Wednesday, July 29, 2009


A true story.

Hospital has a policy: if you’re a bachelor and a surgeon, more often than not, you’d be the one that’ll work the on call hours. And if you’re an intern surgeon, they send you to the A&E ward – the hospital’s 7-eleven.

One night after taking over from the previous shift, a small boy was wheeled in by his mother. “Doctor?” My son broke his hand, can you please help him?

I took a look at his hand. It was an open wound with the bone actually jutting out. “This might be nasty,” I told the mother. We’ll have to get an X-ray, and we’ll get the operation theatre ready. So in the mean time ma’am, I suppose you can wait outside alright?

As soon as I wheeled him out of A&E heading towards the radiology department, he started sobbing. “Doctor, my hand’s very painful,” he sobbed. Of course it hurts small boy, surely it hurts. But why do you only start crying now? Wasn’t it painful just now?

“I don’t want mummy to see me crying.”

I smiled. What happened boy? How did you hurt your hand? “I was playing with daddy and while running I fell down.” I rubbed his short hair. Why so careless boy? “I didn’t see the steps… it’s not my fault…” he whined.

We got the X-ray done and took him back to the A&E. “I think we’ll operate right away ma’am.” After the mom signed all the consent forms, she held the boy’s hand. The boy was already lying on the bed, his clothes changed and all prepared for the surgery.

“Mummy… Please don’t scold daddy okay? It’s not daddy’s fault…” Okay... Mummy promise, mummy won’t scold daddy. From a distance I could see the mom smiling as her hands ran through his hair.

“Mummy, don’t worry ok? I’ll be fine… I promise I’ll be fine..”

We took over from the mother. As the doors swung close behind us, the boy tugged my surgical gown with his other hand. “Doctor... I’m sorry for making you work… mummy said doctors work very hard every day but you’re still working even at night…” No no! It’s my job boy. Don’t worry, I’m happy to help you get better. Really!

We wheeled him into the surgery. The anesthesia machine was ready and the mask in my hands. “Doctor!” he softly cried. “You’ll fix my hand right? It’ll be fine right? Because if my hand does not get well, mummy will cry…”

Before I could say anything else, he continued wearily, “Can you help to put a blanket over her later so she can sleep? Doctor please tell mummy I’ll be fine… and tell mummy not to scold daddy, it’s not his fault…”

I knew he could see my smile hidden by the surgical mask. “I promise, boy! For now, let’s make sure you get well so you can take care of mummy alright?” His head nodded gently. The gas mask was placed over his nose and mouth, and in seconds he was fast asleep.

The orthopedic surgeon asked for the scalpel. “Alright guys, let’s get this sweetheart's hand back.” An hour later I walked out to inform the mom about the successful and uncomplicated surgery while passing her a blanket. I never saw him wake up because I never followed up on that boy. Till this day though, I could still remember that one surgery where everyone in the theatre was virtually speechless but smiling all the way. Truly it is patients like that boy that puts a smile on the weariest facade of our job.

Monday, July 20, 2009


I have a big weakness. I take people for granted, especially those who are closest to me. Take my princess for example. I never told her what I should’ve always told her, treated her the way I always should’ve treated her, and that night when she walked out on me, I succumbed into the depressed state of guilt and remorse.

And I told myself, I need a chance. Just one more time, to let her know what I should’ve told her much earlier.

The first thing she should know was how I fell in love with her. Truth be said, she demonstrated what love at first sight really was about. Her hair wasn’t combed straight, swaying and dancing to the rhythm of her steps; her face wasn’t glowing with cherry blossom make-up or radiance powder; her dress was a plain blouse and a simple skirt. She was in a rush, preparing to worship lead that morning in church.

Then she smiled. And it was her smile – that smile – that captivated me, and will continue to captivate me down the years. I actually believed that her massive ball of hair, her simple dress and her plain face, like jigsaws to a big picture, completed her smile, immediately making her arguably the sweetest living being in this world. She wasn’t smiling at me, but I guess she saw me staring from a distance – probably jaw ajar – and she smiled back.

Her voice was one of an angel. Even if not for the smile, I knew I would be the happiest blind man around to fall in love with her. Church suddenly took on a whole different meaning. One that wouldn’t glorify God for sure, but one that made my life never the same again from that day onwards. That whole morning I knew I wasn’t concentrating. Her voice was ringing in my head as much as her smile kept replaying in the not-so-distance memory, much more attention given than what the morning’s sermon called for.

