Saturday, October 17, 2009

Part 4: The Angel Recalls

May I have the pleasure of introducing Dr James? He’s a pediatric ophthalmologist, once – and will be – a close friend to Ken and Miriam, and eventually a great help to our little blind Mike.

That night many years ago, while tossing in bed unable to sleep, he received 2 calls. First, a text message from Miriam. “Ken’s going to call you, it’s about our son. Something’s wrong with him.”

He was ready and about to step into the car when he received the second call. The nurse from the delivery ward called, stating that Dr Kenneth requested his consultation regarding an infant that was not responding to light.

Being an angel and hence being able to read his mind, I’m thus able to confidently tell you that that very night he was a pot-pourri of emotions: worry, concern, confusion, and certainly, guilt. He was praying fervently, words all tied together in one huge mumbo jumbo as his car slowly rolled down Hospital Avenue. In essence, God, forgive me for my past and my sins.

His car halted right beside Ken’s parking slot, and the same thought flashed through his mind, just like every other morning when he got out of his car to work. If only things were like before.

“How were things before?” I’m sure you are wondering. Well, before Miriam came along, they were best of friends from secondary school all the way to med school. They were competitive and edged each other in different areas: Ken was the musician, James the athlete. They complimented each other accordingly, and in studies and work, they worked well together. They even specialized in ophthalmology. Together.

By now you’d have figured out that things changed when Miriam came into the picture. She always had a soft spot for people who could charm her with music. And of course, James had an ego that simply could not be defeated.

James reached the delivery ward. Ken got up from his leaning position, a posture indicating his thinking or worried state; a state which nurses and associates in Avenue feared. He leaned when he had no answer, no solution, or no hope. “Dr Ken, you paged me?”

The conversation was as cold as ice, and though the tears were welling up in Dr Ken’s eyes, while guilt and concern swarmed every corner of Dr James’ soul, they still refused to look each other in the eyes.

An infant boy is not responding to light. No pupil dilation, no reflex or reactions to movement and light.

Both men walked quickly and gently into the nursery, hurriedly but not wanting to wake any mothers or newborns. A few nurses nodded in acknowledgment as the men passed by. They found the newborn, and Ken passed him to James.

“Strong grip,” James commented lightly as he moved his index finger into the tiny palm of the boy. “What’s his name?”

Michael. “Hello Mister Mike,” James cooed. “Sorry for waking you up… How are you feeling hmm?”

The newborn gargled his saliva and curled up in his arms. From his pocket James drew out a tiny pen torch. Lifting up the baby’s eyelids, he quickly flashed the lights near his iris. “You’re right, no responses whatsoever.”

Is it normal? Ken asked softly, as if he was scared the baby might hear them speaking.

James frowned. I doubted it, usually even at such age they would already have developed motor and pupil responses to light stimulus. As of now, we couldn’t be sure whether it was a nerve or retinal defect.

Ken slouched onto a chair in front of the examination table. So what options do I have?

Wait, James said gently, still refusing to look at him, and perhaps pray.

James knew he had to leave, his emotions could not be properly contained for long, and such a time did not permit his emotions to leak. Not even the very slightest. James rested the baby back into his plastic tray, covered him with the ward blanket, and headed to the door. “Ken?” Ken’s head tilted up to see him holding the door ajar. “I’m with you in this.”

Ken smiled weakly. “You know, I am desperate and vulnerable at this point of time, but I believe that you will not hold a patient, my son, against me. That’s why I paged you.”

James didn’t reply to that, but instead walked out, on the way gently closing the door. A tear came to the edge of his eye as he pulled out his Blackberry. “Sorry Miriam, I tried my best.”

Then came Miriam’s reply. James, why have you given me this son?”

I watched with sadness as I recall how forgetful man can be, but at the same time,was assured that eventually things did turn out, rather unexpectedly, better between the 3 grown-ups, all because of one blind child. Let’s just say, it’s my Master’s amazing way of using consequences of wrong motives in preparing a beautiful future for all of them.

Monday, October 5, 2009


“Every surgeon is a maestro, and his surgery, a performance.”

In that small town, there was a famous butcher whom the town folk loved. He would cut the best slices of meat for his customers, and he knew his way around the parts of meat and what dishes it cooked best with. Old folks often wondered how it was that such a fine and intelligent young man would squander his future in the market, and the younger chaps would question his weird habit of soaking his butcher knives in alcohol after cleaning them many times round.

But what no one saw was, after the market closed and went deserted, he would slowly draw out a leather bag, untie the knots and pull out small blades that dimmed – not even flickered – under the light. Then, whatever leftovers of meat he had from the day, he would slice gracefully, the blades gliding across the demarcations and patterns of dried skin and meat, until the very last vein, nerve and flesh was peeled apart from the bones.

