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Dr P and His Ice-Cream
we could always sit down and eat ice-creams with them
I grew up as a quiet Chinese student in Hong Kong. In my family, the childen barely talked when the parents were around. When my parents talked, they often talked about how difficult it was to make a living and to put bread on the table. They went over and over the importance of me getting good grades to end up in a good job. More often then not, I'd nod or say, "Yes."
After studying and living in Sydney for five and a half years. I came across my first mentor figure. Dr P was one of my consultant surgeons during my surgical internship. He was in his late sixties and stood a straight-backed six-foot-one. He had a moustache and was bald centrally. One couldn't help but notice that most of his left ear was missing.
"Malignant melanonoma," he explained, "I'm happy enough to be alive." He was always grinning or winking to the nurses, or the patients. He worked fast, talked fast, walked fast and laughed loud. Prior to my surgical internship, I had a depressing medical internship with a hepatologist who was doing nothing but listening. I was happy to work with someone who didn't mind talking.
"Benson, you want to be a surgeon?" he spread my fingers and placed my right hand on the patient's liver, using it as a surgical retractor, as he asked, probably an attempt to ease my nerves.
"I'm not sure." I answered honestly.
"Why not? You will enjoy removing gall bladders and cancers."
"I guess so. But it will be years of training before I can do that. I also hear that it is difficult to get a surgical training post."
"Of course it's difficult. You won't enjoy it half as much if it were easy." He said in his usual matter-of-course manner.
"I'll get you a post if you keep your shaky hand still for another twenty minutes. You think that's fair?" He winked at me.
At the end of my surgical internship, I had Mr B under my care. Mr B was dying from stomach cancer and could hardly eat anything at that stage of his illness. Dr P bought some ice-cream and we all sat and ate ice-cream with Mr B in his room. For one moment, Mr B was bright and radiant, talking about his rugby days and how the boys always had ice-cream to finish off their Sunday practices. Dr P listened quietly with a smile. I learned the lesson that we couldn't always cure the patients, but we could always sit down and eat ice-cream with them.
I enjoyed my surgical internship so much that there didn't seem to be anything else worth doing for me after my internship, except a surgical residency. I was offered a surgical training post but had to return to Hong Kong as my work visa expired. I called Dr P to say good-bye and thanked him.
"Are you happy to go?" he sounded concerned.
"Yes, I think it will be nice to stay with my folks after being away for so long."
"Great. They will love to see you. You'll make a great surgeon in Hong Kong. You're warm and you care about your patients. We need your kind of surgeons, not just the cocky ones we get all the time."
That was the last time I talked to Dr P and I had always remembered those words for the past twenty five years. Last year, I had Miss K under my care. Miss K lived in rural New South Wales. She had terminal ovarian cancer and decided to see Hong Kong when she was still well enough to travel. She had acute bowel obstruction soon after she arrived in Hong Kong. I operated on her and bypassed a few of blockades along her small bowel. An international assistance agency had arranged to have her flown back home with a medical escort the next day. I asked her whether she wanted to see the Peak.
"I'd love to but I don't think I can." A couple of hours later, she was on the Peak, gazing at the neon lights reflected by the harbour, in her wheel-chair, with an ice-cream in her hand. Dr P was right. We could always sit down and have ice-cream together.