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I PEN this account to inform all those concerned of some major flaws in our public hospitals which must be corrected.

Let me declare, at the outset, that this is not a complaint. My intention of going public with this matter should be seen as a genuine attempt at assisting the Ministry of Health (MOH) to correct some nagging problems that have been plaguing our public hospitals.

This is a personal experience which took place in Selayang Hospital, a new hospital located 15km north of Kuala Lumpur. I will not mention the names of the surgeons involved out of respect for them here but will refer to them as Mr B and Mr A, as surgeons are professionally addressed as 'Mr'. (However, I must respectfully inform them that their names will be mentioned in my official report to Tan Sri Dr Ismail Merican, Director-General of Medical Services, Malaysia, who had requested me to furnish him details of what actually happened.)

This is my story.

My Aunt Lucy (my late father's youngest sister) was referred to Selayang Hospital by the Sarawak General Hospital in Kuching. She is 63 years old and was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on June 26 this year. It has been a long, agonising three-month wait for her to undergo an operation (a hepatobiliary procedure).

When she was finally informed by the Kuching Hospital in mid-September that an operation date has been scheduled for her in Selayang Hospital on Oct 3, she was elated but sadly, her joy was short-lived.

SEPT 30 (Sunday): She followed the Kuching hospital's instructions to the letter, flew to Kuala Lumpur on Sept 30 and was duly warded in Selayang Hospital the same evening. She was accompanied by my cousin, Alice, from Kuching.

In passing, let me mention some minor hiccups. The ambulance from Selayang Hospital which was supposed to turn up at the KLIA on Sept 30 to pick up my aunt never came. So, Alice called a cab instead. Arriving in Selayang Hospital at about 2.30pm, Alice later informed me that she was 'pushed here and there' for more than three hours before she finally managed to get our aunt warded at 6.00pm. I later learnt that this mismatch was due more to the fault of the Kuching side rather than Selayang's.

OCT 1 (Monday): The next day was a smooth, happy and stress-free one. My aunt was seen by the doctors and was duly taken for a CT scan. After that, she was specifically informed that the operation would be performed on Oct 3 (as scheduled).

That night, my aunt was jovial and slept well. She felt very comfortable in the hospital - the second-class ward was air-cond with two attached bathrooms. She only had praises for this comfort provided by the hospital. I was also profoundly impressed with this ultra-modern Selayang Hospital and the facilities there. This was also my first visit to the hospital although I have been living in Kuala Lumpur for many years.

OCT 2 (Tuesday): This day was to mark the beginning of our nightmarish experience with a certain group of surgeons in the hospital. At about 9.30am, Alice called me from the hospital to drop me the bombshell - surgeon Mr B came into the ward earlier in the morning to inform that my aunt's operation scheduled for the following day has been CANCELLED.

The reason given by Mr B was that some emergency cases had cropped up which must be given priority. So my aunt has to wait. Till when? Mr B was unable to point to a definite date. "Two or three weeks later maybe. Or after Hari Raya maybe," was his rather shallow and sheepish response.

However, Mr B gave an option - either wait in Selayang or return to Kuching for the operation. He also said a surgeon from Selayang has been posted to Kuching who could perform the same surgery.

To me, that was not an option. How can you send a sick, elderly woman all the way to Kuala Lumpur for an operation and then ask her to return to Kuching? How can this be? I may not be as brainy as the brilliant surgeon Mr B but common sense will dictate that something is wrong somewhere and this has to be rectified.

To be honest, I was very lost on what to do after I received this rather depressing news. Sending my aunt back to Kuching was out of the question.

Then, I decided to seek the help of former minister Tan Sri Law Hieng Ding ( left ), a person whom I know is ever ready to lend a helping hand to Sarawakians in trouble in Kuala Lumpur. After I told him of my predicament, Tan Sri Law advised me to seek the assistance of Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek. He gave me Dr Chua's mobile line and asked me to try calling the minister first, after which he would follow up with him.

If Tan Sri Law's advice was to seek assistance from the top brass, I have a good reason to contact DG Tan Sri Dr Ismail Merican as well. Later, I managed to get hold of Dr Ismail's mobile number from my office colleague.

Still, I was quite certain I would not be able to get the VIPs to intervene in a matter as quickly as was necessary. Somehow, I knew I have to get the matter resolved the same day - a lapse of 24 hours would mean a world of difference.

As I went to Selayang Hospital again to visit my aunt at noon, I could sense her feeling of hopelessness and deep disappointment with Alice's frustrations clearly written on her face.

Deep in my heart, I also grieved with the same sense of hopelessness and despair.

I need to find a solution and fast. My first reaction was to see the doctor on duty in the ward but she was "too busy" for me. Never mind lah, I thought. She's just a young doctor, possibly with a lot of airs about her. Either she could be really busy - in front of the computer in the doctor's room or she's just sombong. Either way, at my age and as a father, I could be able to forgive the young lady for snubbing me just as I could easily forgive my daughter for being naughty.

My next course of action was to see Mr B himself. I have to hear it from him personally. I then went down to Level Three of the hospital to Mr B's clinic but was told that he was in the operating theatre.

I was truly lost then and at my wit's end. I kept pacing up and down, thinking and thinking of what to do next. The sense of hopelessness came back. I took a Xanax and allowed it to melt in my mouth in order to calm me down... and I whispered a prayer.

Then, as if I was led by divine providence, I glanced at the hospital's Organisation Chart in the public area of Level Three. The names of all the hospital's top brass were there.

Yes, this is it! I must see the hospital's director.

