Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. – Isaiah 41:10
Ever since I first stepped foot into this male trauma ward, I have been taking care of this young chap from Vietnam. He had a terrible road traffic accident, and sustained a severe head injury that has since rendered him unable to speak or move. He was very weak, and the part of his skull where a piece of bone was taken out to relieve the pressure in his brain caused by a large amount of bleeding cannot be mistaken by anyone who would stomach the sight of him – his brain bulges through that rather massive gap, underneath scalp scarce of hair.
You might think that I am going to tell you a sobbing story of how a Vietnamese boy, optimistic of his future in Malaysia, became trapped in the most unfortunate twist of fate that he ends up struggling between life and death in a foreign country where only a handful of people speak his language.
If you had thought so, you were wrong.
I am going to tell you, to the best of my abilities, about his mother, who has been relentless, tireless and always hopeful.
The first time I saw her, my heart sunk. She was a short, tiny woman with rough, short fingers telling of hard work and a hard life. She stared at me warily during the first moments of my examining her son. Hair tied up in a bun, she smiled at me warmly after I finished examining. “Are you his mother?” I tried to confirm. She nodded vigorously and began talking ferociously in Vietnamese. Understandably, it made no sense to me, but that did not stop her. She used hand gestures, motioned at the lifeless-looking boy and herself, and patted her own chest several times.
Ownership, hers. Her son.
I did not know where to proceed. I flipped through the case notes. There were plenty of CT scan reports, doctors’ notes, medical summaries, lab investigation results, observation charts, drug sheets, and progress notes. One word hung staggeringly loosely in my head: bad.
Obviously, she didn’t have a clear idea of what was happening. She looked at me, and I looked at her. I began gesturing using my own hands to try to convey a message, to ascertain her understanding of the entire situation. She looked as if she understood me when she nodded her head vigorously, again.
I had to take that as some sort of an answer.
Every time I began my day (or night) in the ward, I would start with her son. And she would be there. Some days, her son would have fever, and she knew it wasn’t a good sign of anything. On one occasion where I taught her how to properly tepid-sponge, I learnt a great deal more about her. Although stubborn (I told her repeatedly not to drape wet cloth over the surgical wound on the patient’s scalp but she did it anyway), she was quick and she followed my other instructions. She religiously freshened the cloths, for days on end, until the fever settled.
One day, when we told her that she could feed her son tiny sips of water, she beamed.
Eager and over-enthusiastic, she literally fed him one cup of water in one go. It was a surprise that the patient, whose ability to swallow we were unsure of, could take it all in without any signs of regurgitation or aspiration into the airways (by the way, there was a tracheostomy tube in the neck).
At one point, there was a series of sunny days (if you would allow the expression) in that corner of the ward where she and her son were, as the temperature plateaued at 37 and all the vital signs were looking good. He began to follow instructions and there were life and awareness in his eyes. The first time it happened, she was incredibly happy and grateful.
The gratitude was clearly evident by her subsequently stopping me in a corridor to hand me an envelope with some Vietnamese words written on the front. Google translate said it read something along the line of “dedicated doctors”. Inside the envelope was a 50 ringgit note. I returned it to her the following day.
The bad days and good days in the ward also saw her switching from being an anxious mother to a relaxed woman never devoid of smiles. She was persistent, and she still is. Some mornings, I could catch her whisper Vietnamese that sounded like prayers into her son’s ears. Such an occurrence would be even more frequent on a bad day.
I don’t know when, but there came a time when she would speak to me in Vietnamese every time she saw me, as if I could understand everything she said. I would nod, try to make sense of what she said, and then I would shrug my shoulders, to which she only repeated her sentences with even more hand gestures and bigger movements. As comedic as it sounds, I sometimes understood what she was trying to say and I would reply her in repeated movements and simple English words like “okay, now, no, better, don’t, cannot” with the accompanying signs (a cross for ‘no’, a frantic waving of the hand for ‘cannot’).
One night, my colleague and I had to juggle between two wards. I wrote my mobile number on the whiteboard in the ward, which, by the way, is meant for staff only, and went downstairs to the other ward. Within half an hour, I received a text. It didn’t make sense to me because it was in Vietnamese. I shook my head, finding the entire situation an odd combination of comedy and helpless frustration.
I did not reply her.
I will be going to work tomorrow night. And I hope it will be the first of endless good nights and days for the mother and son.
Don’t mistake me for using this story to maim the soft part of your soul. This story that I told, to the best of my abilities, is to show you the resilience and strength of a mother looking after her neurologically disabled son in a foreign land. She inspires me in many ways, and I hope she does the same for you in some way.
And on this Father’s Day, I pray for my father’s health. And I pray for the best in God’s will for my patient and her mother.