by Dr. Thane Oke Kyaw Myint
“Have you ever really had a teacher? One who saw you as a raw but precious thing, a jewel that, with wisdom, could be polished to a proud shine? If you are lucky enough to find your way to such teachers, you will always find your way back. Sometimes it is only in your head. Sometimes it is right alongside their beds.”
At the end of his book “Tuesdays with Morrie”, Mitch Albom wrote the above about his teacher, Morrie Schwatz, his professor of sociology in Brandeis. I am sure that Ko Nyunt Thein who asks me to write about Ah Ba will agree that the words can be said of Ah Ba U Hla Myint who passed away yesterday. Like Prof. Schwartz, Ah Ba had or must have seen each and every student that he had taught as “precious things” that he could polish to a “proud shine”.
Ko Nyunt Thein and I are among thousands of doctors who were fortunate to be polished by Ah Ba in many ways. While Ko Nyunt Thein was able to be “alongside” Ah Ba’s bed till the last day of Ah Ba’s life, I can close my eyes, and in my head and in my memories of saya, I know I would never be lost because of what Saya taught me and made me to be who I am .
May I tell the readers a few anecdotes that would make them understand the various aspects of saya:
“Put their names on HPD list”
“Sister Florence, make sure their names are on the high protein diet list every day. And tell U Gyi Hla, to make sure that they eat”. Sister Florence was his ward sister for many years, U Gyi Hla was responsible for getting the prescribed diets from the hospital kitchen and give it out to each patient . And “their names” meant the names of Ko Myo Myint and myself.
I might have mentioned to some that the two of us literally lived in Ah Ba’s wards from April 1964 onwards, and for myself, from then till November 1970 when I moved to Children’s hospital for my paediatrics training. Saya Bobby, with Ah Ba’s agreement, had given us this little room which used to be the “ECG room” to live in, while we were learning from both of them. Ah Ba asked me one day, coming into the room where I was studying and said,” I should have asked you before. What are you doing for your meals?” I replied, “If we have time, we go to Latha Lan or 19th. Street for food (this was the cheap affordable roadside food eaten by med students and interns)”. “This wouldn’t do!” saya said and turned away calling for Sister. That was how we remained on Wards 5 & 6 High Protein Diet for about three years.
This was in the really good days when there was no “ko htu ko hta” i.e self help or “sa zeit hmya pay” cost sharing as it was now. All the patients’ needs, from linen, mosquito nets, food, medicines were all provided free of charge by the hospital.
And being on HPD, we got a jug of milk, two toasts, two boiled eggs for breakfast, and a meat of our choice together with veggies on the side, either a fruit or a portion of a custard pie as dessert! Talk about eating in style.
The only complaints came from the interns, our seniors: they had to write up the diet sheet every night making sure that the right diet be asked for each patient, by name and bed number. And some literally got “pissed off” (pardon my French!) to have to add our names to the list every night!
Was Saya wrong in doing this? No, saya was just caring for us and making sure that we ate and ate well!!!
“Shit Gyi Kho Par Yae, Ta gar pwint pae bar”
(For goodness sake, please open the door)
This was the time when junior doctors could not afford to own cars. At that time, there were about a dozen doctors senior to me who had already passed the selection examinations and were being trained in RGH. Only Ma Ma Thelma who could drive herself and Ah Ko Thein Han who had a driver, could be in time every day. The other three, Ko Harry, Ko Sein Oo and Ko Ko Hla, posted to our wards came by bus, buses that they had to take after a long walk from where they lived to the bus station on the nearest main roads. And with the erratic bus schedules and crowded buses, they were often just a few minutes late. But, by Ah Ba’s rules, every entrance must be closed and locked by 8.00am. and nobody could enter the ward when Ah Ba did his rounds.
The “shit gyi kho pa yae.. ..” was a common refrain that we could hear from my three elder brothers, making a plea with the ward boy to let them in. And of course, the ward boy would never dare to go against saya’s orders.
Many ploys were tried: going up one story up to the surgical wards and coming down by the stairs pretending to be busy at the other end or returning from a surgical referral; coming up to the way that dead bodies were carried down to the mortuary through the basement; going around towards Lanmadaw, climbed to the X-ray department, got an old X-ray to pretend that you were fetching an urgent X-ray – with Ah Ba, none would work. You got caught by Ah Ba and Ah Ba kept on closing every entrance!
Ko Tin Maung Htun who lived in the AS quarters across the street and for me living in the ward, we escaped the scolding and enjoyed the discomfort of our seniors!
