Archive for the penny for my thoughts Category

“Trying to be fine”

Posted in Bo, cloudy days, Ebola, penny for my thoughts, Sierra Leone with tags , , on December 1, 2014 by twotwoeight

ebola quarantine africa

“What are we going to do? People are not coming to help us. We are doomed”. These are words spoken by a bright young Sierra Leonean man to me during my last shift at a hospital in Sierra Leone. A man blessed (or cursed) with the foresight to see what lies in the future for his country and him. A man, whose hopes and dreams have been destroyed and life will be forever changed by one thing.


ebola tee

A virus which has evoked insurmountable fear in everyone and generated mass paranoia outside West Africa has parachuted Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia into the eye of the world. Many who have not even heard about these countries, let alone realize that the African continent is much more than just these, are now aware because they are stricken with unfounded fear of people returning from West Africa. We follow the progress of this unprecedented outbreak on the news, we gasp and worry about the statistics showing increasing numbers of positive cases and deaths, we criticize and make judgements on how this outbreak is being handled by the powers that be, we read harrowing accounts about the challenges of being in an Ebola management centre by people on the frontline, we hear touching stories about individuals who have survived Ebola and entire families that have lost their lives to Ebola and we feel sorry for them.

ebola hysteria MAD

And then we close the newspaper or turn off the television and go back to our normal lives. Our Ebola-free lives. Where bodily contact will not possibly infect you and you are free to hug and kiss your loved ones, where community living is still not endangering your life and you can share your food and a joke and laugh together instead of having to choose to abstain from the normal living practices that you have been used to for generations in order to prevent yourself from getting infected by the deadly Ebola; where your future is not hanging by a thread because you no longer have a job, a job that puts food on the table. Yes, we have none of that.

good day

But what about the West Africans? What if your life is not Ebola-free and you cannot resume living your normal life because Ebola has enveloped your world? What then? How do you go on?

Sierra Leone

Underneath the “sexiness” and labelled-heroism of battling Ebola, the few touching tales that has caught the journalist’s attention and the fear and paranoia that is being emanated to outsiders, we forget about the remaining population – the local people who have nowhere to go and “leaving West Africa because there is Ebola everywhere” is not an option for them. These are the people who have to try and live their lives as normally as possible, even with the threat of Ebola looming around the corner because life needs to go on. This outbreak is not going to be over in a matter of months, and people cannot put their lives on hold indefinitely. And the uncertainty of the future makes it impossible to have any plans as the country is not going to be the same even after the Ebola outbreak is over. The healthcare system has collapsed and rebuilding it will be difficult with the loss of so many healthcare professionals when there were already not enough to begin with, families have been ripped apart and Ebola has orphaned countless number of young children whose welfare remains in question, business and economical development will be severely stunted and education has come to a halt. These countries will be set back many many years and the West Africans will have no choice but to pick up the pieces and move on, because that is what needs to be done, move on.

Sierra Leone 2014
I have always thought that if there was an apocalypse or worse yet, a zombie attack, I want to be one of the first to perish, because I cannot imagine being one of the few survivors, trying to face the impending doom alone or left to live in a world that has been destroyed and completely foreign to me. This is only in my hypothetical thoughts. But for my friend, this bright young Sierra Leonean man who had big dreams and aspirations for a better future for him and his family, this is now his reality. And for the rest of the West Africans whose stories we will never ever hear, because not everyone’s story is spectacular or touching enough to be newsworthy, but whose ordinary lives are filled with happiness and pain as real as yours and mine, they are just “trying to be fine”.

everyday living


No Death, or so it seems…

Posted in Bo, caffeine, cloudy days, doctoring tales, Ebola, Gondama Referral Centre, MSF, penny for my thoughts, Sierra Leone on August 15, 2014 by twotwoeight

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The last hour — sitting at the porch outside the doctor’s office in Gondama Referral Centre (GRC), sipping hot “Starbucks Americano” and listening to Jacky Cheung on my iPod shuffle while writing down hand-over notes from the night. The last hour of my first night shift in GRC. No deaths. Dare I count my chickens before they hatch? After all, there is another 55 minutes to go before 8am. And anything can happen. Keeping my fingers crossed.

Most of the doctors and nurses who work here have attended more resuscitations, or rather, witnessed more deaths in the few months of working here compared to in their entire working lives. Judging from previous years, the numbers are expected to rise in the rainy season as this brings a surge of severe malaria and pneumonia cases, but on the contrary, the wards are quieter than ever this year. Under normal circumstances, this would be something good. A quiet hospital with low bed occupancy rate…who wouldn’t want that?

