The necessity for a minor surgical procedure was a revelation of sorts; a face-to-face with the new Singapore of ‘foreign’ and ‘local’ talent (that has been the subject of much press and debate); Chinese-Indian-Malay Singaporean, China Chinese, India Indian, Philippine Filipina, Malaysia-Malay, Ang Moh …
My consulting surgeon was a bright, quick, dapper Singaporean-Indian, comforting, humorous, reassuring. The receptionist at the hospital was another Singaporean-Indian, tinted contact lenses, full make up at 7 a.m., languid and thoroughly cued in on insurance procedures.
The Admissions Nurse was a lady from China, speaking impeccable English with a Cantonese accent, who explained the procedures with politeness, humour and military rigor. The most important thing, ah, a patient should know, she said, smiling, is how to call a nurse. Press this red button. Ah, I’m sorry, no nail polish. I will give you gauze and alcohol. You must remove it. I’m sorry. Mister stay here the whole time ? Mister said he certainly was, and she beamed and showed him how to redeem a parking coupon, including precise instructions on how to slot the coupon into the machine.
She showed us how the locker worked, tsk tsk-ed when she found the bathroom needed cleaning and assured us her colleague would attend to it immediately, which a cleaning lady did. She tsk tsk-ed when I wasn’t robed and ready ten minutes in advance, smiling kindly when I assured her that I could change in a jiffy, but there was no mistaking the polite implacability behind her smile.
Doors whisked open. I was wheeled to the operating theatre and handed over to another lady from China, exquisitely young and exquisitely professional, with all the allure and mystery of a screen goddess; she definitely was not someone who belonged to the masked sterility of an operating theatre.
Perfect skin, graceful hands and a mellifluous voice that apologized for having to ask the questions, but procedures necessitate we go through them repeatedly, she explained with a smile, you will have to do it a few more times before the operation actually begins. She helped me from the wheelchair onto the gurney (which I was perfectly able to do on my own), wheeled me to another part of the theatre, arranged the folds of a curtain and gently enquired if I was cold. She tucked me in. As she turned away, I caught a gleam in the overhead light … discreet, elegant ear drops, garnets and diamonds.
Screened from the various staff going about their daily routine, I listened to the sounds of what was a very ordinary day for the masked, garbed men and women from various countries. So many accents, cadences and modulations as they cracked jokes, shared news and talked food; one couple discreetly set up a dinner date, unaware I was there and could hear from behind the curtain.
When it was time to be wheeled into the theatre, it was a stern matron, Singaporean-Chinese, no-nonsense and briskly efficient. We went through the litany again, name, IC number, allergies, history and so on and so forth. She summoned a burly Indian orderly who wheeled me into the actual theatre. Two nurses; a politely reserved Malay gentleman and a cheerful Filipina named Mari gently transferred me on to the operating table.
The matronly one efficiently completed her routine; blood pressure, heart, pulse, temperature, slapped a few things on, shifted and positioned me and then leaned in with a motherly assurance and comment that the surgeon was one of the best and her relatives were his patients.
She noticed I was shivering. Are you cold ? I was. She explained the colder it was, the better, the lesser the risk of infection. However, she went off to get an additional blanket, barking out a keep an eye on her; her forthright manner at complete variance with her concern for a patient’s comfort.
Mari bustled over and introduced herself as the Circulation Nurse. We chatted about where we were from, India and the Philippines, and children, and her oh-so-naughty four-year-old son. She had just pointed out the Scrub Nurse who would assist the surgeon when the matronly one returned. They took their positions around the room, waiting for the surgeon, chatting, relaxed but watchful.
He was late and the doors swung open and he bustled in with a warm All ready my dear ? and then it was brisk, seamless efficiency, an orchestration of unspoken commands and responses and he said – as all doctors do – this will hurt just a little bit, and he was right, and the last thing I recall was his cheerful bidding, sweet dreams.
I came to another friendly face smiling down at me. I recognized her accent and asked her are you from Kerala ? There was an immediate connection, irrespective of the fact that I have never lived in Kerala. But I know Malayalam and we chatted as she did whatever she had to do; I have no clear recollection.
What remains with me of the weekend (apart from the fact of surgery, invasive and dreaded as it was), is the experience of being handed over every so few minutes to people of different languages and cultures, utterly at their mercy (so I had to trust in trust itself); people united by a common profession and ethic, yet so individual and distinct in their personal interpretations. The brisk efficiency of a Singaporean, the warm chuckle of a Filipina, the exquisite protocol of a China national, the easy familiarity of the Indian, the refined sensitivity of the Malay – none less or more professional, all equally accomplished and nonpartisan in the discharging of their duties, whatever those might be.
(A contrast, indeed, to the disinterested voice at the other end of the telephone a couple of days later. I was inquiring about medical claims on a particular insurance plan, and was told in no uncertain terms you will have to fork it out yourself.)
While there is some amusement in blunt, bald statements delivered with unequivocal frankness, I am enchanted by the delicacy and nuances of engagement that transform quotidian – and sometimes not necessarily pleasant – experiences into enduring memories of people, limned with humour and remembered with affection.