Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Doctor doctor, give me the news

Part 1: “It’s pronounced ‘appendicitis.’”

So, wow. I’m not sure if I’ve ever been less qualified to do something in my life.

I found myself standing in front of 200 ICU surgeons from the Palembang Hospital at 7am sharp, lecturing them on correct medical terms while they scribbled down notes. I wanted to say, “Perhaps you shouldn’t really listen to what I’m saying. After all, you routinely cut open bodies and sew them back up, and I try not to even make contact with my own fingernail clippings because they’re gross.”

As a rule, we’re not allowed to accept any other jobs during our 9-month contract in Indonesia, teaching English or otherwise. But I couldn’t refuse Gustina, one of my favorite teachers at IGM, since she’d been begging me for weeks to accompany her to the class she teaches at the hospital every week.

Luckily, the class pretty much runs itself. The surgeons take turns presenting cases they’ve worked on in the last week. Instead of explaining them in Indonesian like they normally would, they conduct all business in English on Fridays. And MY job was to correct all their mistakes. Very publically.

So after each presentation, I would clear my throat and sort of wobble my way to the front of the room. Then I would hold my page of notes up in front of me and say things like, “Um, actually, you ‘commit’ suicide, you don’t ‘get’ suicide. And you just ‘slip,’ not ‘got slipped.’ But, uh, everyone did a, uh, really great job today. You just keep on keeping people alive…”

I still can’t believe how often English words just blow my mind while I’m trying to explain them. One doctor used the word “reposition” incorrectly. “Reposition,” I explained, “means to move something again, usually just a little bit.” He nodded. “To move again?” I nodded. “So… to re-move. Remove is same as reposition.”

Hmm. No, it’s definitely not. But that’s weird.

All of the surgeries fell into one of two categories: motorcycle accidents and stab wounds. I feel like that pretty much sums up Palembang in my mind… crazy traffic and unbridled tempers.

Honestly, though, it was really shocking. Slide after slide after slide showed these terribly bloody, often fatal, photographs of crash victims. I complain a lot about not getting my international driver’s license before I came here, but seeing those pictures made me think that maybe it’s ok I’m not weaving my way through traffic every day. At least half of the people brought into the emergency room died from head trauma where they collided with another vehicle or “got slipped” on the road in the constant rain.

Another interesting point: the other IGM teacher Gustina and I were the only people in the room who weren’t medical professionals. And still, in each of the pictures where brains and other organs are splayed out across tables, any genitals or breasts were completely blocked out with bright, funky purple ovals. That is so trademark Indonesia.

Why do we “perform” surgeries?

“Flatus” is a word that has been haunting me in Indonesia, only in the vocabulary sense, I swear. They use it as a substitute for “fart” or “flatulence,” which, I mean, it is. But it is so odd to hear my students and teachers say, “I flatus often.” They also use the word “defecate” in a lot of uncomfortable ways.

One lesson I learned: doctors in Indonesia are really no different than children or teachers or ojek drivers in Indonesia. I entered the room to whispers of “bule,” and they all wanted to shake my hand and ask me if I like pempek. They offered me a paid position on the staff, but I politely declined.

A group of surgeons approached me after class and invited me to go with them on their weekly bike ride. Keep in mind I have a general distaste for physical activity. Still, I figured I had a good fifteen years on even the youngest surgeons. How bad could it be? I gave them my number.

Part 2: Tour de Palembang

Later in the day, I got this text: “Hi, Ketty! I pick up you at 5:30 for 70km on bike.”

Uhh. They expect me to ride 70 kilometers at 5:30am?

I groaned. Oh, well. I can do it one time. How bad can it be?

As it turns out, it can be kind of bad. I could have handled the distance had they not all wanted to prove how very ‘fit’ they all were. I explained that I’m grossly out of shape, but they insisted on off-roading.

In Indonesia, driving on paved highways can feel like off-roading in the US. You have no idea. There was simply no way to bike through the mud on the path they were following.

“So sorry, Miss Ketty,” they said. “We should not have tried to show off for you. We picked the wrong road, and our bikes do not work.”

One doctor broke his chain trying to pedal through it. They instructed me to carry my bike the next 10 kilometers. Carry doesn’t mean push. It means lift into the air and carry.

