We were right in front of the majestic Angkor Wat then, admiring the amazing ancient temple in Phnom Penh. Thousands of tourists, mainly foreign, had gathered to catch the beauty of the building at sunset. We hurried across the bridge over the moat not wanting to miss this brilliant spectacle. Then the dreaded phone call came. It was from my colleague Mei Lin.
“Azlan, it is confirmed, Nabilah has appendicitis. Got to have surgery right away. They need consent from the parents.”
I just went cold. I knew I had to rush to the clinic right away but I also had to take care of the other 21 of my students as well. And at that time most of them were nowhere in sight , probably still within the Angkor Wat huge complex. Luckily my other colleague Puan Azizah was there, so were Dr Airena, our volunteer doctor and Raset, our guide. I quickly told Puan Azizah to handle the students as Raset and I dashed to the clinic on a ‘tuk-tuk’.
Only three days earlier my colleagues and I together with our 22 students and three volunteer doctors plus our guide were in Kampung Jumnik, a remote Cambodian village five hours bus-ride away from Phnom Penh doing our community service project. We built a surau for the kampung, conducted free medical check-ups for 300 villagers , did circumcision for 85 young boys and held English classes for the children.
After four months of hard work and painstaking preparations we managed to complete our mission far beyond our own expectations. As a reward for a job well we took the students to Siem Reap to unwind and take in the sights. Everyone was in high spirits until Nabilah started complaining of stomach ache and vomiting when we were at Tonle Sap, the largest lake in South East Asia.
When she got worse we suspected food poisoning so Mei Lin decided to take her back to the hotel to rest while I took the rest to Angkor Wat. Now our worst fear was realised , it was appendicitis not food poisoning. Why did it have to happen now? Couldn’t it just wait for another day because early the next morning we would be leaving for home.
When I got to the clinic the doctors were ready for the surgery but they needed consent from the parents. To make matters worse Nabilah’s father was performing the umrah in Makkah, so I had to call her mother instead. I always thought it would be easier talking to fathers than mothers since fathers are most likely to be cool and not emotional like mothers.
How do you tell a mother that her only daughter had to have surgery in a third world country and it had to be done right away and the mother was not even there to see the daughter? How do you convince the mother to trust your judgement and agree to have the life of her daughter put in the hands of people she didn’t even know?
Telling her mother that was really nerve wrecking. I chose my words carefully and went through what I wanted to say again and again in my head. I also had to sound cool over the phone so that her mother would not panic. I struggled with myself not to betray my own emotions and when Nabilah’s mother gave her consent after the initial shock I actually collapsed on the sofa in the lounge!
After Nabilah was taken into surgery we decided that Mei Lin, Dr Airena, Raset and I would stay back in Siem Reap to look after Nabilah while Puan Azizah would take the rest home. I had to be there because Nabilah was my student and she was very close to me. Mei Lin had to be there since Nabilah was a girl and she would be able to assist Nabilah where I couldn’t. Dr. Airena would be a great asset to assess Nabilah’s condition and to assure us what the Cambodian doctors were doing was right. And Raset had to be there to be our interpreter since the staff at the clinic hardly spoke any English at all.
The 22 students were from two different colleges and they had formed a very strong bond that it was heartbreaking for them to go home and leave their good friend behind. Many were already in tears and I could understand why.
At the clinic the surgery went superbly. After two hours Nabilah was wheeled out. Dr Airena gave the thumbs up and we were relieved.
For the next three days we took turns looking after Nabilah at the clinic. With drips going into her arms she couldn’t feed herself so we had to take turns feeding her. When it was Dr. Airena’s turn I remarked that Nabilah was probably the only patient I knew who had a real doctor instead of a maid feeding her. Mei Lin and Dr Airena even spent the night at the clinic to accompany her though I doubt if Mei Lin’s snoring was any help to Nabilah!
Nabilah was a model patient. She was always cool and never once did she complain. Her mother would constantly call to find out how she was but I had a feeling that emotionally she was the one giving strength to her mother who was definitely feeling worried and helpless.
As for me I always felt guilty that Nabilah had to be operated on and had to stay back in the hospital while her other friends went home. I felt that I had failed to look after her , that I had betrayed her parents trust in me. In college I always thought she looked mature for her age. But at the clinic, sitting on her bed I saw the little girl in her looking helpless and sad at times that it broke my heart.
Nabilah fully recovered from her ordeal and was back to her cheeky self soon enough. When we got back to college she would come to the staff room and sit in front of me everyday during recess under the pretext of chatting with me when in fact she was actually looking for chocolates or cookies or curry puffs from my table. The ordeal we went through had brought us very close. I always thought of her as the daughter I never had and on her part she stopped calling me ‘Sir’ and called me ‘Bapak’ instead.
Nabilah graduated from our college and will be leaving the country to study medicine soon and I surely miss her company during recess. But at least my chocolates are safe.
by Azlan Rahman