I remember, once I was asked to have a conversation about quite a sensitive topic with the wife of a patient who had cancer secondaries in his spine and had become paralytic. Before I went into the room, kindly the nurses pulled me aside, to warn me that the wife can be… just a little difficult to deal with.

When I went in, I immediately knew what the nurses meant. Even bringing up the nature of the topic I was asked to talk about gave me shivers. The wife was cynical and sarcastic in her speech, almost rude, and somewhat condescending about the level of my training and experience. It was very difficult to have a gentle conversation with her and come out not too negatively affected! As she rolled her eyes and shot off random remarks, I could even see her husband cowering in fear of his wife. I must admit, as I was watching him react to his wife’s actions, I was asking in me, why did you even marry this woman!?

Yeah I could see that she was very stressed, and overwhelmed with the whole situation. Surely their lives as one couple, united as one unit, have been completely overturned (I mentioned that sometimes I don’t appreciate just the enormity of the impact on people’s lives) — and she now had to fully care for her paralytic husband regarding almost everything, from medications, food, to personal toileting, transport, and finances. She had so much in her mind. And they were only a young couple, in their forties.

I survived, with much stress (these things stress me out), the two times I had to talk to her that week without dissolving into mush enduring her glares. The third time I went in though, his wife was not there. I let off a sigh of relief to myself.

I had a quiet, little conversation with the patient himself this time. I caught a quick glimpse of the name cards of counseling, legal and social workers on the tabletop beside. But then I had the time to realise and look at the decorations in his room. There were photos pinned up on the walls of his otherwise sterile room, and they were actually quite lovely, even as he laid paralysed on his bed.

I glanced through a few of the photos. They were photos of him and his wife together — on their wedding day, on some holiday trip, and from various parts of their lives. In all of them they were beaming happily — and yes, his wife too.

To be honest, it hit me so hard, and I had to think twice, is this the same woman? And I was being serious!

At the time, I found it difficult, almost impossible, to reconcile the two images of his wife — it could never have crossed my mind that she could be smiling so beautifully and sweetly, when she was in front of me being so aggressive (and defensive too) the last two times I talked to her; and it could never have crossed my mind that she could be so aggressive, when I was looking at the photos of her smiling so beautifully and sweetly.

And I felt disgusted. Not at her, but at our hearts. Our hearts are corrupt. I catch glimpses of the same reality in me — of being so impatient, critical, unforgiving, unkind (for example, I wrote about an instance here), when I am “caught up in the moment” and all I think of is myself. I am scared of the deceitfulness of my heart. And who knows, when someone sees the two sides of me, I would also be perceived as how I perceived this patient’s wife at the time, maybe even worse. Unlovely. Two-faced. Of loose principles. Wayward.

Oh this gunk hidden in our hearts beneath our superficial face — how do we know how thick, and how dark, it is! And when our hearts are prodded and the offensiveness flows out, how do we deal with it?

… That story happened a few years ago. I have wanted to write about it, but like many other things, I never got around to it. Oh well.

Recently, I was reading a Christian book (Christians talk about the realities of sin but also the good news of God addressing it, which is the gospel), and I came across this story which struck me so hard:

A pastor friend of mine was visiting in the house of a couple who were founding members of his church, a couple who were greatly respected and loved and who had consistently invested their lives in other people. At the time of this particular visit, the husband had terminal cancer and did, in fact, die a few months later.

In the course of his visit, the pastor asked the couple, “How are you doing spiritually?” With tears in her eyes, the wife responded, “We’re doing well as far as the cancer is concerned. But what I can’t handle is our sin. After all these years, and especially in this situation, you would think we wouldn’t still hurt and wound each other, but we do. And this is what I can’t handle. I can handle the cancer, but I can’t handle my sinful flesh.”

As someone training to be a cancer doctor, the reality of this story is even more poignant for me. I feel like shedding a tear together with the wife (this one!). I think, I know a little of what she meant and how she felt…

I don’t know what you think. I suppose our worldview shapes how we approach situations like this. Let me know your thoughts though.

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The story of J

This is the story of J, who was only a year older than me. She had one eye that she couldn’t open, and legs that she could barely move. Cancer had made her numb from the waist down too. Chemotherapy made her bald, and radiotherapy made her memory poor. She gave frequent smiles, but she also let off frequent sighs. With her poor memory, often she asked for “everything” to be explained to her again. Then she would break down and cry when she was told that she was in hospital, that her breast cancer had spread.

She had a 4 year old son, who had been under the care of her ex-partner. Her little boy became the focus of her thoughts, and she kept telling us everyday that she wanted to spend as much time as possible with him. “I don’t want him to forget me,” she told us, “I want to make many good memories with him, take many nice photos, so that he can remember me. I don’t want him to forget me.

