I was excited to return to work a few days back. I made my way through the familiar, sterile corridor lined with worn linoleum and its off-white walls adorned with artwork by local artists – an attempt to make an imposing and unnerving environment seemingly friendlier. Outside, the dreariness of winter leaves your hands frostbitten. I shuddered as I looked through the large glass windows. I have been told that I have the coldest hands by many. “Cold hands, warm heart,” I joked with my patients.
After an intense two weeks of a DPhil viva, a job interview, and catching up with various people, I was ready to “rock and roll” in the delivery suite. However, as hours passed, I was gripped by my inability to breathe.
“Are you OK?” asked the consultant-on-call. “I feel sniffly,” was my response, as I adjusted my surgical mask. I was determined to finish the shift. Probably not the best idea.
In reality, I was out of breath. I wondered if I had caught the dreaded COVID-19. I wondered if my already asthma-ravaged lungs could cope with the deadly virus. I already had the third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and my flu jab. The people I have been in contact with me during my 2-week “holiday” have been well. I guess I caught whatever at work. Thankfully, it is just a very bad flu (I tested negative on my daily lateral flow tests and COVID-19 PCR). But it still feels like there are knives in my throat and a Sumo wrestler on my chest.
The last few days in sickness reminded me of the time when I almost died. When I was 14, I had experienced swinging temperatures, unimaginable fatigue, and a splitting headache. Not to my credit, I looked extremely well, apparently glowing with rosy cheeks that almost no one at my boarding school believed that I was ill so I suffered not being taken seriously for a few days. My parents initially had thought that I was homesick but still took me home to the local A&E. That was when they found out that my platelet levels were 81. I subsequently deteriorated in the coming days.
The doctors thought I had dengue, then malaria…and nothing seemed to bring down my temperature. I recalled experiencing rigors and my mother looking extremely worried, more worried than the other times when my parents had to rush me to A&E because I could not breathe. It was during this time, that I prayed to God, “Please, let me live…long enough so I could be a doctor one day.” Thankfully, I was given the right antibiotics at the right time. It was Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. If it had not been diagnosed early enough, I would have died.
Reflecting on my near-death experience and being ill now, made me realised that I am living my 14-year-old self’s wildest dreams!
However, it has not been easy. Being a doctor, and a female one as well, a thousand miles away from family is not easy. I have to move around a lot and keep rebuilding new friendships and network circles. In this line of work, although rare, I have suffered racist, sexist, abusive threats from patients and their families. And no one to comfort me during the worst days. And in this very moment of unwellness, I have never felt this lonely and sad.
But I have also seen love. And compassion. Between my patients and their partners or family members, and those lovely “thank yous” from them to the medical team. By that one friend, who took time to send me Malaysian homemade rice porridge and some ginger milk tea when I told her I am unwell. By my parents and friends who made time to speak to me over the phone so that I would not be too lonely resting at home. By the rota team, who made a humongous effort to find a replacement for me while I am recuperating. I am blessed.
I cannot imagine myself living another life, not doing what I am doing today. It is a privilege to make caring for women at the most important moments of their lives, and at their most vulnerable, one’s lifelong vocation. It is a privilege to work with colleagues who are respectful and kind. It is a privilege and one that I will continue to cherish and appreciate.
Yes, I don’t feel 100% or on top of the world all the time, but I am indeed living my wildest dreams.
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