Sunday, 16 October 2011

7. Thumbs

   “It’s like this, you see ….. your little baby, he’s got too much of this called bilirubin in his blood, that’s what’s making him yellow. He’s still so little isn’t he? Only four days old. At his age, it could hurt his brain. He could be permanently retarded. We could try and cure him by performing a blood transfusion, we called exchange transfusion. But we’ll need your consent. If you don’t want to give your consent, we could try other methods, but there’s no doubt that exchange transfusion would be the best. So that’s what we’d like to do – providing you agree of course….”
      That was the best I could do. I couldn’t make it any clearer to her. If I’d introduced any more medical terminology, she’d only have got more confused. She was already in tears.
      “Sshhh, don’t cry. Your son was born at the Central Women hospital, wasn’t he?”
      Since it was the largest public hospital for both maternity and gynecological care her child must be born safely.
      “Y..y .. yes. Ah. .. . He was born at Number 2 Military hospital.”
      I was stunned. That hospital was even more facilitated than the Central Women Hospital. It also had the Pediatric ward. Why were this mother and child being here at General Child Hospital?
      “There, there. So? What do you think? Do you want to discuss it with your husband? Please call him and get advice from him.”
      “He’s …he’s …he’s off traveling.”
      “Off traveling”, this word was being too familiar to us. Most of our friends were missing for a couple of weeks, and then we knew they wouldn't come back soon. We used to say they were off traveling. 
      “Not on business, though?”  I wanted to check if he was a friend.
      “Yes-he’s gone away with his work.”
      ‘Oh…I see’
      I could see he was not our friend. He was off traveling to opposite direction from our friends'.
      “Well, in that case, it’s down to you. I’ve explained to you what we think would be the best treatment for your son, but you’ll have to decide.”
      I didn’t want to force her into agreeing.
      “Well in that case Doctor, I’ll give you my consent.”
      “OK, good. In that case, could you sign here please?”
      She did not take my proffered ball-pen. Instead, she quickly rolled her thumb on the inkpad and put a thumb-print on the spot I was pointing at. She was clearly used to doing it. My ball-pen was left dangling in mid air.
      My doubt on her husband's literacy was then set. He might as well be illiterate.  
      “Hmm, it’s a bit over 22 percent. We haven’t got time to give him a fluid injection and check it again. It’s already 10 p.m. and we need to order the blood.”
      They were right. The way things were going, I could see I wasn’t going to get any sleep that night. Ordering the blood could take at least an hour. Then we’d have to prepare him before he was ready for transfusion which would take us to at least two hours. It might take us to 2 a.m. by the time that was over. Than at 6 a.m. I was going to have to take some blood samples from about ten other children with jaundice. That didn’t leave me much time for a nap.
      I was meant to be on duty though, not asleep. And if the bilirubin ended up getting deposited in this baby’s brain so he got kernicterus, he’d be permanently disabled. Sure it could ruin my only night. But it could ruin the rest of his life. I knew I should feel more concerned about him. After all, what was one night without sleep? Still, it would have been easier if he was one of my own family, or the child of one of our friends.
      His father, on the other hand, was most definitely no friend of mine. Enemy, more like. But he was my own compatriot - surely I shouldn’t look on him as an enemy? Perhaps not – but he was no friend to my friends. He had sworn at them, abused them, tortured them and persecuted them. He had thrown them out of their jobs and ruined their lives. I was upset for them and angry too. I didn’t see why I should lose a night’s sleep on account of the child of one of my friends’  oppressors. Let him suffer too.
      No- that’s wrong. I’d never even met the father of this boy. He might not be a friend, but that didn’t make him an enemy. I couldn’t be sure that he was one of the ones who had been cruel to my friends. He might even be one of our own people. And even if he had mistreated my friends, why should his baby son suffer as a result? I was a professional, not a mercenary, even if you couldn’t say the same of the other people. And anyway, ‘revenge’ isn’t a word in my vocabulary or that of my friends.
      Revenge might not be, but what about retaliation? Why shouldn’t I retaliate? These people have ruined the lives, the health, and the sanity of my friends. And after all, the mother hadn’t been too keen to give consent for her baby to have the transfusion even though she knew it was for the best. Maybe we could just give the baby lots of fluid, and see if that got the percentage bilirubin down to 17 by morning. Then there would be no need for a transfusion. And I could get a good night’s sleep. I knew my colleagues would understand. At worst, the child’s brain could be affected. May be he wouldn’t be able to write his own name – but in that, he’d be no worse off than his mother, whose brain wasn’t affected. He could follow his father’s footsteps into the army- you didn’t need a brain that worked to be a soldier. Even if you did have a brain in that job, they stopped you from using it.
      No, no, I shouldn’t think like this. What was I turning into? This poor baby was only four days old. So little. If I left him overnight at 22% without doing anything, tomorrow morning the bilirubin could well have shot up to 29 or 30%. It surely wasn’t right that people like me, the so-called superlative brains, should leave it until the toxins were too high before deciding to perform a transfusion. Could I honestly condemn this baby of four days to grow up with a body which would develop, but a brain which wouldn’t, that would leave him reliant on others for the rest of his life? He might not even live as long as his father. And anyway, who could say that he would not use his brains for our benefit? No matter who his father and mother were. He was just a blameless four days old baby. He hadn’t ruined anyone’s life- why should I ruin his?
      I ran through the arguments in my mind, acting as prosecutor, defense lawyer, witness and judge for this four-day old baby against whom I was filing a suit. I judged that I should carry out the transfusion. To be honest, though, my senior colleagues had already decided to do exchange transfusion for the baby, and these deliberations were only in my mind.
      So I requested blood from the blood bank. After about forty minutes, we still hadn’t received a reply so I went myself to check what the matter was. It turned out that they were out of blood. They suggested I try Rangoon General Hospital, although they said in the same breath that RGH probably wouldn’t have any either, as it was a rare type. Never mind. I was determined to sort this out so I made the arrangements myself to get the blood from RGH. It got busy around midnight and my colleagues weren’t happy with me for not helping out. But I kept on, and didn’t take a break until the car sped off to collect the blood from RGH.
      I went into the common room and revived myself with a drink of water and a biscuit. Then I took a look at myself in the mirror and gave myself a thumb up sign, pleased with my achievements. I noted that my right thumb appeared in the mirror as a left thumb.