Every swirl of his blade reminded him of a painful past, of a crime he never forgot, of a mistake he paid so dearly for—with his career. And after performing his surgery of sorts in that deserted marketplace, he would clean up with only one thought in mind,

“Are my wrongs already atoned for?”

Until one day. One fine day, as he was about to pull down the market shutters, he heard a loud bang. A black Mercedes swerved to avoid a cat, hit a tree and turned top first into the huge monsoon drain. Instincts taking over, he grabbed his leather bag – not even knowing why – and ran out to check. The driver’s door flew open, and a man’s hand waved frantically in the air for something to cling on to.

Jumping into the drain to pull the man out, his breath escaped his lungs like a full blown balloon released at the mouth, when he saw the driver.

“Sam!” the driver said. That was the voice he had been running away from, the voice he tried so hard in vain to forget during the loneliest and longest nights, despite the many pints and glasses.

It had been six long years, but he realized that the voice still, just as real as his memory recalled it, could never escape him.

It was a fine day like this, six years ago, when Sam got a call from his best friend. “My daughter needs a bypass, Sam,” Hawk explained slowly, unspeakable anxiety bearing down in his tone. “You’re the best surgeon around.”

“First a friend,” he replied, “then a surgeon. I’ll do the surgery Hawk, it should be easy. I’ve done so many. Don’t worry!” Before they knew it he was prepping for surgery.

Perhaps being a young yet highly-acclaimed cardiothoracic surgeon had its way of inflating Sam’s ego, and while he may have performed bypasses over and over again, he failed to remember that he was still predisposed to mistakes and flaws. Carelessness that could have been rectified had he listened to his surgical nurse reporting that there was massive bleeding in the right leg, second chances he could’ve gained had he not ignored the anesthetist reporting a gradual decline in blood pressure and oxygen saturation.

Try, he did. Fight, he did too. But still, in the operating theatre, mistakes are costly, lives can be lost. Worse still, if that life belonged to a friend. A best friend. Hawk.

“Sam!” the painful shriek, choked with tears. The surgical staff, a burly man, had to grab him by the arms to stop him from falling in agony upon hearing the news. That very night, Sam walked out of the hospital, vowing never to return. He simply disappeared, knowing that news of his ego and ill-fated error would have reached every nook and corner of the hospital even before the night was over.

The paramedics arrived on the scene to find a butcher with a brown leather bag stuffed into his trouser pocket, hands stained with blood pressing on the right femur. “10mg morphine,” he commanded. They obeyed, knowing the request was in line with standard medical procedure, but questioning in their hearts how this butcher knew all this.

And at the entrance of the Accident and Emergency ward, his best friend, face half covered with a gas mask, grabbed him by his stained butcher’s gown. “Don’t go,” he begged. His grip loosened as the staff wheeled him into the ward, prepping him for surgery. Sam turned to leave, only to see the Head of Staff standing at the entrance, seemingly blocking his exit, a warm smile on his face.

“Dr Samuel,” HS bowed respectfully. I’m no more a doctor, Brian. Now please excuse me, I’ve got a stall to clear up in the market.

“Sam,” HS stopped him by gently grabbing his arm. Brian was once his junior, and Sam would yell at him in the OT when he couldn’t answer his questions. Always the favourite target for a spike, he never showed defiance or fought back despite all the insults hurled at him. He learned procedures fast, yet remained teachable at all times. Now he was Head of Staff.

I’ve lost my honour, Brian. I screwed up, and I’ve condemned myself. “I think six years of condemnation is enough. More than enough,” HS reassured softly. “At this point of time, your best friend is in need of the best surgeon around.” Sam looked away, ashamed. The guilt of his nightmare of a mistake still haunted him.

First a friend, then a surgeon. Their surgical team’s motto rang in his ears, just like in the good old times.

“Sam, Hawk spent years looking for you in hospitals all over the country. He even called in special favours from our colleagues, hoping that one day he would see you again. And today, when one of the walk-in patients told us about a young man who gracefully slices pork meat instead of butchering it in the market downtown, he wiped out his surgeries for the day to find you.” He has late stage heart failure, Sam. He’s dying. All he wants is just a friend, a friend who knows him inside out, to make sure he’s fine. And you’re that friend he needs.

HS Brian handed him a vacuum sealed bag as he was washing up. “While you were away, we developed a pretty useless technology of cleaning non-disposable surgical gowns.” He tore the vacuum bag, opened up a long white robe with the cursive words Samuel Chan emblazoned on the right top. Memories of his glorious past flashed before his moist eyes.