The secret here was that had she not tugged me by my hand after church as I walked in directions avoiding her, had she not run up to me to ask for my name – and still with that sweet smile carved across her face – I would’ve never have had the guts to get her number, invite her for lunch, pursue a friendship and eventually a relationship, with her. While it was her smile that captivated me and her voice that took my breath away, it was her - simply her - that unreservedly and uncontrollably attracted me.

I should’ve told her too, that the best food she ever introduced to me was nothing but the butter sugar sandwich. That fateful night I messed up while preparing a supper. She graciously took the loaf of bread from the table, helped herself to the fridge and shelf, and came back with a butter knife in one hand, sugar and butter in the other. What followed were her gentle strokes of the knife swelling with butter and sugar on the bread before wide-opened eyes across the table. And again, she smiled as she passed the bread to me.

“Try this! It’s my mother’s war-time recipe.” War-time? Sweet smile again. “I’m serious! She ate this during the war era.”

Even though I later found out that there simply was no butter during Japanese era – come think about it, how could you keep butter without electricity or a fridge? – but I still remember her preparing the bread, and on the many nights of studying alone late into the night, that simple sandwich reminded me of a girl waiting for me, anxiously yet patiently, for me to come back to her after saving the world.

If she ever returns and walks through the doors again, I swear I’ll tell her, that to call her a good wife is pure understatement. She’s the reason why I go home, she’s the only person I’d stop doing absolutely anything for – once I left a fully bloated blood pressure cuff on my patient’s hand, completely forgetting about it as I was busy replying her text – and she is the girl I fall in love with, over and over again.

That, I owe it to my morning experiences with her. She wakes me up with a peck on the forehead. I’d open my eyes to meet the most beautiful girl in my life, lying on top of me, just enough for me to see her face. Messy hair swirled and draped over her left shoulder, the gentle rays that sneaked through the curtains brightening her face, and her warm palms stroking my cheeks.

“How could I not fall in love with the way you look at me, little boy?”

In her eyes, I am forever her heart’s little boy. One morning I woke up with a terrible sinus problem that got me all restless and edgy. Shortly after lunch I was starting to throw a tantrum when she gently led me by the hand, walked to the bedroom and plopped me on the bed. The next thing I knew, she was already sitting with legs crossed, and rested my head in her lap.

“Why so restless little boy?” The gentle touch of her fingers, her angelic voice, that heart-stopping smile, the messy-lovely hair of hers flowing over both sides of her neck, those round sparkling eyes that I’d never take mine away at.

So how exactly would you tell her the many sights of children dying from diarrhea, or women dying from massive uterine bleeding due to rape, or soldiers dying from medical negligence? How could I tell her that after coming home and going back to work in hospital, every patient somehow reminded me of the victims of tyrannies and terrorism? How do I even tell her that every shrill and scream simply sounds no different from those in war zones?

But I should, at the very least, tell her that she’s my last comfort, rest and recluse. That while the many hours of prayer seemed to pull me further away from a faith I once believed in, while reality has left me delusioned with the promises of God and somehow succumbed to the fact that I simply wasn’t as strong as what I thought I was; all I had left, amid my defeat and struggles, was a girl that still could, and would, accept me for all that I was and wasn’t. All I wanted her to know, was only that I needed her to run away from the realities I couldn’t run away from.

When she broke the news to me about leaving and working in Price Waterhouse, I knew I blundered. I apologized. For all the promises I should’ve kept, for all that I promised her I’d be, for failing to be there for her the many times she needed me badly. She took my hand from across the table – the very same spot she buttered the bread years back – and with a painful smile, forgave me,

“It’s alright dear. You never made me many promises.”

So I sleep on the couch every night, just in case my princess comes home, I’d be ready to receive and welcome her. Something tells me that she’d be back. That faith and belief once again put me back to my knees. For a long time I’ve not begged God for another chance, and for an even longer time I’ve not asked for grace. Her absence torments me, but as some of her clothes still remain in my wardrobe, it is a gentle reminder that she’s still there. It gives me enough time to keep the house in order, and to put my life back in place, just so that she’ll know that I have been, and still am, waiting for her, the very girl who lovingly forgives me for most of promises broken, and graciously forgets the rest.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Locksmith

70 yo, male.

“So what brings you here today, young doc?” He handed me the glass of tea. Lens frosted from the steam, I lifted the glass to my lips and took the spectacles off my nose. I knew I couldn’t lie to him. He was much wiser than my colleagues thought. He wasn’t just any ordinary old man who was stubborn.