“With all due respect,” I began. “I am trying. It is early. I have had zero servings of caffeine, and I haven’t bitten anyone yet. That alone is a considerable feat. I cannot carry this men’s mountain bike 10 kilometers in any direction.”

Frustratingly, they delighted in my struggle. They took pictures while I cursed them under my uncaffeinated breath. Finally, after I fell over in the mud four times because my shoes were too heavy to left, they helped.

One of the doctors shouted, “Miss Katie! This is the test of your life!”

I considered that. If that off-roading path really was the test of my life, I apparently survive with the help of friends while I complain that life is ruining my shoes. Actually, it sounded pretty accurate to me. I finally emerged triumphant and exhausted on the other side.

Emotionally, I think I was pretty done at that point. I’ve never been a biker. Actually, I really enjoy it, just as a means of actual transportation, and usually with a stop for dessert somewhere in between.

“Hey, want to ride our bikes to Dairy Queen?”

I’m your gal.

On the infrequent occasions I subject my body to actual exercise, I prefer something that burns calories a little more efficiently. Still, I couldn’t help but enjoy the scenery. Sumatra is smelly, but it is smelly and beautiful. We passed palm trees and rice paddies and forests and piles of burning trash.

Then what always happens to me… happened to me. I started to get bored.

I sought distractions. I taught them all to say, “Katie is the queen of the road!” every time any time one of us passed another. That entertained me for a good half dozen miles before it backfired and became grating.

I tried to salvage a little respect with my one very basic bicycle talent: riding without hands. Note, surgeons do not think this is impressive and will begin yelling in unison for you to stop immediately, causing you to swerve embarrassingly.

I talked to the doctors about all the motorcycle accidents. They said crash victims account for a huge majority of the cases they see each day. One surgeon said, “Yeah, do not wear your helmet! It is money in my pocket!!” Grr.

Luckily, we stopped for a break at about 35 kilometers. A few of the doctors took me on a hunt for coconuts up in the trees. It’s times like that that I can’t help but be immeasurably happy. We just pulled to the side of the road and are hunting for coconuts up in the palm trees on the island where I live.

So it was while I was skipping along thinking grand romantic thoughts about traveling the world that I fell into a hole.

Indo has a way of pulling you back down whenever you’re up. Literally.

Ok, it wasn’t very deep, but it scared the s*** out of me.

“Do you teach those words you just said to your students?!” they all cackled and whooped.

But we found coconuts. You just hack off the bottom of the husk so it’ll sit without rolling and hack a big hole in the top. Then you drop in a straw and just drink the water. I mean, it’s no Diet Mountain Dew, but… oh come on, that’s awesome.

Then we dined on tempe (one of my favorites) and sat around taking pictures and laughing. I managed to actually forget we had another half of a bike ride to finish.

I started warming up. “I’m decently happy with my performance up to this point, and I don’t want to end up irrevocably bitter towards all of you…”

The poor fellow whose bike chain had broken back during the off-roading asked if I would mind very much if he took my bike the rest of the way and I could follow in the car that had joined up with us after the mud portion of the trip.

I happily accepted his offer and spent the rest of the trip cheering the others on and munching on rambutan. “Now YOU are the king of the road!” I would shout as they pedaled past us.

They were very happy and the head surgeon even offered me a ride home early.

“I’m sorry I suck and didn’t make it,” I said.

“Oh, Ketty,” he said. “Biking is not really about biking. You have given us life today. You have put the life into our wheels.”

Well, shucks.


  1. Another GREAT post. On the subject of your comment, "But that's weird," watch this 3 minute video:

  2. Haha, I love it!

    I bet you could join the staff. Become a GI doctor. You would be better than the one at the Bule clinic in Kemang.

    My school loves to talk about bodily functions... Especially during lunch.

  3. Wow! Kudos to you for accepting an invitation for a spontaneous 70km bike ride at 5:30 am!! What an adventurous day! I'm definitely more of a let's-bike-to-Dairy Queen type of girl myself.

  4. Katie--I think that you are ready for the "Ride the Rockies" bike ride this summer in Colorado. It is about 200 miles over 3 days, up and down the mountains. Should I sign you up? Dad

  5. You are the QUEEN of the road!!! And I can see you, miss princess, munching your fruit and enjoying the car ride back. You give me a little bit of Indo every time I read this LOVELY blog! Thank you, Queen Ketty!