3rd February 2014 Are you coming back tomorrow?' asked one patient as we made our way towards the entrance of the hospital at the end of a long day. Around her, many other patients lie waiting expectantly in their beds for their operation. Some have been waiting since 30th January 2014. Nil by mouth, wait, feed; nil by mouth, wait, feed. The demoralising cycle repeated for some patients. 'Yes we are', I replied with a smile. 'We will be here tomorrow first thing in the morning.' A wave of relief swept across her face. 'Thank you so much.' Mustering whatever energy she had left against the weight of her goitre, she flashed a megawatt smile. Hope. A very dangerous concept, but what more can these patients do apart from that. It pains me to even imagine... It was the end of Day 4 of our time here at the surgical mission. Many were extremely exhausted by now; the 8am-1am routine was not readily tolerated. Furthermore, due to many complicated cases, operations took longer than planned and many scheduled cases were postponed. The list looks much more insurmountable than ever before. Surgeons, anaesthetists and scrubs nurses were functioning from their reserves. 4th February 2014 - Last day The inevitable happened. The list was truncated. Patients who came from afar were given priority, the rest were turned away to wait for the next mission. 'Please swallow.' I proceeded to examine a patient's goitre before he was being put to sleep. Putting myself in his shoes, I was amazed at the amount of courage and faith he needed to have to be here. For some stranger to put you to sleep, to oblivion; for another stranger to explore your neck, where the great vessels lie, in order to remove a lump that has been with you for the greater part of your life. Trust. That is what patients do with their lives, placing it in our hands. Today, standing over that patient, I was reminded of the sacredness of our profession. Many times, a patient gets reduced to his or her diagnosis. Sebaceous cyst, lipoma, goitre. We zoom in on the problem and miss the big picture. I am guilty of that sometimes. I find this especially important in the field of Surgery where proficiency is often sought after by performing yet another sebaceous cyst, lipoma or goitre. We become fixated on the diagnosis than the patient. Perfection. The art of Surgery is the constant repetition of a skill until that is attained. You owe it to your patients to be perfect, to be the best version of yourself - that is a constant process. To be able to put one's hands to work where they are sorely needed is a blessing. You succinctly brought across what I felt. Indeed, it is a blessing to be able to bless others. I am blessed by the patients I encountered through this surgical mission. I just hope that those patients who were turned away this time do not lose hope...
2:23am. The crescent moon hung lazily in a sky littered by lights invisible back home. There was a certain clarity in that moment, a certain knowing that this was how things were supposed to be. Singapore might have transformed itself from a sleepy fishing village to a cosmopolitan metropolis but not without relinquishing its identity and romantic charm so often documented by travellers in the 70s. Those graphic depictions of the city state can never be conceived by its citizens in this day and age.
The van meandered along skinny roads lighted only by its powerful headlights. Around it, the landscape was bathed in darkness. Over the horizon, it seemed like I was staring out to sea. Houses like lighted ships dot the vast sea of darkness, rudely interrupting its homogeneity. I knew then that I made the right decision to wake up at this godforsaken hour. I was in for something special.
The van pulled up amongst other similar looking vehicles. Around me, like-minded people gathered presumably to make the climb. No words were needed as we smiled at each other. I was introduced to our guide, Made. Conversation came effortlessly. He is a day older than me and works as a full-time trekking guide. Soon, we were joined by Kesti, an 11-year-old girl on school holiday earning a living transporting soft drinks up the mountain for sale. Decked in fashionable Nike sneakers and jeans, she ambled up the terrain effortlessly.
I made it a point to take in everything by engaging all my senses on this climb instead of just focusing on the terrain. I stopped momentarily at various intervals to soak in the experience. Above me laid the mountain, the full 1,717m. The starlight surrounding it served as a spotlight of sorts, lending it some form of stardom. After all, every morning, groups of people made this journey to its peak. Surely Mount Batur enjoyed celebrity status. Behind and below me were fireflies lining the trail like a landing strip albeit a crooked one; the other climbers were spread out comfortably. I looked ahead and stared into darkness; surely there must be groups ahead of us. It was then that I was reminded of what a friend said while we were watching planes one night - light travels in a straight line. Human beings do require constant reminders of seemingly obvious truths for we tend to get lost amongst the cacophony of day to day activities. Soon, I saw the fireflies ahead as the trail zigzagged up the mountain.
Being a Hindu, our guide stopped midway at an altar erected somewhat randomly along the trail to make offerings. Out in the wild and stillness of twilight with only the crickets interrupting the silence, his deliberate act only seemed more deliberate, more pure. I watched on from a distance, not wanting to disrupt his ritual. Taking in all that my lungs allowed, I felt privileged to be breathing this clean, unpolluted air.
We continued heavenward after the short break. 'Sun not wait for you, you wait for sun. You reach top and knock on door of sunrise', Made joked. Another reminder that time and tide waits for no soul. Our party of 5 reached the peak at 5:34am, just as the first sign of dawn pierced through the darkness. Many climbers positioned themselves for that National Geographic worthy shot, braving the cold winds. Others huddled inside a makeshift shelter, a refuge from the elements, in keen anticipation for the much-vaunted sunrise.
