Conversations in the car

Beautiful hospital on the outside, but terrible, she says with her thick European accent as we drove past the brightly coloured children’s hospital. I was a patient, no, a parent, whatever, taking the grandkids there and it’s full of ethnics. Eastern European bureaucrats and poms with their nose in the air, and we were seen by a Canadian doctor, I mean don’t they have enough local doctors around here?! Anyway, then we wait in the cubicle, and wait. And see nurse. Waste of time, why do I have to repeat myself five times? Stupid! I come here to see doctor!

Oh, the number of inappropriate comments. From rolling her eyes at how the nurses run this hospital, to talking about patients being precious about their pain because of their ethnic background and how pain is perceived in those particular cultures. Russians, we have no chemistry with them, I hate them, she spits venomously. From the end of the table she remarks, women, they talk talk talk and take ages. Men do the thing and get it done, they only do one thing at a time, have you noticed that? These women surgeons!

I go make phone call, you okay? No, I have no idea what to do about this anaesthetised patient, what if saturation drops, and how about this borderline blood pressure. Later, I breathe a sigh of relief when she enters the room barely glancing at the monitor, talking simultaneously about the bookings she’s made for restaurants over the weekend. How about that blood pressure, I ask.

I couldn’t break vials without shattering the glass and cutting my thumb until it oozed with blood. I could barely pull a syringe back hard enough, with the correct technique, to get a good amount of the propofol from the bottle. The number of times that she somehow transformed my failed IV cannulations to a usable one is amazing. I constantly have trouble even with the simple bag and mask manoeuvre, let alone laryngeal masks and intubation. I’ve asked I don’t know how many times about the dose and frequency of the standard post operative cocktail of paracetamol, Endone, morphine and odansetron. Basically, you would not want me as your intern much less your doctor. But she has said nothing thus far. Still saying, you do this, okay – time and time again, and then always taking over at just the right time.

And somehow, somewhere, midst the unconventional outfits, LV purses, baby pink nails, obsession with having nicely done hair, shopping for coats and organising all her family gatherings in the middle of theatre, I found her endearing and a very much loveable character. She told me of a time when she worked in a developing country and how it was very different there. I was rather inspired actually, thinking, if a princess like you (I mean it kindly) who scoffs at the idea of having to sleep in a caravan to travel can do this when you’re young, perhaps I can too.

In fact, I found a kindred spirit in her, to borrow the words of Anne of Green Gables. Very rarely do people, even those in medicine, echo how I feel about doctoring. But I didn’t tell her anything, and she understood. She tells me of the little girl she saw decades ago in her home country who had been brought in after falling off from the ninth floor being locked up in a room for days by a negligent mother. Then about the patient who had died on the operating table at the local hospital a few years ago. Those things, I talk many times, and it gets better, but even now if I close my eyes and think about it I still feel it, she says. It stays with you forever. I talk and my husband can listen but he is not medical, that’s why it’s good to have friends (colleagues). Her husband didn’t seem bothered by the comment. I don’t know how people want to work in cancer, medicine is sad enough, but some things are always sad. I can’t stand giving bad news all the time, and saying we fix you, but knowing you can’t. You know, she says to me again and again, it takes many years for you to stop bringing the sadness home, you still do, but less.

Then, I found myself sitting in a rather fancy car on a long drive to the city with her, the husband and their tiny little brown poodle. Seeing the couple talk, banter on in a healthy way, I saw that though she was used to being in charge in theatre, she did not carry that attitude to her home life. That reminded me of a doctor in Singapore who came to talk to us, at a Christian fellowship, about work and family. She too was an anaesthetist, used to giving out orders and making quick decisions, but one day her husband stopped her and reminded her, you know I’m not one of your nurses, and she took it to heart.

Pulling out the obituary section of the local news, she tells me with a pointed nod, best way to know the well-being of your patient. She reads out a few of the names to her husband to see whether he knew these people. I peered over her shoulder and saw the familiar name of a patient. One whom I had extensively reviewed the history for, in order to made a nerve-racking phone call to the cardiology registrar at the city, to get advice on optimal medical management of his unstable angina. One I had laughed with, and talked about the book on his hospital bedside, which his wife had left for him to read though he did not actually read much. I had left the unit, and didn’t realise that he had died. So she was right, about informative newspaper orbituaries.

This dog a nuisance! Why did you get it then, I asked. Stupid decision, she says, scooping the poodle up affectionately. Why she not going to sleep, she must be hungry, maybe she doesn’t like car rides. But even after being watered and fed, the playful dog still rolled around on the towel, on her lap. I can’t stand this, unsettled, moving thing, she complained. I picked it up from her and laughed – yes, that’s why you’re an anaesthetist.

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