      The two thumbs brought back memories of the recent past, and memories of a friend of mine - someone who I thought more of than any other friend. Actually he was one whom I in deed admired.  My right thumb and his right thumb . . . once up together as ninety degree from earth, and then up together again but parallel to it.
      The last time I saw him was the first time we hadn't met for a long time, although at one time I saw him almost daily. I had been missing him badly.
      He was famous for his satire writing - poems and articles - and unique experience of drifting in the Pacific Ocean for 13 days at his 30s. Actually he was a captain who went on U-boat 103 which was sunk into the ocean, and then he was on a life boat with his 13 comrades. Since he was brave and steadfast person, he led his survived crew. Only 7 people were saved when a Japanese ship found their drifting life boat. After that he got stiffed lumbar spine and changed his normal gait.
      During 1988 demonstration he was the first person who encouraged Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to come up in front of the strike and also organized a navy crew to protest BSPP government. During 1988-89 NLD campaign trip, we worked and traveled together. Soon after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest, he was sentenced for 20 years imprisonment for high treason. Since then I hadn't seen him. So I had been longing for his satire writings and speaking.
      Our last meeting was an occasion of immense melancholy. Once he was an influential and leading writer and I was a promising writer. Now he was the patient and I was the doctor. But desolately he was not my patient. All I could do was giving him a quick examination and offer him a few brief words of encouragement. 
      The room was guarded by 4 military intelligent and 2 policemen. He was on a fragile patient bed. He was attached to an ECG monitor. On his filthy bed sheet a hand cuff was kept near his left hand. His ugly stained white prison uniform was just covered his private parts. A plastic mug and plate were seemed to be his major property. I sensed loud silence from his meaningful eyes.  I saw how he was suffering, but all I could say was ‘Are you OK?’ The pain in my chest on seeing him felt like the pain in his own heart as he lay there.
      There! That's another heart-piercing coincidence. The place where the patient of he was admitted also made me miserable. On one occasion the writer of he admitted his strong disbelieve on the ruling party in front of this particular building of Rangoon General Hospital.
      I had taken his pulse, holding his wrist in my hand. His thumb pressed hard against mine. I stared at it. Then I placed my hand on his upper arm and raised my head to look him in the eye. We looked at one another, our eyes full of recognition and understanding. We said everything through our hands and our eyes. And that was it. I never saw him again - he passed away on next day. I was meant to be measuring his pulse. Instead, I ended up measuring the force of his commitment and the depth of his suffering.