Unfortunately, this unnatural apparent peace does not reflect a healthier population or availability of better health facilities at this point in time. Admissions are significantly less because the people are not seeking treatment – not at hospitals, at least. Why? Because they are terrified of the deadly Ebola. There are many myths and rumours related to this disease; some don’t believe the virus exists, some say it is an act of with craft or supernatural in origin, some say it is a conspiracy designed by the authorities for population control, some say it is purely a scam of healthcare workers and scientists for research – the list is endless. The worst of them all, is that many of them believe that if you go to a hospital, you will get injected with the Ebola virus there.

Whichever the story, the devastating outcome is that these beliefs keep them from bringing their children to the hospital, even when their child is critically ill. They’d rather let their children die at home or go to traditional healers than risk coming to the hospital. As a result of this, they die from potentially treatable diseases like malaria, pneumonia or gastroenteritis which are so prevalent in this community. It is tragic to know that there are so many preventable deaths out there – that every empty bed we see in the ward could mean that there is a child out there who is denied proper treatment because of false beliefs.

Ebola is a deadly virus indeed. Once infected, the mortality rate is high. But the destructive path it leaves behind without even needing to infect the individual is more terrifying, and this deadliness grows silently, unseen and unheard. When will this destruction end? Only time will tell. Until then, we continue to pray for the number of admissions in our wards to increase, so that less lives will be lost unnecessarily. Ironic, I know.


Co-habitating with Ebola

Posted in Bo, doctoring tales, Ebola, Gondama Referral Centre, MSF, penny for my thoughts, Sierra Leone on August 15, 2014 by twotwoeight

15th July 2014

The lights go out and the fan slows to a complete stop within minutes. It’s 5pm. That’s the time that the generator goes off every day for an hour and a half in the evenings, and 2 hours in the morning. Today the sweltering heat doesn’t bother me because it has been raining steadily almost the entire day, and the breeze that accompanies the pitter patter of raindrops is much welcomed. Sitting at the terrace behind the house, listening to Phantom of the Opera and sipping hot coffee – this almost feels like home. Except that the very visible barbed wires all around the perimeter of the house is a stark reminder that I’m continents away from home.

20140815-111011 am-40211587.jpgThe first week working at Gondama Referral Centre here in Bo has been interesting, notwithstanding the ominous presence of Ebola that is creeping too close for comfort, overshadowing everything in its path. Talking about Sierra Leone at present time without mentioning Ebola would be like ignoring the elephant in the room but I am going to do just that. For underneath the wave of chaos and feelings-of-impending-doom that Ebola brings, the normalcy of the original needs of the hospital persists — providing acute healthcare to children stricken with diseases endemic to the region. Practicing medicine in the local context is going to be a new experience and somewhat of a challenge – not only because of the difference in severity and types of diseases here, but more of facing the brutal reality of our limitations here. The old adage “You cannot save everyone” has never been so true. What remains is, who can you save?


The ICU, which is lined by ‘couches’ (name given to a small high cot) on one side for the more ill children, and ‘beds’ on the other side for those less critical is filled with semi-comatose children. Juggling a few diagnoses of severe malaria, severe sepsis, severe acute malnutrition, severe anaemia, severe pneumonia and herbal intoxication each, these children are cheating death for every single day that they manage to pull through, and those who survive, do, because of the right combination of strong will and lots of good luck because medicinally, there is not much that we can do for them. Other than antibiotics, antimalarials plus a cocktail of other drugs and supportive treatment, we have no ventilators, no means for dialysis, no monitors, no scans and only a handful of fundamental laboratory investigations available. Meaning other than relying on your good clinical acumen, you are left with a whole lot of guesswork. Which also means, when the CHO (Clinical Health Officer) calls you to review a patient because he is critical and is in respiratory failure, instead of securing the airway, taking over the work of breathing and connecting the child to a ventilator to ensure there is adequate oxygenation to his vital organs while you treat the infection, you can only pray that either the child has a fighting spirit that is unbeatable and defies the odds, or that he dies soon, and as peacefully as possible. Mostly, it’s the latter that happens. I silently cringe on the inside and gulp down an uncomfortable feeling of helplessness after I examined the boy and told the CHO that I have nothing more to add to the current plan. LGD – Let God decide. I remember we had laughed about this ‘plan of management’ one of the consultants wrote in the case sheet when we were interns. Well, never has it been more real than now.

I watch as one young mother sitting at the side of her child calmly shakes his scrawny limp body intermittently with great force, trying to prevent him from drifting into a permanent sleep – her boy, who is semi-conscious from the severe malaria that has affected his brain and causing him to have seizures despite the repeated doses of anticonvulsants lies in a fetal position on the couch with a dazed look and grunts weakly only occasionally.

