Night Flight to a C Class Ward

Nick Harden

I knew I was in trouble that last night in Bali. I woke up at 3 PM to discover that my bowels had turned into a high-pressure fire hose. In the morning, I sent my wife, Rose, off to the nearest apotik for some Imodium, in the hope that I could shut the valve long enough to survive the two-and-a-half hour flight back to Singapore at 7 PM that evening. Sure enough, this was achieved before the drive to the airport. Concerned about dehydration, we stopped along the way to buy some of that delightfully named restorative, Pocari Sweat. However, I was far from well when we reached the airport, so sweaty and wobbly at the check-in desk that I garnered suspicious glances from both the airline staff and my fellow passengers. And then the vomiting started. For once, I was extremely grateful for Rose’s habit of always having plastic bags on her person, folded up into tiny samosa-like triangles and stashed away in case of some unforeseen need. Said bags enabled me to be as discreet as possible with my emesis. Not discreet enough, apparently, and one of the staff at the gate asked, “Are you well enough to board this flight? There will be a lot of unhappy people if we have to divert.” “I’m feeling better,” I lied, calculating that if I could hold it together for the first 90 minutes of the flight, the plane would end up in Singapore, no matter what happened.

The fight was mercifully uneventful, but still feeling ghastly I summoned the strength to phone my travel insurer before seeking medical assistance, as instructed in the policy. A very lengthy and detailed conversation ensued, during which it occurred to me that, on occasion, less-fortunate patients must succumb to their condition before getting the green light to go to hospital. Perhaps repatriation of remains is cheaper than the average hospital stay. Arriving at the hospital, I was fast tracked by the triage nurse on account of two events: my vomiting spectacularly into her wastepaper bin, and my showing a low blood oxygen level. The latter got the young ER doctors (one of whom looked about 12) excited about the possibility that I had a pulmonary embolism brought on by my flight, which seemed unlikely given that at two and a half hours the trip was shorter than sitting through a Lord of the Rings film. Nevertheless, I allowed them to put me through x-rays and CT scans, all the while thinking, will the insurance cover all this? Eventually, I was told I would be admitted for rehydration and observation, and then wheeled through numerous corridors to the ward. I was drifting in and out of sleep by this time and only dimly remember being changed by the nurses into an enormous diaper and a pair of blue pajamas. As I lay in bed, I became aware of the variety of noises round me. Two patients were arguing (discussing?) loudly in a Chinese dialect (Hokkien?), the guy next to me was clearly suffering from pneumonia and breathing in an alarmingly bubbly manner and, bizarrely, someone was playing “All I Ask of You” from The Phantom of the Opera on their cell phone. Frequently, moans and shouts and farts pierced the night.

I awoke early in the morning and took stock of my situation. I was in a large ward with dozens of patients, subdivided by thin partitions into groups of eight beds. Ceiling fans whirled overhead, and the place had the atmosphere of a prison work farm somewhere in the southern US. I was in a C class ward, the cheapest in the Singapore hospital system and not a place a foreigner often finds oneself. I wondered if my travel insurer requested that I be placed there to minimize costs. I looked around at my fellow inmates, most of whom were older than me and whom I will refer to by the honorifics so common in this part of the world: Pakcik and Uncle. Pakcik #1 was directly across from me, but slouched so low in the bed that I never saw more than the top of his head. Next to him was Pakcik#2, who would later prove himself a bit of a handful, but who had a saint of a wife who sat with him for hours a day. Next to Pakcik#2 was Uncle #1, an ancient gentleman with enormous, flappy hands with which he expressed himself in lieu of talking. The ward was fascinating as a microcosm for the whole country of Singapore, which despite being a tiny city-state has four official languages and people speaking many more. Having lived in Singapore for most of the 1990’s and being married to a Malay Singaporean, I had picked up a little Malay and Mandarin, as well as some deeply offensive swear words in Chinese dialect, all of which I would use to try and understand some of the conversations around me. A sticker on each patient’s bed identified the languages spoken by him, and helped the doctors and nurses figure out the complexities of communication. For example, Uncle #1 appeared to speak only Cantonese and a little Malay, neither of which his attending physician was proficient in, and conversations consisted of Uncle #2 gesticulating and the doctor replying, “hou, hou.

