MAYHEM struck Penang and dozens of wounded people were sent to the government hospital. At least, that was what I thought.
At the orthopaedic clinic of Penang Hospital, I saw 10s of people on wheelchairs and crutches with broken bones, some with screws sticking out of their arms or legs.
They packed along the corridors and doorways to bursting. Doctors saw patients right there in those corridors.
I watched three surgeons queue up to use the one and only fluorescent lamp box to illuminate x-rays of their patients.
In each room of the orthopaedic clinic, there were two to three doctors or surgeons seeing a patient each.
It was a flurry of activity. Everyone worked as fast as they could because outside, more patients, some in pain, were waiting.
I witnessed all that because I have a problem with my spine and after consulting two surgeons in private practice, I decided to seek the view of a government surgeon.
“If a government surgeon says surgery is mandatory, then it will be a must because government hospitals are very busy and nobody here has time to do extras, ” said my friend, Penang Hospital anaesthesiologist Datuk Dr Luah Lean Wah.
I did not get how seriously she meant by “very busy” until I saw it.
The spine surgeon needed to see x-rays of my spine and sent me to Radiology Department.
What I saw there was even worse: over 100 patients suffering from all kinds of misery sat or stood cheek by jowl or laid in movable beds to wait for their turn.
Radiologists worked at full speed. Every few minutes, they called the names of three patients at once into the imaging rooms. But even as they worked quickly, more patients arrived.
Suddenly, they stopped calling names. Then I heard a muffled announcement from the public address system that I could not make out; the speakers need changing.
I walked to the counter and was told the x-ray machines broke down and while technicians rush to fix them, the one remaining spare is serving emergency cases only so other patients had to wait a long time.
I later went to a private hospital to get the x-rays. It cost me RM95 and it would have been free at Penang Hospital.
I feel a pang of deep compassion for Malaysians with health problems who cannot afford private healthcare.
In many of Penang’s private hospitals that I have been to, the majority of patients and visitors are Indonesians, Thais and even Filipinos. Out of 10 people milling about in the comfortable waiting lounges, I would say I can make out only one or two of my fellow countrymen.
I feel deep gratitude, respect and wonder for all government doctors, surgeons, nurses and the rest of the team.
I watched them with the powers of observation I have as a journalist that day.
Everyone, even the male nurses carrying files or iceboxes of samples between departments, walked quickly and didn’t engage in idle chatter; there was no time.
No one snapped at patients. No one in the team looked angry or frazzled or frustrated with the amount of work they had. I only sensed well-controlled tension.
When I asked what was wrong with the x-ray machines, the senior officer at the counter had time to tell me in detail professionally, though I could tell she was up to her neck with urgent work.
The doctors seeing patients in the corridors of the orthopaedic clinic also had time to look at patients in the eye and speak slowly.
In a small room packed with eight patients and doctors, all talking at once, I watched as one of those patients became crestfallen after the doctor told her what condition she had.
As despair grew on her face, the doctor comforted her, earnestly explaining in detail how they can help her. No matter how busy, the doctor found time to be human with her and upheld his Hippocratic Oath.
“What you saw was just another ordinary day for us. Don’t worry about it. We are used to it. It can look messy on the outside and the equipment can be problematic. But facilities on the inside like the operating theatres are up to mark, ” my friend, Penang Hospital Cardiothoracic Unit head Datuk Dr Basheer Ahamed Abdul Kareem assured me.
The government allotted RM30.6bil for public healthcare in Budget 2020, compared with RM28.7bil under the previous budget. That is good, but RM30bil divided by 30 million Malaysians is RM1,000 each. Is that enough? I cannot say because I don’t know enough.
I can only say I am grateful that there is such a thing as public healthcare in Malaysia and if the economy permits, more attention be given to it.
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