Personal Stories, Philosophy, Simple Explanations

Enter the Tao: A novice’s exploration of Taichi, Taoism, and Traditional Chinese Medicine

The train weaved through the landscape. Buildings turned into farmlands, then into hills, then finally, after a twenty-hour journey from Beijing, I arrived at Wudang Mountain Train Station in Hubei, China. My summer begins here.

Taoists believe that everything in the universe belongs to one of five elements: Fire, Water, Wood, Earth, and Metal. Mt. Wudang is of the Fire element, perhaps owed to the fact that its many peaks lean towards the tallest, giving it the appearance of a flame. Or perhaps it is because Wudang burned at thirty-eight degrees Celsius in the summer months, a feature I’d soon learn to appreciate.

Mt. Wudang is tucked away in an eastern landlocked corner of China. It is not a particularly convenient location. It is not near any major cities or landmarks. It is not very tall, sitting at about sixteen hundred metres in height. But Mt. Wudang is remarkable for a reason: it is one of the centres of origin of Taoism, which, along with Buddhism and Confucianism, form the de facto official religion of China. Out of Taoism came the theory of Ying-Yang, Chinese medicine, and Taichi. In fact, it was in these very mountains that the Taoist monk Zhang San Feng attained enlightenment and created the Wudang martial arts some six hundred years ago. “All Taichi originates from Wudang,” goes a familiar Chinese saying.

Taoist Wuji Kungfu Academy, run by Master Chen Li Sheng, fifteenth-generation disciple of the Xuanwu clan of the Wudang sect, sits quietly at the waist of the leviathan. There are only a few rules to become a student: You must be disciplined. (That’s fine.) You do not have to be a Taoist. (Good.) You must not hold cultish beliefs. (That one sounds a bit odd…)

Despite my slight apprehension, at three o’clock that day I arrived at the school and introduced myself.


Side-note: there are over a hundred martial arts teachers in Mt. Wudang, and not all are created equal.

I heard of a guy, a foreigner, who also trained here.

“Sifu,” he said one day, for that is what we call our Master in Chinese. “Out of everything in the world, what do you wish for most?”

His Sifu  thought about this question. He lowered his eyes and furrowed his wizened brow. His disciples gathered around him. A minute later, he raised his head. His disciples tightened.

“A Porsche,” he said finally.

The guy quit the next day.

I hope the story wasn’t true.


Round, was my first thought when I met Master Chen.

He had a round face, complete with round eyes and a round nose, on top of which sat a
black square hat. He had a round belly, giving him the appearance of a walking cauldron wrapped in white kungfu attire. His full, round lips clasped into a smile as he greeted me.

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With Master Chen Li Sheng, fifteenth-generation disciple of the Wudang Xuanwu clan

“This is Wu,” he said, motioning to a lad of about fifteen. “He’ll take you to your room.”

Wu was a lanky teenager with slit-like eyes that made you think he was constantly on the verge of a dirty joke. He and Wen were two of Master Chen’s official disciples. “There’s Wen,” Wu pointed to a short, chubby, bespectacled fifteen-year-old who looked about twelve. Wen wore an expression that made you think he’d just heard a dirty joke and was bursting at the seams.

“Wu means warrior in Chinese. Wen means culture. Here’s your room.”

I was surprised by its cleanliness. Besides a few leaky pipes, everything resembled an honest attempt at creating a hotel atmosphere. I changed into my newly acquired kungfu garbs. I looked into the mirror; a thin, young man in white looked back. “Here we go,” I said to myself.

The Tao in Movement

Bagua, Xingyi, Taichi. These form the pillars of Chinese internal martial arts. They differ from external martial arts, such as Shaolin, in that they emphasize utilizing strength from within to channel to without. Bagua, also known as Eight-Trigrams, uses circular footwork and deceptive movements to confuse the enemy. Xingyi is the most aggressive of the three and was favoured by Yue Fei, a renowned warrior-general from the Song dynasty. Taichi is perhaps the most well-known in the West. Its name consists of two characers: Tai, which means “too much”, and Ji (Anglicized into Chi, not to be confused with Qi), which means “extreme.”

“Most people think of Taichi as a gentle exercise, practiced by the elderly in parks on Saturday mornings,” said Master Chen. “But they forget that it is primarily a martial art and can be used for combat.”

