In Serving Each Other, We Become Free
“You came alone?”
Everyone seemed to ask as I headed into Changi General Hospital for my hernia operation. I didn’t understand why it seemed so odd to them. Maybe it’s the way I was brought up. We tried our darndest not to be more trouble. I did the necessary of course: arranged for a family member to pick me up after the op and all. But a hernia op, I was told, was pretty straight-forward stuff. I’d be in and out in a day.
The nurses showed me my bed where I’d wait to be wheeled in for the op. It was in a ward with five other patients who were all waiting for their minor surgeries. While watching movies loaded on the iPad, I made sure I smiled at them. There was a certain camaraderie; this was a shared moment in our individual journeys.
It was oddly Singaporean. I was beside a Eurasian man, who was beside a Malay man, both in their sixties. Across there were two Chinese men, one looked like he was in his eighties, and couldn’t speak English; the other was a fifty-something. Like me, he had his iPad. I noticed that I was the youngest by quite a bit.
I smiled at them as they were wheeled to the operating theatre one by one. They smiled back; like we were all headed for a tour or something. We wished each other well. When the nurses told me that my procedure would be postponed a little because they had shifted me to accommodate the more difficult cases earlier in the morning, I silently prayed for whoever it was that went ahead. It sounded serious. “You’re young and fit, you’ll recover faster than most,” I thought to myself, echoing what the surgeon told me in an earlier appointment.
It was a few hours before their wheeled me in. It felt like I was on a amusement park ride. Or more accurately, like the transit system in the old video game Half Life.
There were hospital personnel in many different coloured outfits, and I was always looking out for the “rarer” ones, like they were rare pokemon you could collect while being pushed on a bed through this maze. And then the operating theatre, where I was transferred on to this very narrow operating table. It had heated blankets underneath. I really appreciated the warmth. 80s retro music was piped in. When they asked if I had any questions, I asked, “who gets to choose the music?” “One of the nurses, probably. Sometimes we get Chinese pop songs.”
Then they did the whole just breathe this in deep, it’s just oxyge…
I woke up back in the ward, my right thigh totally numb and immobile. I look up at the clock and realise that three hours had passed. Although unable to move my leg, I felt normal and alert. I had sandwiches and hot chocolate; my first meal in 18 hours. I was ready to go home.
Until the fever hit.
Trembling uncontrollably while wearing nothing but the bareback robe from the operating theatre, they layered blankets on me as I lay in fetal position and tried hard to sleep, hoping it’d all go away. It was startling how quickly I went from a state of self-sufficiency to utter want. The minutes were hours and as the anesthesia wore off, the real pain began.
They checked me into the normal ward. My day surgery had become a sleepover.
It felt like someone had yanked hard on my internal organs, and a huge streak of pain ran down my right side. You know the pain that comes with holding your pee for way too long? That was perpetually there, and I began to worry that something went wrong.
In the middle of the night they woke me up for an x-ray. I was drenched in sweat, and took a while to push myself up to a sitting position, and even longer to slump myself into the wheelchair. The x-ray technician asked if I could stand to have the x-ray taken. I mustered what I had, and realised my body did not move an inch. I smiled weakly and told him I probably couldn’t. They took my x-ray with me sitting down. I was so grateful.
When they wheeled me back I asked to go to the bathroom. Lifting my legs out of the wheelchair was hard; walking, bent over in pain to the nearest cubicle was rather challenging. Everything that was easy became infinitely more difficult. How much difference 24 hours makes!
The fever would eventually subside. The internal pain would persist, until I realised the nurses had placed a dose of painkillers on the side table, and I had failed to notice it. I wasn’t upset - they were probably doing me a great favour by not waking me up. Sleep was the only refuge, and very hard earned. Painkillers would have been nice though. :)
As I recovered my strength, I took time to talk to the nurses; find out where they were from, and how they felt working so far away from home and family. In my time of need they were the ones I had to rely on, and they shone brilliantly.
It is truly humbling how quickly my perspective changed as I moved from perceived strength to complete brokenness. When things are going well in our lives we look upon the less fortunate in a certain way, but until we are in a position of need, it is hard to truly understand how much the small things matter. A helping hand, a smile, a warm blanket.
Even as I recover from the stitches and walk about still slightly bent over, I will slowly forget what it was like to place my well-being entirely in another person’s hands. But I hope I’ll keep some of the perspective, and more of the humility. If anything, a better grasp of how quickly the tides can change.
If anything, a stronger devotion to serving those for whom the tides have not been as kind.