I marvel at how the mothers take it all in. They remain unshaken when watching their child moan in pain from the severe skin infection that is eating away at their flesh leaving huge gaping wounds on their tiny bodies, they remain strong and resolute when sitting vigil at their child’s bedside watching while their child is struggling to breathe with each shallow breath, they watch in a helpless surrender as their child’s life slips away in front of their eyes and although visibly upset, they show tremendous strength and maintain such a calm façade that it is unfathomable.

Life is cheap. It’s disgusting but it’s true.  Death is a common occurrence here that a day with no mortality is a rarity. It is ironic that somewhere, someone is complaining that their doctor’s manners was less than satisfactory or is demanding for a private hospital room, when at that exact moment, maybe not even halfway across the globe, a child is fighting to survive despite the odds, weakened from the start by severe malnutrition from the impoverished state of living, denied of what the ideals of basic healthcare needs is to the more privileged and leaving it all up to fate. What is deemed to be a basic necessity for some that it would be absurd to be without, can, and is indeed a dream which may be forever unattainable by another. Sadly, this is not a touching story with a happy ending. This is a tale of two worlds which ideally should be one, and a witness of the continuous struggles of humanity in trying to narrow the gap between the two. A couple of months ago, I laughed when my houseman said during a case presentation that the patient is from Utopia (it was, in fact Ethiopia) and I had to explain that Utopia is an ideal that does not exist, but in retrospect, wouldn’t it be nice if I was wrong, and that there is a Utopia after all?


the Ship of the Desert

Posted in camels and humps, penny for my thoughts, professional tourist in the making, Rajasthan on December 29, 2012 by twotwoeight

One of my ‘life’s greatest mysteries’ has always been trying to figure out where to sit on a one-hump camel.  We even debated about it on the flight to India! I always imagine that on a two-hump camel, the answer would be obvious — between the two humps.  But what about a one hump camel?  Do you sit perched atop the hump, or do you sit at the crook of the neck in front of the hump? And wouldn’t the latter sort of break the poor dromedary’s neck?  Well, lo-and-behold, that mystery is solved now!!!  Incidentally, did you know that a one-hump camel is a Dromedary and a 2-hump camel is known as a Bactrian? 😉

camels galore

Camels are indeed incredible creatures.  With their gentle glassy eyes and long wavy eyelashes, their stare has this silent ability to pierce through your heart.  However, these creatures also have a comical side  to them — watch them face-on carefully for a few moments, and without realizing it, you may just burst out laughing at the way their mouths move when they chew their food, it seems like they are gesticulating.  Our esteemed tour leader (who is not a big fan of these dromedaries mainly for the lack of their speed) does an unbeatable imitation of this beloved creature’s gesticulations, which sent us all into fits of laughter aboard the train!  Priceless!

Ali and Rajah

Meet my Ship of the Desert, Rajah, and his rider, Ali.  Rajah is 5 years old, barring miscommunication with Ali.  On average, an Indian camel can live up to 40-50 years, so you might think that Rajah is just a young chap, but apparently, they reach adulthood after the age of two years and can reproduce at the age of 4 or 5 years old.

camel wanted adds

One thing he and I have in common it seems is we both tend to sneeze alot!!! I wonder if he has allergic rhinitis too…and how much antihistamine it would take to alleviate his symptoms? 😉  Rajah is also easily distracted by food.  He likes to stray off track and graze whenever he sees plants of his liking.  Many a times, Ali had to direct him back on course with some gentle verbal cues and some occasional tugs on the reins.  Well I guess that’s his nature and instinct for survival under the harsh conditions of the desert — eat and drink opportunisticly, since you never know when your next meal is going to be.  They can go for up to a month without any drink or food if necessary, how awesome is that!

me on my ship of the desert

So back to the question of where do you sit on a dromedary? Well, the camel riders put a double-seat saddle on top of the camel’s hump, with lots of padding in front and behind the hump so that it will be steady.  So the front rider sits in front of the hump in the crook of the saddle, and the second rider behind it.  Genius! You learn something new everyday! 😉

Surviving the roads in India

Posted in Indian traffic madness, penny for my thoughts, professional tourist in the making, Rajasthan on December 29, 2012 by twotwoeight

Random observations about the maddening traffic that is India…

maddening traffic in india

1.  There appears to be no traffic rules, so don’t bother worrying about abiding or breaking them.  It’s a do-as-you-like world out there on the streets!

2.  If you ever plan to export vehicles for sale in India, the one part that must be durable is the horn.  You have to make sure the horn can withstand excessive usage day in, day out.

3. You must learn to be oblivious to the world around you and have skin as thick as leather.  Maybe thicker.  So that when you decided at last minute to make a u-turn and hold up the entire traffic, or you decided to go head-on against ongoing traffic and other road users are honking and cursing you, you will not be affected (although your passengers are most likely to be silently screaming in the back).