But they had not visited her very often when she had been in hospital. Her ex-partner’s car had been deregistered, so they had to take public transport to visit, which was difficult. She felt lonely in the single room in the hospital, isolated because she had antibiotic-resistance bugs. As much as she missed her little boy, she didn’t have a photo of him to keep by her side. She didn’t even have a camera that works. She lost the charger a long time ago. The house that she wanted to return to wasn’t hers too. It was a crisis centre run by the Salvation Army for the homeless. Sometimes my heart would break with hers, and I would ponder how it came to this stage for her.

One day finally her ex-partner and their little boy came to visit. I knelt to say hi to their son. He was running around and trying to climb up the hospital bed. I shook his hand and he said to me, “I wum getting my ears fixed!!” while pointing at his ears. She explained that he was getting grommets inserted soon.

Together with her ex-partner, she asked if she could go home on the weekend. “Hospital is prison,” she said, and I understood well. But as much as I wanted to, the physiotherapy team had declared her unsafe, when she could barely transfer from chair to bed with her weak and numb legs. The hospital couldn’t lend them a wheelchair, and they couldn’t rent one because they had no car.

I felt so sorry when I said I couldn’t authorise her weekend leave. Once again, she felt the whole world was against her. Her heart turned bitter by a little more.

Later he wheeled her downstairs to the hospital lobby. He said she was going to have a smoke, but silently they caught a taxi headed home. And so together, in these last periods of her life, they made a little adventure and escaped hospital.

* * * *

Read the rest of this entry…

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Thank you to those who asked why I have been missing for so long — I had exams and have been studying for them. They are a rite of passage for every trainee, and I’m glad they’re over now! (Well the first part is over, the next and final part is not due for another few years.) I remember when one pregnant consultant who will be expecting very soon knew I was studying for exams, she shuddered and told me she would rather be pregnant than go through exams again!

Studying is hard. I think it gets harder with the years — I’m not sure if it is the material that becomes more difficult, or that the ageing brain becomes less adept. Hours after hours and days after days, it literally felt like I was labouring to push my hurting brain to “run another lap” — to study another organ system, or to read another chapter in radiobiology.

In amongst everything, studying makes me humble. My visual, conceptual and minutiae memory is not as good as some of my colleagues. My energy is limited and I become even less sensitive to the people around when I am tired. Invariably my discipline wavers and I can only do half of even my most conservative plans. Study, like every other stressful thing too I suppose, brings out the darker sides of me — my weaknesses and brokenness show in the late nights, tired mornings, ever building tension, hunger, and demotivation. Amongst all these, I learn a little more about my true needs.

But there are many memorable and enjoyable aspects to the journey too. There are the eureka moments when things suddenly make sense. And the amazement at how far the collective humanity has come in understanding about ourselves and about nature, yet there remains an infinitely deeper sea of knowledge to plumb. More practically, I have found mnemonics that help memorisation of lists to be a great amusement. Many of them are so badly sexist, and some of them are so funnily random; but in the end if you can’t remember what they actually stand for, they are useless!

Then there is the good music that has accompanied me through the hard days. At various stages of study there has been Chinese pop and indie to keep me interested; smooth jazz and soul to calm me down; mellow instrumentals to accompany my walks home; and in the final 2-3 days of sprint prior to the exams, Poppy Ackroyd’s creative work has been fantastic. My study group has also been such a good get-together with lame nerdy jokes abound. Behind closed doors and behind all the complicated jargon, it was somewhat reassuring to know that we explain things such as non-coplanar beams like “the couch turns this way, the machine goes eeeeehrk this way, and the beam goes pow this way.”

Finally, I think studying challenges my priorities. This post that I wrote last year came back to haunt me in the last six months or so of working towards exams — indeed I needed to remind myself constantly of what is more important and what is less so; what has eternal value and what does not. It is not just family, but the neighbours around too — people’s needs are always present, and people are important. I had a friend who was having a nosebleed one evening that kept dripping, and he became very worried that he called me late into the night while I was studying. I remember the great reluctance I had when I walked to his place with some ice in a bag, that I am convicted now and always of how we can think we are doing what is required of us, “but neglect the more important things of the law — justice, mercy and faithfulness.”

Why do we do what we do? Why do we continually work so hard to climb the ladder, only to have to start again once we reach our destination? Do we not tire, or become weary, or stumble, and fall? We do all this partly because work is what we have been called to do, and partly because this is the way our society functions. I am thankful for all the people who have been kind and encouraged me through my journey (and not just this one), and I acknowledge the God who sustains and gives me direction when I am lost. I can only take to heart when the Bible says too, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body. Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.”

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