“No, saya, it wasn’t me, it was Shwe Shwe”
One essential duty before Ah Ba saw patients was what we called “the cheroot rounds”. We had many cases of Cor Pulmonale (COPD) cases all the time in the wards. Many were heavy smokers of cheroots. We had to do one round to check their bedside lockers that the cheroots were either not there or at least well hidden.
If by chance, Ah Ba opened the locker and found cheroots, I got a scolding. But I was lucky when Shwe Shwe got posted to us. I only had to say, “I didn’t check saya, it was Shwe Shwe”, Ah Ba would just frowned at us but no scolding! With Ah Ba, Shwe Shwe could get away with anything short of murder!
The same would be for diabetics and their “locker rounds” – nothing of high sugar or carbohydrate content must be found or woes betide the house surgeons to whom the bed had been assigned.
“Saya, it is time for me to change my glasses”
Ah Ba got very upset if we missed physical signs. If he had time, he would thoroughly examine each patient on his rounds and expected all of us to have detected relevant physical signs present. His “favorite thing” was to detect “pericardial rub” which we tended to miss. It happened once to me. I thought I had done well with that patient but when Ah Ba turned to me, handed the earpieces for me to listen, while holding the chest piece where he heard the rub, I knew I was in trouble.
Frowning, he said, “I did not expect that you would miss this, Johnny”.
I was so frightened of being scolded, blurted out, “Saya, it is time for me to change my glasses, at such times, my hearing gets less acute.” Only later I realized that I had given him a ridiculous excuse. He did not say anything. Just said, “When I go back for lunch, come with me.”
I thought I would be in for a “one to one” “monhinga kywae” – we called being scolded as being given mohinga. Instead, on arriving at his house, he pulled open a drawer and gave me a new Littman, so that I could hear well!!!
“Silence ! Johnny is sleeping”
It was just one of those bad days: That admission day, we had so many patients, many coming in very ill. All beds were full and we had to put up what we called “centre beds” i.e. setting up beds between the two lines of regular beds as well as “stretcher cases”, those whom we could not give beds had to be kept on the stretchers on which they were brought in. On top of that I got called away twice to Dufferin to see and bring back two cases of septic abortion with acute renal failure.
By 7.00, having requested Emergency to kindly stop sending patients to us but to wait and send them to the next admitting wards, I laid down for a short nap. But, I must have fallen asleep, because it was past 10.00 when I woke up. Strangely, the wards were very quiet and I could not imagine why. I washed my face, changed clothes and got out. Then I saw the reason why.
Ah Ba had told Sister to close off the passage way, between his office and my little room with trolleys at each end. I was so embarrassed that Saya had also put up two signs on cardboards on the trolleys that said “Silence, Johnny is sleeping” in Burmese!!! Talk about being so priviledged to be treated like his very own little son!
“Rosalind, Johnny is here”
Every Thadingyut, I would go to Ah Ba’s house to pay homage to Ah Ba and Ma Ma. The moment he saw me coming in he would shout, “Rosalind, Johnny is here.” He would not accept anything from me, either expensive or inexpensive, as homage. If I did, he would give it back to me. He preferred that I came empty handed so that Ma Ma could give me a plastic bag containing either white shirts and black material for trousers or later white collarless shirt, a yaw longyi (my favorite) and a length of cloth to make a Burmese jacket.
Only once he accepted: I was leaving Burma and had asked Ko Sein Aung, an artist whose children I looked after, for a painting to give as a farewell present to Ah Ba, especially as I did not know when I might be able to come back to Burma.
I got off the car, carrying this painting wrapped in brown paper. The first thing he said was, “How many times did I tell you not to bring anything for me.” I said, “Saya, I am leaving Burma and do not know when I can come back again. I asked a friend to paint what I would like to say to you for everything that you have done for me.”
I kowtowed and paid homage and handed the wrapped painting to Ah Ba.
He opened it, looked at it and said, “Why this painting?” I replied, “Saya, I were Rahula, you would be Buddha to me”. It was a copy of one of U Ba Kyi’s paintings of Rahula asking for his inheritance from Buddha.
The painting will still be in Saya’s prayer room till now. And like Rahula, I did inherit from my father Ah Ba who as a Buddhist, I revered as being equal to the Enlightened one, inherited not material riches but lessons for life that made me a good person and a good doctor.
No, Ah Ba did not die yesterday: he lived on in each of us who were his students, now scattered all over the world.
Thane Oke Kyaw-Myint
14 September 2012