4.  You must have the heart of a lion.  Well you must possess some amount of bravery in order to do the above mentioned crazy stunts and lots more!

5.  You must have the patience of a camel (will elaborate on this gentle creature another time), when traffic gets held up unexpectedly by a rickshaw, or tuk-tuk, or a vehicle stopped in the middle of the road for no apparent reason or random crossing pedestrians or even a cow sauntering across the road…for you can never quite anticipate the kinds of road users there are.


6.  You must be an expert at emergency braking, for you can never predict what the vehicle in front of you is going to do or when an animal is going to dart in your path.

7.  You must also be an expert in estimation of distance and be able to get within centimetres of the adjacent vehicle without scratching each other, especially when most of the roads are exceptionally narrow, and what width seems to you like impossible for 2 adjacent vehicles; fear not, they locals will tell you with much conviction ‘It’s possible’!

this close!

8.  If you can’t do 7, then you will be better off driving an old beat-up vehicle.

9. You must adopt the selamba attitude possessed by the locals and just have faith that today, when you walk out on the streets, you are going to return in one piece, unharmed.

For all the craziness and haphazardness and lack of predictability there is on the streets, I must say that I have not witnessed a single accident whether between vehicle-and-vehicle or vehicle-and-living creature(s).  Sometimes, watching the going-ons of the traffic just leaves me in awe of the undisturbed balance they have got going on there, everyone carrying on with their activities unfazed by their chaotic surroundings.  Other times, I flinch and my heart plummets to my guts during these close encounters when they seem a little too close for comfort!  I guess 2 weeks is still not enough time for me to acclimatize yet…unlike one of my tour friends who has total faith in our van driver on our last day in India!  Salute!!!

Incredible India Indeed!

Posted in penny for my thoughts, professional tourist in the making, Rajasthan on December 28, 2012 by twotwoeight

It all started when a sort-of plan was hatched in Krabi for a trip to South Africa at the end of the year.  Well, I gues the sort-of plan remained just that — sort-of — and never became more than a dream, as we were all masters of procrastination.  Instead, at a spur of the moment (well, many moments actually) it was decided that Incredible India it would be…and indeed, it was.

Rajasthan map

So what comes to your mind when you think of India?  I was met with many “Don’t you have any other places to go?” when my travel destination was known.  Perhaps images from Slumdog Millionaire come to mind for many, and I won’t be surprised that many don’t even know the whereabouts of Rajasthan! I know I was guilty too, before I embarked on this trip and now having returned, I revel in the discovery that India has much more to offer, if you look in the right places.

Collage of Rajasthan splendour

And now after 2 weeks of adrenaline rush and euphoria, it is time to come back to the real world, one where routine and responsibilities predominate.  It is also a time to sit down and reflect and reminisce (after washing oneself thoroughly off the grime and dirt of India that has seeped into every pore of your body!) and consolidation of memories begin.  Even though I love scrapbooking (I still break into laughter looking at the one PW made of our trip to Bangkok many years ago), I gave up ambitions of scrapbooking after I realized my obsession with details makes even a 2 day trip project never-ending…what more a 2 weeks trip to Rajasthan.  However, with my incredible memory (or lack of), I know that in time, I will unknowingly discard some precious memories of this journey and it will be lost forever.  So I decided to pen down random thoughts and stories from this trip (crossing my fingers this will not be the first and last post on Rajasthan!) — random, because I don’t have the patience or diligence to do a daily travelogue.  Random — because this is how the stories come to mind.


This trip was supposed to be a soul-searching, anwer-seeking trip, with visions of finding the wise old yogi on top of the mountain who has answers to all my questions!  Perhaps it was the lack of oxygen in the thin mountain air that temporarily led to flights of insanity, but at one point, I even resorted to letting the appearance of birds decide my future!  Of course none of that worked, and I returned none the wiser…but richer in experience and perhaps, wiser, in another sense.  So if you asked me, was India incredible?  I would tell you without a doubt, yes.  But don’t take my word for it, go experience it yourself ;).

You jump, I jump, everybody jumps.

Posted in cloudy days, penny for my thoughts on October 17, 2012 by twotwoeight

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Amazed at the power of herd mentality – it’s ability to penetrate all layers of society irregardless of upbringing, cultural background or mental status.
It’s propagation by social networks and the mass media even more frightening; multiplying the growth exponentially and intensifying the effects many folds when one ignorant fool is egged on by another like a chain of dominoes…the number infinite, as is the number of foolish minds. Alarmed that the power of one wrong ideation coupled with misguided intentions can bring detriment to more people than one can ever imagine and the outcome, catastrophic.