“Taichi moves look gentle. But it hides strength under frailty, toughness under softness. It is like water,” he said, and pushed.

A surging force landed on the Red Beast’s shoulder and uprooted his body. He flew out a few metres and landed on his feet. The crowd clapped enthusiastically. Earlier that evening, a frigate of a man, a tourist, challenged Master Chen. He was tall, a head taller than Sifu, very muscular, and wore a red shirt, hence my appellation. A crowd had gathered during their duel.

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Sifu versus the Red Beast

“Try to move me,” said Sifu, taking a stance.

The Red Beast heaved. He lifted. He pulled then pushed. Master Chen would not budge.

“In Taichi, the body exerts force in all directions at once. No matter which direction an attack comes from, the aggressor faces an opposition of equal magnitude.”

Very Newtonian.

“When it comes to attacking, a strike is not just an isolated strike. The hand is connected to the arm, which is connected to the back, which is connected to the legs. The opponent feels the force of your entire body,” he said, then pushed again.

The Beast, presently over-invested in trying to tug Sifu from equanimity, immediately lost his balance and fell backwards into the crowd, which immediately parted like the Red Sea, leaving the Beast on its and his bottom, his face flushed into the colour of his shirt.

“Good skill, good skill,” he said, getting up and clasping his hands into a kungfu sign of respect.

“Cool,” I said.

“We start with the basics,” said Master Chen. “The stance.”

The Wuji Stance (literally meaning “no extremes”), also known as Standing Position or Circular Stance, is sometimes called Standing Meditation. I find this a misnomer. We stand in a quarter-squat with arms in front, as though the entire body is hugging a ball. Within this ball, the head, hips and extremities expand outwards, to be resisted by the tendons and bones. The body is a metal balloon, a series of opposing parts making one consistent whole.

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The Wuji stance

My first time holding this position was neither relaxing nor meditative. Five minutes into it, my arms and knees began to ache. Swearing can help one withstand pain, so I began patiently listing expletives in alphabetical order, only to realize how top-heavy the lexicon of rude words is. I got up to “F” before stopping. Ten minutes, I noted pathetically. The other students could stand for an hour.

Over the month, my days would begin at five in the morning. There would be seven to eight hours of practice a day, four of which were spent in the Wuji Stance. The rest were invested in various forms, meditation, and basic training in the thirty-eight degree weather. I would return home sore and worn out. But by the end of it, I would have a beginner’s grasp of the Wuji Stance, and would be able to hold it, albeit imperfectly, for an hour.

The Tao that Cannot be Said

Every morning I wake up groggy, stumble into my uniform, and walk out as though in a trance. There are two paths leading out from the motel. Going down, I will reach a plaza that tourists pass by on the way to the cable cars that carry them to the top. We sometimes practice here to promote the school. But most mornings I go up. I reach a secluded spot, surrounded by mountain-scape. We train facing a monolith imprinted with large red letters: “Di Yi Shan,” First Mountain.

The sun is barely visible at this hour. But soon a bright, red hole sneaks up from the distant hills. It glows from ember-red to golden-yellow in a matter of minutes. At this point, the faraway peaks and valleys become a sea of green and grey that die into a flat line along the horizon. It is a picture of silence. Except it is not. The air is suffused with the sound of bird and bugs. There is incessant chatter, amongst which a single voice rises: the cry of some species of bird that echoes throughout the land. IMG_1431

The day after I arrived, a fog rolled in and ushered us into a classroom. Here, Master Chen, who held what is equivalent to a graduate degree in Taoism, taught us Taoist philosophy.

“Divorced from religion,” he emphasized.

Taoism in China is like Christianity in the West, in that many vaguely believe in it but most do not know what it is about. While practicing the Wuji Stance at the plaza, I sampled the various opinions about Taoism from tourists:

“What are they doing?” said one.

“I think it’s Falun Gong,” said another, referring to an illegal cult that espoused familial sacrifice.

“That’s why Taoism is fading so fast,” said the first.

Taoism holds three works as canonical: The Tao Te Ching by Laozi, the I Ching, and Zhuangzi. The Tao Te Ching is a dense volume of eighty-one passages, each no more than a paragraph long, but its official commentary contains over forty volumes.

