Sunday, March 22, 2009

For All It's Worth

One evening on the train, I was reading my notes when I caught a girl stealing looks at me. Sheepishly avoiding my gaze, she hung onto her mother’s blouse tightly, head buried deep within the folds of her mother’s skirt.

“I’m so sorry,” the mother explained. “She got very excited when she saw the stethoscope in your bag.” My hand reached for my bag and I realized that I had forgotten to zip my bag properly, hence revealing its contents to anyone standing beside me.

No worries ma’am, I replied with a smile. I’m actually just a first year medical student.

The little girl turned to look at me upon seeing me and her mom engaging in a comfortable conversation. Don’t you want to talk to this ko-ko here? He’s going to be a doctor one day!

Ko-ko,” came the sweet voice of a 5-year-old, “what’s it like to be a doctor?”

I hesitated. Before my eyes flashed the many images of children I had visited in the cancer paediatric ward, lying in their beds, heads bald, some with bodies mummified with tubes. The agonizing shrill screams of children every time they were given an injection was still ringing in my ears. Corridors of people lining up, waiting hours to see the doctor in the government hospital; the sight of hopelessness in patients from ICU as they waited for their time to come; the weary looks of loved ones as they forced a smile, covering their tears and pain in vain… is that how a doctor’s life is like?

Well, it’s like being your mummy… You see, we take care of people when they fall sick, and we help them get better!

“Mummy said it’s hard to be a doctor… is it true?”

My gaze dropped to the floor as I fumbled for an answer. I had done terribly in the last examination. Many of my seniors had failed and dropped out from medical school. Some who had made it past the theory stages never survived the clinical years. It’s too difficult, they had said. It’s impossible, many had agreed. Textbooks and reference materials, research papers and journals are merely the beginning. The long hours, the on-call duties, the rotation and attachments, the stench of gangrene and the strain every time a CPR is performed… isn’t it hard to be one?

All it takes is a little bit of patience and hard work. And a bit more courage when giving a little girl like you an injection! The little girl giggled.

The train continued to sail smoothly over the rails, bouncing occasionally over rough patches. “Why do you want to be a doctor?”

Wasn’t that my interview question, when I had applied to enter IMU? And the reason I told my interviewers, well because I want to give back to the society, and because I know that our society would be better off with more doctors who have compassion for the people. Do I believe in that reason? And oh, had it not been for that innocent girl, wouldn’t I have repeated the blunt and harsh truth that I had always used to reply so many others whenever they asked me the same question? Of how I so badly wanted to be a lawyer or a businessman, of my dreams of making money and being rich so I could give back to my parents what they deserved? Or, of how much I wanted to live up to my dreams of being paid to argue and fight a case in court, or meet hundreds and thousands of people in the world? But truth be said, this girl deserves a better answer, doesn’t she?

Because I know that this world would be so much nicer if there were fewer sad and sick people, don’t you think?

And I saw that smile on her face. The smile of a happy and content little girl. The smile that a girl gives to anyone who hands her a lollipop, or her favourite chocolate, or an ice-cream. My heart melted, my eyes nearly swelled. Deep inside, something told me that she’d make a good doctor.

The train approached the station. It would soon come to a complete halt. The doors would slide to the sides and remain open for 9 seconds before sliding back. So as the train nearly came to a halt, the girl urgently squeezed in one last question, “Ko-ko, do you like being a doctor?”

Bravely, I looked straight into her brown round eyes. Eyes filled with so many questions unanswered, so many wonders unexplained, and yet so much hope. Without taking a breath, I blurted,

Of course I do! I’d do anything to make sure a little girl like you would never have to lose that pretty smile of yours when you fall sick.

Within the next 9 seconds, she put her arms around my neck in a quick hug, hurried a “Thank you” and ran through the doors, hands locked within her mom’s. As the train sped off and away towards my destination, I sighed and reminded myself, that for all the pain and difficulties that came with this calling, and for all that it was worth, people like that little girl still deserved my best, now and in the future. I knew every word said was genuinely from the bottom of my heart, and I also knew that it was a reason that I could believe in.

And essentially, that’s all the reason I need to keep me going on when things get tough.