Mrs Y was not a frequent visitor at the clinic, so I was taken aback when she pushed a small box towards me and said shyly “I’m leaving Hong Kong for good. This is a token of appreciation to you for looking after me and my children”“ But I can’t accept this” I exclaimed, pushing the box back . To my consternation she burst into tears “ Is it because the gift’s too little for a doctor ?” “NO…no , not that at all ! Why would you think that ? ” I stammered in confusion and hurriedly opened the box to find a small Swarovski brooch in the image of a dolphin. “ I know you like diving so I searched high and low for this ” she said between sobs. “I hope it’s not expensive or I’d have the ICAC after me.” I fingered the crystal gently. “ Oh, I checked, we’re all right ” she smiled through her tears. I was touched, not because of the gift but for the fact that though we didn’t see each other that much she knew my hobbies and took great trouble to hand-pick something I might like. The true value of the gift is indeed in the thoughts .
After this tearful incident I never dared to refuse a gift from a patient lest history should repeat itself . Which also set me wondering : what gifts are deemed worthy of a doctor ?
Like doctors everywhere I’ve been given the usual rounds of chocolate, biscuits, cakes and fruit , on top there’re various food stuff peculiar to Hong Kong, like home- made soya drink, black sesame powder, and tea-leaf egg. The single tea-leaf egg wrapped in 2 layers of brown paper was from an old lady who suffered from a recurrent erosion of the lips, so obscure the dermatologists she saw over the years could not agree on the diagnosis. She had some medical training in China years ago and together we devised a concoction she swore could keep the sores away longer than any treatment from the specialists . “ It’s very tasty, my own private receipt ” she said proudly as she handed me the still warm package . “ Sorry I can’t give you anything more, I’m just a poor pensioner” “ It’s perfect ” I gave her hand a squeeze “I’m a doctor of the poor. ” Well, being the daughter of a poor man and know poverty first hand, what else can I be ?
The most unconventional gift had to be that from Mrs T. Mrs T lived in Canada and dropped in the clinic once in a blue moon, when she’s visiting relatives in Hong Kong. Her last visit was at least over a year ago . “ I was buying some for my daughters and I thought of you, so I bought a couple for you too ” She shoved a paper bag at me. “They’re very comfy!” She nodded encouragingly. I tore the bag open to reveal 2 pairs of white cotton knickers. “ Oh …. thanks ……. for thinking of me ……. I’m sure !” To this day I still have no idea why white cotton knickers reminded Mrs T of me , but by Jove, they were comfy !
As a lady doctor it’s not uncommon to be given items like scarves, watches , tea-sets, toiletries and all manners of cream and lotion, earrings , bracelets and necklaces, some even self-made which I like, as I dabble a little in costume jewellery design myself . In a Chinese society Lai See ( lucky money) during Lunar New Year is unavoidable , and to refuse will guarantee bad luck for the whole year. For some reason I’m also given quite a few religious artefact , most notably the wood carved statue of Guanyin (Goddess of Mercy).” I’m actually not religious” I told Mr L, an exchange scholar from the Mainland ( though if I were , Buddhism would have been my first choice ). “ I saw this in a shop and immediately decided to get it as a parting gift for you , because the face, especially the expression, looks so much like yours.” This wasn’t the first time I’ve been told I’m a Bodhisattva look-alike either ! I’m always careful that the cost of the gifts is low, not to keep the ICAC off my back, but I’m genuinely uncomfortable and embarrassed to have people spend money on me. Fortunately there’re many more gifts that’s intangible, all heart and no wallet .
Prof E was a visiting professor from Turkey. “ I’ve to wait more than an hour in the sitting area …….” He began the moment he sat down. ” I’m so sorry about the wait , Professor , I’ve a run of long cases this morning…...” I apologized with a sinking heart, thinking ruefully – here it goes ! “ No, no, I was going to say it gave me plenty of time to observe the patients, they all go into your office looking glum , but they all come out smiling ! I decided then you’re worth the wait .” Wow, compliment and understanding like this is worth more than gold ! Like my nickname when I was working as a lowly houseman in England. “ Why do you all call me ‘Sunshine’?” I asked the patients. “ Because the moment you walk into the room the whole place seems brighter !” An old gentleman quipped. Ah, obviously a lie but so good for the soul !
Just because I was young and had a permanent smile on my face didn’t mean I couldn’t be severe. When I caught Mr S, a patient with unstable angina, stealth a smoke in the hospital back corridor, I was livid “ I can’t be your doctor anymore unless you quit smoking ” I said firmly then walked off. A few months later I ran into Mr S in Leeds Central Market. “ Can you take me back as your patient please ?” he begged in a small voice “ It was hard but I’ve finally quit .”“ I’m so happy for you but I’m sorry I still can’t be your doctor because I’m going home.” He looked lost. “ I’m leaving England, I’m going back to Hong Kong next week. ” I paused to let the information sink in “ But I’ll fix you up with the best doctor I know to take care of you ” “ I’ve nothing for your leaving ” he said “ But you have! Your quitting smoking is the best gift any doctor can hope for ” Since then I’ve successfully coaxed or threatened a fair number of patients into kicking the habit , so the gifts have kept coming !
Once in a long while a gift is born of fire and brimstone. For a little over 2 months in 2014 Hong Kong was under siege by a lawless ruthless mob, who under the pretext of pushing Democracy and Freedom, and propelled by the flush of American money, sought to destroy Hong Kong to spite China . Hong Kong was bleeding fast, so 500 Hong Kong doctors bought an advertisement space in a local newspaper and pleaded with the mob to “ Do No Harm”. A week later a patient came to see me, looking very worried. She normally worked in PWH, the District Hospital a long way from the University Clinic, so she rarely came to us. I’d maybe ever only met her once before. “ You need to be very careful,” she said urgently “A group of Yellow Ribbon doctors and medical students in PWH found your name in the newspaper and vowed to dig up dirt about you ( 起你底 ) and force the University to fire you .” I was flabbergasted. I would never dig up dirt and use it to attack anybody ( 起人底) however their point of view might differ from mine. Would you ? But this is the standard practice of the Yellow Ribbons. They are like the IS, anyone not agreeing 100% with their ways must be erased.
I thanked the patient for her concern, but truthfully I didn’t have any dirt for these people to dig up, regrettably I’m not that interesting ! I was nonetheless very impressed by her moral courage. It couldn’t have been easy for her to go out of her way to warn a relative stranger over something that under the oppressive shroud of Yellow Terror that pervaded all university campuses in Hong Kong at the time, could easily have landed her in trouble . Hers was the gift of Humanity, altruistic concern over the well-fare of another human being even at the risk of implicating herself . If the Vice-Chancellor of just one of the universities in Hong Kong has half the Humanity and Moral Integrity of this little clerk, Hong Kong would have suffered a lot less hurt !
On reflection, the most precious gift of my entire medical career from my patients is what I’ve learnt from them . Most doctors see their patients as cases so they gain medical knowledge, I’ve always seen my patients as people so I gain life wisdom. I’m extremely grateful and humbled by the life lesson all my patients taught me, and I’m a better person because of them. It’s an amazing privilege to be allowed to experience the world through their perspective, and together we’d endeavor not just to make sense of the senseless suffering and despair of human existence, but also how to best savor the incredible joy and the exuberant possibilities in our short life .
Turns out it’s not so hard to find the perfect gift for a doctor after all !