“The Tao that can be said is not the Tao. The Word that can be said is not the Word,” runs chapter one, based on my very unofficial translation. In eighty-one cryptic paragraphs, the Tao Te Ching presents the great Tao, or pattern, of the universe. Its central dogma is that everything begins in a state of Wuji (“no extreme”), then enters into a state of Taiji (“too much extreme”), from which the nature of duality, the concept of Yin and Yang, emerges. IMG_1186

The day is Yang and the night is Yin. Front is Yang and back is Yin. Male is Yang and female is Yin. Yin taken to the extreme becomes Yang, and Yang to the extreme becomes Yin. The purpose of life is to return to a state of Wuji, to return to a state of childlikeness.

“Taichi is an embodiment of these principles. The Tao manifests itself in the movements.”


Side-note: If a deal seems too good to be true in a tourist spot, it probably is.

I made a Canadian friend while on the mountain. One day, while taking a trip at the touristy part of the mountains, we came across an herbal store that sold a particular herb at a killer price of five yuan per “ke.” My friend, who spoke some Chinese and studied Chinese medicine, asked for some. He held out his hand in the symbol of five. The shopkeeper nodded. He began heaping handfuls of the herb into a bag, then crushed it into powder. We looked at each other incredulously. Five yuan for this much?

It turned out that every one of us was thinking of something different.

I had a brain-freeze and confused “ke,” which means gram, with “jing,” equivalent to five hundred grams. I thought my friend was asking for five five-hundred-grams.

My friend thought he was asking for five grams.

The shopkeeper thought my friend’s open hand meant keep the goods coming or I’ll slap you silly.

In the farce that followed, I played linguistic and cultural mediator to two increasingly amused foreigners and an increasingly exasperated shopkeeper. We ended up paying a hundred yuan for a bag that cost several thousand.


Taoism as a religion is mired in political and social influences. Chinese religion, if it can be said to exist, is Neo-Confucianism, a hodgepodge mixture of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. Its gods serve social purposes: Some, such as Huang Di and Yan Di, are credited as Chinese ancestors. Others are deified by emperors to promote particular social values. Thus Guan Yu, the general from the Warring States period known for his fierce loyalty, became the god Guan Gong, protector of households.

“Do Taoists believe in fate?” I asked.

“Chinese folk religion believes that a person’s palm patterns and facial features can be used to predict their future. This was adapted from Taoism,” said Master Chen. “True Taoists believe that one’s physical features reflect one’s health and how others would treat them, which, in a way, seems fatalistic. But they also believe that a person can change their disposition, so in that sense people have control over their own fates.”

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The three-point stance is a staple of Xingyi

Taoism is a humanistic religion. Its emphasis on the individual, self-enlightenment, and mastery over one’s own body makes me wonder why Chinese culture is so communal. In my unqualified view, this is due to the overwhelming influence of Confucianism. The latter’s emphasis on social responsibility and accountability must have been auspicious for political figures who would use these to solidify power, and despite Mao’s vilification of Confucius during his reign, large pieces of Confucianism have remained and taken hold on the Chinese soul.

The Tao in Medicine

I am a cultural chimera. Growing up in a Chinese household, I am familiar with concepts such as the body having “too much Fire” or “too little Yin” or “not enough Qi.” Yet, as an aspiring scientist, I identify with the empirical frame of mind. My two worlds have never met. But on this trip, my cognitive dissonance manifested itself in a physical presence.

Jake was a fellow Canadian and student in his mid-thirties. He obtained his high school diploma before going into construction. One day, he “looked at the stars and thought they looked like the meridians in the body” (Meridians are energy channels in Chinese medicine) and enrolled in a Chinese medicine school in Canada. On our first meeting, he annoyed me intensely by suggesting that Western medical doctors were worldly, ineffective, timid money-munchers. Upon further probing, I discovered that his complaint was against the healthcare system, which he lumped together with complaints about the science itself.

I tried to remain objective despite my personal distaste. After all, traditional medicine can be divisive. To the enthusiast, it is a panacea, able to cure anything from the hiccups to cancer. To the dissident, it is a fallacy which, along with homeopathy and ancient Greek theory of the humors, ought to be canned into the past.