Returning to the assessment of my fellow inmates, next to Uncle #1 was The Hobbit, a tiny man with an unruly mass of gray hair and a long, thin beard. The Hobbit spent most of his time wandering silently around the ward, only pausing to stare at me and the clock high on the wall. He didn’t seem very sick and was perhaps counting down the hours until his release, although I was paroled before him. Next to me was Uncle #2, the aforementioned pneumonia patient—an elderly fellow who never moved or spoke during my entire stay. I learned from his niece that he had never married and had no immediate family. I didn’t get a good look at the other two patients, on the other side of Uncle #2, who never left their beds, and all I know is that one was a big Andrew Lloyd Webber fan.

The ward was a surprisingly cheerful place during the day, with a steady stream of chatty visitors swarming around my fellow patients. Pakcik #1 had the most visitors, and I entertained myself by trying to figure out how they were related to him. You can learn a lot about Malay relationships on the basis of handshakes versus hand kissing. Pakcik #1’s son came by briefly, but it was clear that the relationship with his father was strained and he loitered awkwardly at the foot of the bed. His mother gave him a reassuring pat on the back before he shuffled off. A son-in-law came by, too, helpfully bringing along a newly purchased electric razor so that Pakcik #1 could shave in bed. However, the son-in-law was so intrigued with the device that he went to a mirror at the end of the room and gave himself a shave before presenting the gift. All the while, The Hobbit roamed the ward, never receiving a single visitor.

If the days were lively and cheerful, the nights were lively and miserable. All through the night, patients were moaning and making demands of the nurses. Pakcik #2 was the worst offender. When the nurse did not immediately respond to his demand for an exotic beverage (ice Milo) he shouted, “You don’t want to work already, is it? I could write a letter!” I like to think the nurses organized a form of revenge, the following night, when at 4 AM they gave him what appeared to be a very vigorous sponge bath. It was during the night that I heard the only words ever uttered by The Hobbit. “Wo yao shui jiao,” he said quietly to one of the nurses. (“I want a shrimp dumpling.”) This seemed an even more unreasonable request than Pakcik #2’s ice Milo, and I feared for the consequences. Upon further reflection, I think that what he actually said was: “Wo yao shui jiao le” (I want to sleep). Meanwhile, for some reason Uncle #1 was wandering around bottomless, his buttocks and private parts hanging in droopy folds. Nighttime was also the time for enquiries from the nurses about diaper content. One no-nonsense Burmese nurse who had taken the trouble to learn some Malay shouted out to Pakcik #2 “Berak ada? Kencing ada?” literally “Is there poo? Is there pee?” Generally, though, the nurses were more polite in their enquiries: “Did you pass urine? Did you pass motion?” I found the latter phrase to be so euphemistic as to be downright confusing. Isn’t passing motion something you do on a committee or in parliament?

By the third morning, I was desperate to escape. My bowels had returned to good working order and I essentially pleaded with the doctor to release me from the madhouse. She agreed, and as I gathered my things, I felt guilty about thinking of the ward in this way. Even though I had never exchanged a single word with my fellow patients, there was camaraderie between us. I wondered how much longer each would be there. My daughter, who had surreptitiously glanced at the nurses’ computer, later told me that Uncle #2 had already been there for a month. A nurse told me that there was one final thing to do, and that was to go down to the “discharge lounge.” This turned out to be a small room crammed with big lounger armchairs, complete with headphones and music and little tray tables. It became apparent that this facility was designed to make one comfortable while the discharge paperwork was processed. I struck up a conversation with an elderly uncle, a retired sailor who had travelled the world. I couldn’t help noticing that he had precisely one tooth left in his mouth. After a few minutes, I discovered what the tray tables were for one’s last hospital meal, which after all had been paid for! I was quite happy about this, as I had actually enjoyed the hospital food, and I tucked into my lunch, while wondering how one tooth Uncle was managing to consume his meal so quickly. The food category that my Malay wife had chosen for me, upon admission: “Muslim Western.”

About the Author

Nick Harden is a molecular biology professor living in Vancouver, British Columbia. During his scientific training at Cambridge University and National University of Singapore he travelled widely in Europe and Asia. The misadventures he experienced in his years abroad taught him to look for the humor in adverse situations. While he has published many research articles, this piece is his first foray into non-scientific writing.