As time goes by we realize that our frame of reference for life is shifting slowly to a more ominous one; suddenly we find that many of our colleagues are leaving us behind to continue the noble work. When young we did not hear of buddies in primary, secondary or tertiary schools playing that trick on us; we are now taking cognizance of a new phenomenon – or rather we are now bowing to a deep truth that we have learned to push under the carpet for some time. And we sadly have to reckon with Malcolm de Chazal’s view that ‘Bon Dieu pe commence coupe dan nous karo kanne’.
We would not forget Dr Chummun, the anaesthetist, from whom we learned so many tricks of the profession. Nor Dr Nathoo with his memorable bow tie of the 1970s, who had taught us about masterly inactivity in obstetrics, when a caesarean was the very last resort; or my contemporary Dr Gujjalu, ‘le bon vivant’, the ‘contestataire’, the ‘militant’ who played a major role in setting up a decompression chamber, first in the SMF compound, Vacoas, then later in Victoria Hospital. And the ever-smiling physician Dr Daureeawoo — always greeting everyone with “How are you my friend?” Time for the…
… the Surgeon
Many of us undergraduates would have known Dr Ng Kee Kwong at Civil Hospital in the late 1970s. Who would not remember his light orange-coloured Allegro car? Soon, under the PRB plan, doctors would be buying newer cars but he stuck to his old one.
Many of us were at his residence in Dumas Street in Beau Bassin for a party in 1977, and we were surprised to be entertained to a 5-litre bottle of Red Label – a treat for us youngsters of those days. Many a Beau Bassinois would have wondered who was this tall, lanky bespectacled Chinese man in a short, as they would have seen him and his wife taking a late afternoon walk in Dumas Street and the Royal Road. Little would they know that there goes a honest, simple and highly respected surgeon.
After a brilliant high school career with a laureateship at the end, he finished his postgraduate course in Sheffield, UK, and completed his doctorate in Medicine on the gastrointestinal tract. I am told that he was in Canada when the late Minister of Health, Harold Walter, met and convinced him to come back home and join the service for the sake of the newly independent state.
I did not work in his unit, but did night duties there. He was strict and regular, never fearing to venture into bold, safe treatments. It was on one of those nights that I appreciated the kidney/excretory system, as he would phone until early hours to enquire hourly about the volume of urine that one trauma patient was passing. Some of his operations would take hours, much to the chagrin of many of us. We gradually discovered that he was highly scientific, never relying on hearsay, and never willing to listen to others’ babbling about other people’s affairs.
After all it was not often to see a surgeon with his stethoscope, but he was one of those rare birds. He was never too old to forgo his medical school basics. The unseen lungs and heart were also part of the patients, the medical school teachings were never forgotten. Many of us would have been impressed by his bedside manners and by his willingness to sit on a chair by the patient to listen to their ailments. It is a practice some of us have inducted in our own medical practice. And surely he had inspired many a junior colleague to go for postgraduate studies.
By the late 70s he sported the first numerical watch. Suddenly the hour and minute hands disappeared; and one would agree with Stephen Jay Gould that for the modern generation, this numerical watch may spell the death blow to the continuum of time. We would not visualize the hours before or after the present, as old watches prompted us to do; time would become discreet.
Later Dr Kee Kwong was transferred back to the SSRN Hospital in the North, and his patients would ultimately come from that region. They would never forget him because all their relatives of the next generation would come to consult him in PL, even up to the last weeks of his life. They had blind faith in him. He was the first one to place pacemakers in cardiac patients, when cardiologists were still rare birds. Those patients could not be wrong, for he was an excellent surgeon in the operation theatre, and his ability to perform ‘bloodless’ surgery was always appreciated by colleague anaesthetists.
He would see his patient in the morning, then later again just before operation in the ward, and again in the operation theatre, doing all the markings that have to be done, before the anaesthetist got the green light to start. Experience had taught him that no stone should be left unturned to eliminate confusion or mistakes. And we anaesthetists in the private knew that he would admit his patient three to four hours before operation, and he would himself ask for all necessary investigations, which would spare us a lot of stress. He knew that physiology was as important as surgery.
He had developed a knack of calling all the nursing staff by their names, which many of us could not, may be due to some dyslexic disadvantage; but they could not take this as a license to be chummy. Far from it, they had to be present permanently in the OT to execute orders and to be quiet, lest they disturbed his concentration, especially in those hour long operations. Yet they adapted to his protocol and discipline
Who would not have noticed his monosyllabic, high-pitched voice, and his tendency to be a loner. It was as if the moment he stepped in the clinic or hospital he started wearing blinkers, and his patients were his only ‘raison d’être’. Is it possible that he was a practising Buddhist at heart? We would never know, because he was a man of few words. A few doctors take a minimum fee from poorer patients; or charge them none at all. He was one of them; it is a fact that some try to live the idealism of an early medical concept: to be rid of self-centeredness, and to see the patient as a suffering human being. It was an exercise in altruism.
Many people were present for his funeral; they cut across all layers of our society and all communities, from the very modest to ex-President of the Republic. Many were his ex-patients who wanted to pay him a last homage.
For many of us it was an occasion to witness how the Buddhist community proceeds for a funeral. There was the eternal sandal lighted sticks, the fruits, a photo of yours and your family members to accompany you to the last abode. The priest at the Pagoda did not fail to sermon about the importance of the ancestors and to convey to his sons to walk in his footsteps and for eternal obedience, true to Eastern values. We all felt in the silence of the Pagoda the unequivocal qualities that must have suffused the life of the one lying in front of us.
Dr Ng Kee Kwong was a simple, sincere man who has done his duty with honour – ‘Un vrai fils du sol’.
Rest in peace, doctor.
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