      It was almost 1 a.m. by the time the car brought the blood back from RGH. One of my colleagues would perform the transfusion. My job was to check and record progress on the transfusion, the baby’s pulse rate, respiration and other vital signs. At 1.15 a .m I let him know we were ready to get started.
      The baby had been strapped down to a special X-shaped bed. His legs and arms spread out and tied down with strips of white cloth wrapped around his wrists to stop him from wriggling and kicking. Even before we got transfusion the two of them reminded me that someone had once said: ‘Undeservedly you will atone for the sins of your fathers’.
      His umbilical cord was slightly infected so it would have caused problems to inject a local anesthetic through there, particularly with the wound healing. So we performed the operation without anesthetic and the child bawled his eyes out. He couldn’t move though, or kick. I wondered if this was the ultimate in suffering for the sins of the past.
      I wondered what I could do to try and calm him down. Should I try to explain to him that it wouldn’t be long, it would all be over soon. Would he understand? Would he believe me, even if he understood? ‘Soon’  for me would seem like a lifetime to someone as young as him. Nor could I say ‘ Now be brave and this won’t hurt a bit’ which is what we would say to an older child before giving him an injection in the buttock. I knew that this would hurt this baby a lot. I couldn’t lie to him even if others might. So what could I do?
      I reached beneath the sterilized cloths and stroked his forehead. It didn’t do much good. He kept on crying, his little face red with anger and pain. I stroked his cheeks, his ears. I tried to give him some water. But he refused the drink and wouldn’t stop crying.
      My colleague was putting the finishing touches to the stitches. The little one kept on crying even though he was exhausted. In fact he probably didn’t even realize how tired he must be, because he just cried and cried without taking the time to stop and think. The pain was so great it made him forget his exhaustion and just made him cry and cry. Hang on in there, little one. It’ll be all over soon.
      I stroked his ear again. He suddenly reacted to it, in astonishment and surprise, and tried to wriggle towards me, but the bandages were too tight. Then, with amazing strength, despite the ties around his wrist, he made a grab for my hand. He grasped my thumb tightly in his fist and wouldn’t let go. There was no point in my trying to extricate myself. My thumb had done the trick. His sobbing died down. It seemed that my thumb was what he had been waiting for all this time.
      Thanks to my colleague’s skill, the baby’s bilirubin poisoned blood- the blood of his parents- was successfully exchanged for clean blood free of contamination. I wish you well little one. I hope that you will put your cleansed brain to useful work. I hoped that your newly cleansed heart would stay pure. I hope that the strength you have derived from my thumb, and I hope that the truth, which passed to you from me and the thumbs of my friends, will continue to flow in your veins.
      And I hope and believe that one day we will become friends, you and I. How can it be otherwise, now that our thumbs have touched?

 Ma Thida (Sanchaung)
This story was banned in 1991. But it was rewritten without mentioning writer’s name and his detail, and then was published in 1999,  , Myanma Dhana magazine.
That was translated by Ko Sein Kyaw Hlaing and polished by Vicky Bowman.

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