Sunday, August 28, 2011

Superstitions in the Sarawak General Hospital

"The general root of superstition is that men observe when things hit, and not when they miss; and commit to memory the one, and forget and pass over the other."

Sir Francis Bacon

The man created the scientific method. Represent!

Twice or thrice a week, I would be put "on-call", which means that I would start working at about 6:00 am on one day and finish at 5:00 pm in the next. There are "bad calls" (in which the doctor on-call would get little to no sleep because of the glut of patients to attend to due to unforeseeable complications) and "good calls" (when one gets paid for sleeping mostly). So as you can see, there are many unpredictable elements which ultimately dictates how good or bad a call can be - and when there's a situation in which a lot of variables lie outside our control, superstitions would mushroom precipitously on its moist, slutty soil.

"That is what prayers are for," the Long Suffering Girlfriend™ once told me. "After doing everything you can, you pray that those things that you can't do anything about would go your way."

I've been working in the Sarawak General Hospital for little more than a month and already have I learned a sizeable number of silly superstitions associated with being on call. One of the first ones I learned is to avoid wearing anything red in colour - not even red undies. I can imagine how that started: a house officer must have had an especially bad call at some point in the past and was looking for things to blame that could have caused it.

"I am wearing a red shirt! That must be it!" he declared (perhaps even jokingly), and thus this particular bit of bunkum get passed on as oral tradition amongst the medical staff of the hospital forever after. It's a pitfall of human thinking to try and turn something inherently undivinable, like bad calls, into something that can be easily manipulated like the colours of one's attire - and many who aren't given to thinking rationally would readily fall into such stupid exercises. We are pattern-seeking animals, and that particular mental faculty have served us well throughout the history of our species. It's what allows us to engage in higher brain functions like planning, predicting and innovating. Imagine if our ancestors did not realise that seeds would grow into food crops, or that seasons come in cycles - we'd still be hunting gazelles on the savannah. I'd even go as far as to say that recognising patterns is the very cornerstone of modern medical practices because that's pretty much how we diagnose diseases and treat them. However, our tendency to seek patterns can get overactive sometimes. That is why we think that clasping our hands together and mumbling to an invisible deity helps to make our wishes come true. That is why we see divine faces in pizza pans and grilled cheese sandwiches.

Of course, after the colour red had been banished from the hospital on call nights, people realised that bad calls still happen. A right-thinking person would immediately realise that not wearing red does jack squat in determining the nature of one's calls - but right-thinking persons are frightfully scarce in the medical field. Another bright penny of a house officer who had a terrible call (but was wearing blue at the time) must have thought to himself: "I'm not wearing red, so why am I still having bad ca... I know! I did not take my shower as soon as my call started! I must shower as early as I can from now on!"

Showering early is in fact a real superstition in the Sarawak General Hospital Unquestionable Guide to Having Good Calls, I shit you not. If you ask the senior nurses (which are literally old wives), they would even recommend that you shower with flowers for extra bad-call-repelling effect. This is why superstitions grow in number rather than decrease when they don't appear to work - people just keep making up new variables to control. The doors to the ward must be kept closed. If you're having a good call, you must not comment on it or you'll jinx it into a bad one. The in-tray for new patients must be turned upside down, so as to avoid inviting more. Women in labour must not wear anything circular in their hair (hairbands, scrunchies, etc) or they will have a difficult childbirth. Blah, blah and blah. The funniest one I have encountered so far is the condom I see taped to the Labour Ward's double doors at night - the rationale being that since it protects against anything sexually transmitted, it will protect the ward from impending babies.

Every time someone drop me a new pearl of superstitious wisdom, I always ask: Do you seriously believe in it? Some would sheepishly say that they don't - not really - but they were just playing along for fun. Mostly, the answer I get is, "Well, sometimes it's very true."

Holy mackerel fucking a pair of daschunds on a hotdog bun! Are they even listening to themselves? Sometimes it's very true? How about sometimes, bad calls just fucking happen? Ever thought of it that way?

Imagine that instead of bad or good calls, we are talking about the head or tail sides of a tossed coin. According to their brand of magic logic, if you avoid wearing anything red, shower early in the evening, and fulfill the thousands of other superstitious commandments, your coin will sometimes come up heads. Doesn't it scare you that the people whose job is to save lives have such a poor relationship with reality?

Sarawak General Hospital
The Sarawak General Hospital, where superstitions are born but never ever die.