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We make dumplings and rice pudding for the Dragonboat Festival

Like with most matters, I find myself somewhere in the middle. The theory behind traditional medicine is fundamentally not scientific, by which I mean it is not empirical or mechanistic. As far as I know, no one has measured Qi or observed meridian channels. Nor is there any way to manipulate Qi in a controlled experimental setting and observe its effects. This means there is no objective standard to refute or support parts of the theory. We have in our hands a theory that cannot possibly evolve. Witness this exchange between two fellow students:

“I’ve been trying to open my third and fourth energy gates,” said one.

“I thought there were three energy gates,” said the other.

“No, there are four,” said the first.

“That’s according to Buddhists. Taoists say…”

“Who cares if it’s Buddhists or Taoists? If there are three, there are three,” said the first student flatly.

Furthermore, due to the lack of statistically rigorous study, traditional medical miracles is susceptible to biases. The most obvious is the survivorship bias. Take one doctor with a thousand patients. If half heal just by chance after treatment, they return to the doctor. If half of that half is treated again and heals, again by chance, we are left with a quarter of the original. Five treatment sessions later, we have thirty patients who believe that their doctor has miraculously cured them at a hundred percent success rate. To further complicate matters, many diseases that traditional medicine (and indeed any medicine) purports to cure are self-limiting, meaning that they heal on their own anyway. The doctor would do just as well to tell the patient to eat, rest, and drink plenty of fluids.

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We celebrate a fellow student’s birthday. Pictured are Master Chen and his four-year-old son.

That said, one cannot help but admit the effectiveness of certain traditional remedies. I have met people who have been cured of allergies and hormonal problems within weeks of treatment. In 1892, the Anglo-Canadian-American physician Sir William Osler, Father of Modern Medicine and co-founder of Johns Hopkins Medical School, testified to acupuncture’s “extraordinary and prompt efficacy.” The first edition of his essential textbook, the Principles and Practices of Medicine, recommended “needling” as treatment for nerve injury and lower back pain. We now have studies that suggest that acupuncture has beneficial effects on certain types of pain.

As for herbal medicine, in 2015, Tu Youyou became the first Chinese Nobel laureate in physiology or medicine for effectively isolating artemisinin, an antimalarial compound. She was inspired to isolate the substance in low-temperature conditions after reading a traditional Taoist medical text on preparing it.

I conclude that although the theoretical foundation of traditional medicine is not scientific, its apparent effectiveness in particular clinical cases leads to interesting questions that may be brought into the scientific frame of inquiry.

We now shift from the scientific to the social perspective of medicine in China.

Chinese people are suspicious of Western medical doctors, an opinion that I generalize, admittedly, based on only a handful of independent opinions. The healthcare system in China ties physician remuneration with drug sales. Pediatricians earn considerably less than other specialties, since drug dosages are lower for children. Under this system, is there any wonder why physicians lose patient trust?

At the same time, much of the Chinese populace seem to hold a slightly mystical view of Western medicine. During my stay, I discovered that one of my fellow students took ampicillin from time to time “to get rid of inflammation.” He had no idea what inflammation was and what antibiotics did, especially if taken discontinuously. His doctor had no incentive to inform him, and apparently his educational background failed to do so either.

Given these issues, many turn to traditional therapies. But traditional medicine in China faces its own problems, the main one that I see being the lack of consistency from doctor to doctor. This is perhaps the greatest obstacle to the adoption of Traditional Chinese Medicine in North America. In a legalistic environment like Canada and the United States, what constitutes a standard of care in traditional medicine? Maybe the interim solution is a technological one. If opinions on individual doctors is crowdsourced, we might have a platform for indicating standard in an intrinsically heterogeneous field.

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The horse stance is our favourite (*sarcasm*) basic training exercise

Personally, all this boils down to one question: would I support Traditional Chinese Medicine as a future physician?

It depends. On the patient, on the disease.

For so-called idiopathic functional disorders, such as irritable bowel disease, for which if I believe Western medicine offer no curative potential, traditional therapies might be tested. For peripheral nerve injuries, acupuncture may be helpful. For more serious afflictions like cancer, conventional treatment is probably wise, at least to avert immediate consequences.

