund?’

My answer: ‘No, but if that’s the case, I will do my best to give you a result you are after.’

What I really want to say: ‘Sure, if you want a refund, we will have to put the cancer back too.’ or ‘No, because I can’t take the implants out of your boobs when you’ve changed your mind and use it for someone else.’ or ‘No, because I have never learnt how to undo a facelift.’

‘Have you been working all day? Are you too tired to do my operation? Can you please pay attention when you are doing it?’

My answer: ‘This is a normal working day for me, I am fine and you will be fine too.’

What I really want to say: ‘I will be fine. My hands will be steadier once I have had a drink.’ or ‘Don’t worry, watching the tennis on my laptop during your operation will keep me awake.’ or ‘I am fine, my ADHD is under control, I have just had my 6 oclock dexamphetamine.’

‘Do I really need to have this operation?’

My answer: ‘Remember what we talked about before? I would not be recommending an operation unless you need it. You will be ok.’

What I really want to say: ‘Did you hear anything I said last week during your consultation?!?!’ or ‘No, you don’t need this operation, I just like cutting people open for fun.’ or ‘Yes, you really need this operation because I really need to save up for my Ferrrari.’

‘You look too young to be doing this, do you know what you are doing?’

My answer: ‘Oh, that’s so sweet, thank you. I am actually older than I look. I have done this for several years now, so I think both you and I will be ok.’

What I really want to say: ‘If you prefer to go to Old Shakey next door, you are welcome to swap surgeons.’ or ‘I have done heaps of this operation on cadavers during medical school. I graduated with honours last week.’ or ‘I only look young because you are so old.’

 

Ok. That last one was bad. I should stop here. I should go to bed, get some sleep.

Because come tomorrow morning, I have to find my professionalism, tolerance and patience. Again.

Two minutes

Mrs Warren* came into my practice yesterday.

Mrs Warren is the mother of Hannah*. Hannah was a 35 year old beautiful young mother of three children, who passed away from metastatic breast cancer two weeks ago. Hannah was my patient three months before she succumbed to her illness.

I heard Mrs Warren’s voice at the front desk reception.

I stayed in my office, consumed by guilt. When Hannah was dying in hospital two weeks ago, one of the nursing staff informed me about her readmission into hospital. ‘Things are not good, I don’t think it will be long.’ 

‘Maybe I should pop by and visit.’ I thought, mentally swiping at the tears that threatened to clog up behind my eyes.

‘I think they will really like that. Hannah loved you. She thought the world of you.’

I started, then realised I had thought out aloud, the nurse was just responding to my comment.

Days, then weeks passed. I couldn’t bring myself to visit her. Several times I walked towards her room – steeling myself to walk in to face her emaciated semi-conscious form on the bed, surrounded by her grieving family – then finding myself turning, striding rapidly away.

Hannah was my age. She was a lawyer, a lawyer who studied hard, worked long hours, made sacrifices and achieved. She once told me that she was the youngest associate ever to be offered partner. She told me how there was no female lawyers in her department at which we both smiled simultaneously in mutual understanding. She said she sees a reflection of herself when she looks at me. As I do, when I see her.  

I never went to see her, I never said goodbye. I never attended the funeral. AFter all, I told myself, she wasn’t a friend. She was a patient. The only thing I did, was to write a card to her family.

Now her mother is standing in my office. And I am kicking myself. I should have made more of an effort. It would have just been ten minutes of my life; After all, my ten minutes would have been nothing compared to ten minutes in her last days. My cowardice overwhelmed me,  I found myself hiding in my office, afraid to move. Or breathe.

‘Hello Mrs Warren, we are so sorry to hear about Hannah.’

‘Thank you.’ I imagined her waving her hand elegantly. Mrs Warren always reminded me of a grand matriach, she moved and spoke with such pride and grace. ‘I just wanted to come in and thank the doctor for her card.’ A sniffle. ‘It was so lovely that I had to read it to Hannah yesterday.’ A brief silence was followed by a sharp snap of a handbag. Must have been a tissue. I could almost see her in my mind, using the task as an oportunity to gather her composure.

‘You know, we had so many people at the funeral last week, the church had to leave the doors open.’ There was less wobble in her voice. ‘We got so many flowers and cards.’

‘She had so many specialists, but doctor was the only one who sent a card. Please thank her for me, we were so pleasantly suprised……’

I shut the door.

Tears were running down my face. I was humbled.

It seems the two minutes it took for me to write a card was enough for them.

 

 *All names have been changed to ensure confidentiality and protect privacy.