Behind the Drapes

Sometime mid October 2020, Dr Sri Kumaran cornered me in the orthopaedic clinic in Sungai Buloh and shot me full of questions that left me puzzled, but a little hopeful.

The surge of COVID cases following the Sabah State elections had seen us shut down our surgical services again to make way for the waves of infected patients that ultimately came flooding through our wards, and I had spent some days making painful telephone calls to disappointed patients – postponing operations, sometimes leaving patients choking back tears.

Dr Sri’s line of attack was the possibility of opening up a new operating theatre again… the catch – on the coast, 100 kilometres away, in the sleepy town of SABAK Bernam. I was intrigued.

I was also deeply sceptical.

Performing major surgery in a small hospital in between windswept paddy fields and sea-shell lined beaches wasn’t going to be easy.

There was equipment to load, instruments to pack, and more importantly, an anesthetic team to cooperate with. All over the bumpy trunk roads that wind up the dusty shore of western Selangor.

The night before our first operating day in Sabak Bernam Hospital saw me huddled in my living room, viciously rattling off messages on my phone – has the pneumatic tourniquet been sent in? Where are the operating table attachments? Did you remember to send in the scope tower?

But early the next morning when I threw on my scrubs and slipped into the Sabak Bernam OR, I fell into a green-walled kaleidoscope of movement.

The anesthetic team crowded around the patient’s torso, flushing and taping IV lines and adjusting ECG leads, Dr Thivagaran Naidu, Dr Tinesh, Dr Ruqnuddin and MA Aizuddin were crouched by the patient’s feet, wrestling with the table attachments that would hold his legs in place.

The reps were poking buttons on the arthroscopic unit, and the scrub nurses rolled out the drapes under the OR sister’s watchful eyes.

All this reminded me of something I had felt before, though I couldn’t quite put a finger on it.

Soon the whirlwind of activity quietened down to a gentle breeze. We scrubbed up and gowned up, and as Thivaga went through the checklist, I peeped over the crinkled drape screen at the patient’s face.

He was fast asleep. Of the thousands of things that could have gone wrong, none had.

All had done their duty perfectly. All was peaceful. All was well.

Then it dawned on me, what this all felt like.It felt like home.

Originally written on 21 November 2020 in Hospital Sabak Bernam, Selangor

Photo Credits: Dr Ruqnuddin Al Hamdi

Note: Some details have been changed to protect patient privacy. The author wishes to thank Dr Aslah and Dr Norliyana, the doctors, the nursing and paramedic staff of Hospital Tengku Ampuan Jemaah (HTAJ), for their herculean efforts in transforming the operating room in Sabak Bernam, and in accommodating our patients. For this we are eternally grateful.