There was something about him. A side to him that people didn’t really see.

“I’m here because I was sent here by the hospital, uncle.” I decided to be honest. “I will not lie to you that I’m here because I’m a friend or that I care about you, but I’m here because I was told to follow-up on you.”

He smiled. Sitting comfortably across the small coffee table. Behind him was a portrait of him and his wife, definitely in their younger days. A 6R black and white photo framed in wood which paint had uncoated slowly over the years.

“He is difficult to manage, stubborn and refuses medication. Psychiatric therapy and intervention suggested. Requires following up.” 16/5/08

“Have you still been working, uncle?”

Tiny smile. I’m a locksmith, young doc. I make locks, I repair locks.. My life is all about locks.

“And in the process you became a lock too.” Am I right, uncle?

The smile on his face vanished. His gaze locked dead into mine, and his hands started to tremble a little. After a brief moment he turned away, not knowing where to gaze, bent over from his chair towards me. “More tea, young doc?” That would be great uncle. I like your tea. “Jasmine tea,” he replied as he poured more into my cup. “How old are you?”

I’m 28 this year. I know I’m young and inexperienced in many ways.

He chuckled. Then why are you here?

“Because I too am a locksmith. A different locksmith, and I’m just trying to help you find the keys to your own lock.”

He reclined in his chair, and sadness came into his eyes. Son, he said. Those keys are not missing. They’re gone. And no two keys are ever the same. Not even if they’re duplicated.

Who’s the key to your lock then?

Wife deceased in 1996, no contact with family or relatives since 2000.

Long, heavy, burdened sigh. It’s been a very long time since I last talked to anyone properly, he opened up cautiously. The last time I spoke to a friend or a family member was probably in the last century. I thought it would be better to stay away from people, or from the things that reminded me too much of my past.

Young doc, you have no idea how much I’ve lost over the years. How much I’ve struggled and fought for what I thought mattered to me. What would you know about these?

Senior once told me, that the infamous locksmith in the city lived on his own, in recluse. He did so after his wife was killed by burglars who broke the lock of his home, robbed her and killed her. All while he was away fixing another house’s lock.

I know that your lock was broken while you were away fixing someone else’s locks. Your treasure, your key, since then was gone. I’m truly sorry to hear about that.

Ah, that’s right, he said. There was no look of remorse or regret on his face. Still the stony expression since the start of this conversation. There are no locks that cannot be broken.

Locks were never meant to be broken, I protested. They’re meant to keep the inside from the outside.

“Then what are you doing here?” He snapped. Numb, my head hung low, hands locked interdigitally, not knowing what else to say.

I’m sorry uncle. I’m young, inexperienced, and brash.

I don’t blame you son, I’m an old lock. And old locks are always harder to open. That’s the truth. Understand this, young doc—even an empty chest has its treasure.

What’s your treasure? “Memories. Memories of what I once had but lost.”

Chronic depression, possibly manifested from post traumatic stress disorder.

That’s guilt, uncle. That’s no treasure worth keeping. A treasure worth keeping should never be locked away. You bring it out, you take it out and appreciate it; you don’t lock it away and hide it from people. Treasures don’t make you bitter, angry, or depressed. They don’t make you run away, they don’t make you cry. They don’t make you what you are right now, uncle.

For a while, I thought he held his breath. The only sound came from the ticking of the old clock on the bare wall. “What do you want?”

I want to help open your lock. A lock which hangs on the outside, that you from the inside cannot open. And I’m a locksmith, you’re the chest, the lock and the treasure.

Why would a dying man be of value to anyone? I smiled. “I’m sure you know, uncle, that every lock has its purpose and value.

You know that I care, uncle. “I do,” he said. He paused for a moment, as if thinking. “Let me get changed. I heard the hospital has extended their clinic hours, am I right, young locksmith?”

As he got up and walked to his room, I glanced at my clock and realized it was 3 hours. Funny eh, why would I spent 3 whole hours on one man, an old man whom everyone else has given up upon?

Getting up to leave, I stole a glance at the old picture of him and his late wife. Somehow, deep within me, I suppose that was what she would want someone to do for him. To unlock the man who has spent his lifetime unlocking other locks, that in the process forgetting how he could finally unlock himself. I guess sometimes, even the master needs a disciple’s reminder. Or simpler, because every lock is worth the effort opening.

You never know what you'll see on the inside.