“I’m not sure whether I’m ready,” Sam said, beneath his breath. With tears of guilt welling in his eyes, just like every night for the last six years, his gaze fell to the ground.

Brian’s hand rested on his shoulder. “For that same reason, now we all know you’re ready.”

Sam walked into the OT slowly, with Brian trailing behind. From behind the operating table, a smile slowly curved beneath Brian’s surgical mask. He knew that the six lonely years of slicing kept his hands steady and graceful. Those surgeries performed behind rolled down shutters, where no one passed him the scalpels, where he had no juniors to yell at, and where no students or colleagues watching his performances from the observatory—they had humbled him. And as Brian noticed, for the first time ever, Sam actually thanked the nurses who passed him the scalpel from the brown leather bag. Brian sensed forgiveness for his own self rising deep beneath Sam’s ashes, and that surgery was the redemption he so badly needed.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Part 3: 100 Coincidences

Over the years, I’ve learned that seldom was there such a thing called coincidence. That was, at least, where my parents were concerned.

For instance, when I heard dad’s car engine and then the sound died, when the metal keys jingled in the background, door creaked open, socks rubbed on the carpet, after a ‘Hi Son’ and a ‘Hi Dad’ reply, mom immediately asked me to help her do something.

“Mike, can you help find mom’s glasses? I think it’s somewhere in my room.” My forehead tightened as I shoved my mini Braille typewriter into my pocket, stacked up my books and head to her room. “It’s near the bathroom I think?” I’m sure it’s near the bathroom, I thought to myself. It’s the furthest corner from the hall where dad and mom were going to ‘talk’.

“Come Sam,” I waved my hand below my waist. His paws ruffled along the carpet, his neck bell jingling furiously. Opened door, left it open for awhile to let the bell jingle into the room, then closed it behind me.

School called again dear, my mom’s unmistakable voice. Mike’s being teased at again.

Is he alright? I regretted letting Sam into dad’s room, his panting was too loud, can’t hear my parents very clearly.

Ken… It’s not about whether he’s alright... Of course he’s alright, but he doesn’t even know why those kids tease him and he’s not even telling us about it.

He doesn’t even know what’s different about him.

Dad was quiet for awhile. So it was a mistake to put him in school?

No, but it’s a mistake that we still don’t know what to tell him.

I found mom’s glasses. She always put it at the same spot, in front of the big smooth and cold surface she called mirror. Taking the glasses in my palm, I sat on the bed, waiting for the ‘talk’ to be ‘over’, meanwhile rubbing Sam on his head.

It’s really your fault dear, mom’s voice sounded shaky. You’re the eye expert, you’re the one that spent so many years studying medicine, and yet you still never properly explained to Mike what he’s going through.

This was probably the hundreth time overhearing mom saying that to dad. I know it was rude to eavesdrop, but I really couldn’t help listening when their voices were not exactly the softest around the house. Or maybe I could hear things better than the others.

And for the hundreth time, I asked myself, what actually, really, was wrong with me? Yea, I know I can’t see, but what’s the big deal about seeing?

“What is seeing?” I asked.

I’m trying alright? I’m really working on finding a proper explanation. I’m sorry things turned out this way ok? The gentle pounding on the stairs grew louder. I quickly got up from the bed, and exactly before the door creaked, “Mom! I found your glasses.”

Door creaked, 2 sets of footsteps, both halted together. “Thanks Mike! You’re really a great help.” Mom squeezed me and pecked me on the forehead. “Where did you find it?”

Outside the bathroom, somewhere on the chair, I lied.

Hey son, dad came by and patted me on the shoulder. How’s your day?

Great, I blurted, trying not to sound sarcastic, forcing a smile over my face. I had fun in school. I felt for a space between dad and the door, quickly got out of the room and went back to my study table and touched my books again. At least I could pretend that I had no idea what was going on and continued studying. I pulled out my handphone and punched a few buttons. “Uncle James, can you please take me out for dinner? Mom and Dad were arguing about me again.” The phone regurgitated every word I typed.

Uncle James’ reply came swiftly. Sure boy! See you in a while, my special phone read my message out loud. At least Uncle James was always there for me when they quarreled. He seemed to be able to understand me better, or at least he tried to understand me better, I thought while resting my phone on the table.

I'm glad to have friends like Uncle James. I wished people would treat me like him, like I’m ‘not special’. Just couldn’t help think that I’m just a normal kid surrounded by people paranoid about my non-existing abnormality which I myself don't know about. Especially my parents and teachers in school.

Where’s Sam? I groaned as I realized I must’ve left him in dad’s room. Now I have to make another trip back to get him before Mom yells. Truth be said, I know I'm forgetful, but I also know that I'm still normal.