Besides that, pretty much every doctor working in the Sarawak General is assigned with the labels "hot" or "cold" (the terminology may defer in other centres). A hot doctor is someone who attracts difficult, rare or complicated patients and emergencies, while a cold one doesn't and is therefore a desirable person to work with during calls. The funny thing is when someone who was designated as hot gets a good call night, people wouldn't notice - or simply remark how uncharacteristically relaxing the call was for him or her - rather than realising that the hot and cold thing is just a lorry of manure.

Yesterday, I had a conversation with a colleague right before my call, and I asked her if we are equipped to perform deliveries in the maternity ward - y'know, just in case I couldn't get a patient sent down to the labour ward in time. I also expressed worry that a couple of rather complicated patients will be giving me headaches throughout the night, and joked (in private) that maybe one of the twins in an expectant had died in utero because I was having trouble monitoring the little pipsqueak on the cardiotocograph.

"You shouldn't say things like that!" she chastised me. "Now that you said it, those things may actually happen. Haven't you heard of the law of attraction?"

Oh brother, Fuck Rhonda Byrne and that fucking Secret of hers. Yes, I've heard of the so-called "law of attraction", and I've experienced that same bollocks throughout my life in its myriad versions. You see, I'm given to indulging in black humour and I frequently joke about people dying or getting hurt in gruesome manners. As a result, I have always received shocked rebukes and beseechments that I should touch or knock on wood right that instance, young man. I'm pleased to say that I have never complied with such moronic requests. By the way, no one ever met their demise or gotten hurt just because I fucking said so. If the law of attraction is a real thing, everyone would be zooming around in ridiculously expensive cars, no one would be starving in Africa, and every football team would be winning every game they played in ever.

"Do you really believe in the law of attraction?" I asked.

"Yes!" she said. "It's very true sometimes." There's that word again: sometimes.

"You'd think that if it's a law, it would be always true - like the laws of gravity or the laws of thermodynamics - instead of being true sometimes. Shouldn't that be true of all real, predictive, scientific laws?" I commented drily.

"Kok, why must you always be so scientific?" She laughed, as if I just said the silliest thing she ever heard.

That night, no one deposited their babies in the maternity ward and both the twins came out screaming and kicking into our very overpopulated world. It was also the best call I ever had.

Only sane man,
k0k s3n w4i


~*caryn*~ said...

Regarding the law of attraction thingie, that if we speak about it enough it'll happen, well I'm living proof that it is false. I've lived three years in Cheras, and now in HKL, very close to Titiwangsa, both hotspots for dengue. And I always say, kenapa hari-hari I digigit nyamuk cam hampeh pun aku tak kena dengue lagi? And still four years down the line I'm dengue free. See, wanting to get dengue doesn't attract dengue.

Anonymous said...

"Kok, why must you always be so scientific?" She laughed, as if I just said the silliest thing she ever heard.

Erm, because you are a doctor, not a voodoo practitioner. Science works, superstition doesn't and never will.

mg said...

haha i kind believe in not wearing red.. nowadays im wearing ALL black when im on call and it does seem to work a lil.. since im jonah all this while lol.. btw i bought d new myvi too, in white. :D

shanaz@RS said...

I so savored this post like a freshly baked chicken pie. People and their superstitions go way back, but I do think it's very unwise to take these things seriously. But some people do take superstitions seriously that you're very tempted to knock on their heads instead of wood. More stories, please. You're one exciting story-teller! heh heh :D

Adrian said...

Nice post as usual Sen Wai. I guess you can fill a texbook on fallacies with examples from that hospital :)

k0k s3n w4i said...

~*caryn*~: people believe that what they think can affect reality directly. i simply don't understand why.

Anonymous: tell that to all my bosses and colleagues. i only know of one other house officer who thinks it's all hogwash.

mg: yeah, that's what it's called in semenanjung; jonah. why? is it to draw parallel to jonah in the belly of the whale? i noticed that a lot of house officer had the same experience as you. they usually have bad calls initially, but then they claim to mellow out after following all the superstitious nonsense. think of it this way: wouldn't new housemen have more problems during their calls due to their inexperience? wouldn't their calls seem better later after they wise up a bit? perception is the key. i'd bet you a million bucks that if we do a proper study on it, we'd find no significant difference in the nature of the calls no matter what form of witchcraft we employ.

shanaz@RS: i have tonnes of story to share, but alas, i don't really have the time to blog these days :(

Adrian: this probably permeates every hospital in malaysia. try asking your doctor about it the next time you see one.