I decided to descend onto an outgrowth of lava rock for an unobstructed view. Having severely underestimated the weather, in T-shirt and shorts, I could not feel my fingers after awhile. Deciding to focus on what is before me took away much of my 'suffering'. Ethereal clouds streamed in with the winds and they caressed the mountains ever so gently. God is indeed amazing. Before long, sunlight peeked from behind Mount Abang and Mount Agung like a shy child. Being alone out there on the outgrowth rock allowed me a certain stillness, a sort of serenity. I guess I can understand why the ancients retreat to the mountains to find themselves and to meditate. Nothing else matters somehow when one is up there. The hustle and bustle going on down below is merely ant-like activity; there was a form of dissociation, a beautiful one no less.
I felt that I was meant to be exactly where I was, where stars aligned and made me being there possible. I have never seen a sunrise before in all my 26 years on Mother Earth. It was a disgrace. To defend myself, I did on 3 occasions placed myself in sunrise situations but it was either the weather or clouds that thwarted my experience. Made explained on the way up that the group yesterday was left disappointed by thick clouds but he believes that today will be a success. I somehow knew even from the night before, with quiet confidence deep down inside, that I was going to witness my first sunrise. His assurance confirmed my confidence.
Seeing the ball of fire popping from behind the mountains blinded me. I put on my sunglasses to better visualise the fiery globe of life. Darkness was banished, the cold lost its sting; life begins with a new day.
The highlight this week was definitely the travelling to and fro via railway to Ooty. We arrived at the railway station on Thursday at 10pm to catch our 7-hour train ride to Mettupalayam. Throngs of local families laid all around the station waiting for their trains to arrive. We were fortunate to get tickets for our trip having been on the waiting list right up to the moment we left the hostel for the railway station.
After an uneventful train ride through the night, we arrived at our destination the next morning.
Ooty was a 3-hour bus ride up from Mettupalayam and the further we went up, the cooler it became. What a refuge from the heat wave back in Vellore!
We spent most of our time in Ooty sightseeing and enjoying the weather.
115th Flower Festival
'New Zealand' looking place
Check out the litter on the ground!
Meditation gives you wings...
My Havaianas snapped but I got it fixed with some rafia =]
Before long, we are on our way back to Vellore. This time, only 2 tickets were confirmed and having no choice but to return for posting the next day, we bought 4 general class tickets. Travelling in general class is strongly discouraged by many online websites and travel books, and we are about to find out why.
At the second stop, the 2 girls went over to the guys who had the 2 tickets in third class, leaving the 2 of us to rough it out for the next 6-hours. It is really amazing to see how the locals manage to find even the tiniest of spaces to sit or lie down. Some even improvised a hammock from their saris to coo their babies to sleep. It was really an eye-opening experience =]
Public humiliation at its best
Time seems to fly by and soon we arrived at our destination; we survived the train ride and are proud of it!
Heart: A hollow muscular organ which by contracting rhythmically keeps up the circulation of the blood; the seat of the affections or sensibilities, collectively or separately; the inmost or most central part of a thing; the most important or vital part.
The heart is a very mysterious thing. Being attached to Cardiothoracic Surgery this week, I came face to face with it beating inside a human chest for the very first time. That moment, everything around me seemed less important compared to the perfect synchrony of the dual pulsation made by that muscular machine. The heart is an engineering marvel; it promises you what no other thing can – beating for every single second of your life from the moment you were born till the moment you breathe your last. The heart never fails to amaze me in that it NEVER rests!
However, this loyalty comes at a price. The heart can take years of insult without flinching because it was engineered with reserves. It learns to deal and cope with the numerous atrocities we commit against it until it is too late. I have seen patients with hearts encased in fats and wonder how do us humans treat our bodies? It boils down to one simple truth: we took it for granted.
As with many things, once you start taking something for granted, you stop working at it. When that happens, everything goes downhill from then. Is it any wonder then that matters of the heart also suffer the same fate when we take the relationships we have for granted?
I have learnt something today. Whether be it the heart as an organ or the heart as the other definitions stated above, one must never take it for granted.
I set off by foot from my hotel at Chennai to Egmore railway station on the suggestion of the counter staff when I asked how do I get to Chennai airport other than by auto-rickshaw.
Before long, I was at the station. The walk there took about 5mins as estimated by my information provider. However, chaos ensued as I was the only Chinese person in the ticketing queue. Every local acted like I did not exist, even the ticketing agent! Even though it was my turn to purchase a ticket, everyone else leapfrogged me and got their tickets. I was seriously pissed. I pushed and shoved the locals to get out of that hell hole and after asking around, realized that I was in the wrong queue!
Ticketing hell hole
The railway system is similar to Singapore's MRT
Gosh. I then made my way in search of the right ticketing counter. That was when I met Prabu, a friendly local who was going to the beach with his girlfriend/wife. We both needed tickets for the same platform albeit our trains travel opposite to one another. He brought me to the counter and even helped me foot the extra 1 Rupee for my 6 Rupees ticket as I only had 5 Rupees spare change with me. He told me to ask around for help in Chennai as the locals are very helpful. This was very true! After spending a week here in India, I have come to realize that as long as you ask, there will be someone who will help you. Everyone here is very friendly and helpful (except for those buying railway tickets!)
For the brief 10 stations journey on my virgin railway ride, I felt like I somehow got the stamp of approval from the locals in the same cabin as I was. I was living India.