To the hospital's administrative block, I went in search of the director's office. Unfortunately, the director was not in that day but her good and courteous PA led me to the deputy director's office instead.

Praise the Good Lord and Allah, such a person like Dr Zainab Ramli (the hospital's deputy-director) exists in this world. It takes less than five minutes, after listening to me, for her to spring into action - advising me to give the details to the hospital's public relations officer (PRO).

She personally led me to PRO Puan Norasilah Ibrahim who interviewed me. I later learnt that the two of them managed to get hold of their boss, Dr Siti Zaleha Mohd Salleh (the hospital's director) on the phone.

Living up to her profession as a responsible PRO, Norasilah called me as she said she would later to tell me that I was not to discharge my aunt out of the hospital that afternoon. "This is the director's instruction," she stressed.

Dr Zainab also informed me that Dr Siti Zaleha would be back in Selayang Hospital the next morning (Oct 3) to meet us over my aunt's case.

I spent the entire day at the hospital but it was all worth it in the end.

Reaching home late at night, I thought I must update Tan Sri Law on the matter. So I sent a SMS addressed to the Health Minister and copied it to Tan Sri Law and Dr Ismail Merican.

This is the text message I sent to the Health Minister: "Dear Datuk Dr Chua Soi Lek, I am from Sarawak. I was referred to contact you by Tan Sri Law Hieng Ding. I seek your help re-my aunt who is a cancer patient in Selayang Hospital. I'm now aware that because of (.....................), my aunt became a 'victim'. This text is to inform you of a matter which is not right in the said hospital".

OCT 3 (Wednesday): No, I did not expect to receive any response. But I was wrong. Early in the morning, I received a SMS from Tan Sri Dr Ismail Merican ( photo ).

This is his response: "Please give me name of patient and details via email. My email is: [email protected]"

The director-general's SMS was timed at 6.28am, in case those at the Health Ministry are interested to know how early their DG starts work in the morning.

As I was getting ready to go to the hospital for the meeting with Dr Siti Zaleha, I quickly responded with a text on the matter, after which the DG asked me to keep him informed.

Alice and I reached the director's office at 8.15am. I have to commend the team of administrators at Selayang here - Dr Siti Zaleha and her key staff were waiting for us. A representative from the Ministry of Health was also present. That's efficiency at its best!

Department Head Surgeon Mr A, summoned to the meeting by the director, was the first to say his piece at the meeting. He explained that emergency and trauma cases were referred from Sungai Buloh, etc, and that his team of surgeons simply could not cope with the sudden surge.

On my aunt's case, he said his subordinate, Mr B, had probably not relayed the message to us in its proper perspective.

Mr A also explained that surgeons are only humans, and if one of their patients did not survive, they would be emotionally drained too. At one point, he mentioned that only God knows whether he has been carrying out his duties with great care and empathy for his patients.

However, Mr A also said he understood the tight spot we were put into as a result of the operation cancellation for my aunt.

Finally, he said that he would arrange for an operation date - either Wednesday (Oct 10) or Friday (Oct 12).

When it came to my turn to speak, I said that was exactly what we wanted to hear. Why didn't they give us an alternative date the day before and we would not have to come to such a sticky situation. If only Mr A had instructed his subordinate, Mr B, to offer us another earliest possible date, we would be happy to compromise.

But no, the impression we got was that they wanted us to return to Kuching immediately so that they could be spared of another case, perhaps.

I told Mr A at the meeting that if only he had taught Mr B to exude the same compassion that he had shown in his speech, there would not have been any problem at all.

Frankly, the impression I have of Mr B is that of a rather impolite, rude and tantrum-throwing surgeon who absolutely lacks public-relations skills. Alice's impression of Mr B was similar, as she informed the meeting.

But to be fair to Mr B, I later learnt that he is actually a good surgeon. He is not at fault totally too as he could possibly have been told by his superior, Mr A, that no alternative operation date could be given to us [on Oct 2 when he saw Alice].

Just as the meeting ended, Mr A informed us that he has scheduled the operation for my aunt on Friday, Oct 5.

Summing up the meeting, Dr Siti Zaleha stressed on the importance of getting feedback from the public as a means of helping hospitals improve medical care and services to Malaysians. She was apologetic about what had happened, conceding that existing flaws still exist despite vigourous efforts to nib them in a bud. But such measures would continue, she assured.

OCT 4 (Thursday): I went to visit my aunt late in the evening. That night, we were duly briefed by another surgeon on the surgical procedures involving cancer of the pancreas and the preparations a patient has to take. I spent the night at the hospital, hoping that my company will give my aunt some moral strength to face the surgery the next day.


OCT 5 (Friday): As I write this after seeing my aunt wheeled into the operating theatre at 7.45am, I recall the events of the past few days. My family and I owe the good administrators and surgeons of Selayang Hospital our very sincere thanks and appreciation for sorting out the matter in the most amicable way possible.

If we could learn anything from this episode, it is that while there are many problems that have to be resolved at the hospitals and at the MOH level, we can take consolation too in knowing that there are also people who are compassionate, caring and hospitable enough to lend a helping hand to the downtrodden in society.

To Dr Siti Zaleha and Dr Zainab Ramli, [and Puan Norasilah Ibrahim] thanks for even bothering to see me, a country bumpkin from ulu Sarawak, in the first place.

Because of doctors like you around, I know that all is not lost yet for the thousands of sick, poor Malaysians who may also cross your path one of these days... like ours did this past week.

FRANCIS SIAH is a country bumpkin from UK (Ulu Kapit), Sarawak. He can be reached at [email protected]