As yet, I am ill-equipped to fully justify my answers. Knowledge, experience, and time will teach me what I need to know.

“You know, it’s all false,” said my French roommate, an osteopathic doctor and one of the few Caucasians in the area.

He knew a bit of English. I knew a very little bit of French. Our conversations were usually brief and cavemen-like:

“No frog tonight.”

“Yes. Oui. No frog.”

“Maybe rest day.”

“Yes, maybe. We rest too.”

“Like frog?”

“Like frog.”

But today his face curled into a serious frown.

“It’s all false, Charlie.”

“What’s all false?”

“Allopathic medicine, osteopathic medicine, Chinese medicine. It’s all false.”

I considered this bit of intellectual nihilism.

“I’ve had fifteen thousand patients. I work with each one with my own hands. They tell me their stories, their troubles. I listen. They speak, I listen. When they speak, I feel change under my hands. The body heals itself. I do nothing. Nothing. The body heals itself. It’s amazing.”

“You go medical school. You learn. It’s good. But remember, you learn a point of view. It’s important to have a point of view, to know that it is false. It’s all false.”

A month passes. Before I realize it, I am once again on a train weaving across the landscape. The mountains flatten into farmlands, then rise back up as buildings. Master Chen set aside seven disciples whom he had given martial art names. Besides Wen and Wu, there were Dao (principle), De (character), Long (dragon), Hu (tiger), and Yun (cloud). Each name was prepended with the character Wei, which means “profound.” He also reserved me a name: Feng, meaning “wind.”

Of course I had to hold in a joke about flatulence.

Next stop: Singapore, again!

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In the picture are De, Wen, Dao, Sifu, Wu, Hu, me and my French roommate Long

For information about the Wuji Kungfu School, I’ve made an English website: www.daoistgongfu.com

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Personal Stories

An Adventure with Master Zeke

“It’s a really big tree, Charlie,” he said earnestly. “Huge!” He stretched out his enormous arms, eyes wide and brows raised, his mouth shaped into an open ‘O’. This man was Grandmaster Zeke Petkovic, whom the students of the Seikido club affectionately called Master Zeke. Only he, I thought, would be this excited about a tree. Then I realized that I felt it too. Surely, a tree as big as the span of his arms must be a very rare thing.

One can only describe Master Zeke by contradictions. Tall and burly with hands as big as two hands, he would easily be considered competitive for the role of the Mountain from the Game of Thrones. Yet, there was a playfulness in his eyes and demeanour that was almost childlike. It was the latter quality that I was witnessing now as he described the tree. “Huge!” His eyes widened with delight.

Earlier that day, I had gone to Master Zeke’s home for lunch. He lived a ten-minute drive south-west from campus with his wife Linda and youngest son Al. Linda had spread a feast. Fish, rice, and an assortment of Polish pickles arrayed the dining room table. I began taste-testing each item in turn.

“How’s the food, eh?” Master Zeke asked as I scooped a spoonful of beet paste.

“Different, sir.”

He gave a hearty chuckle and began spreading rose hip jam onto a generous slice of toast. “You and Al keep working at it. I’ll keep it coming.”

I muttered thanks in between mouthfuls.

“Back in Serbia, we always fed our guests well. Food was scarce when we were younger, so now I guess we’re making up for it.”

I caught a glance from Linda. He’s about to start on one of his stories again, it said.

“I came to Canada with a few dollars in my pocket. I worked hard on anything I could get my hands on, driving buses, doing gardening work, whatever it took…I eventually invested in real estate and retired comfortably. I keep telling young practitioners to be smart with their money. Start early and start young…”

“Have you told Charlie about the fish oil story?” Linda said suddenly.

“What fish oil story?” I asked.

“I haven’t told you?” said Master Zeke.

“No. Tell me.”

“Well, there was this river back home that we used to swim in. Before I went for a swim in that river, I would rub some sardine oil over my body, because, you know, fish oil is good for the skin.”

I nodded skeptically. Master Zeke was known to provide spontaneous medical wisdom based on ancient, experiential sources. To be fair , many of them did turn out to be true, but the underlying explanations were somewhat fuzzier. One of his formulations to treat the common cold was raw garlic and a shot of brandy. “It kills everything,” he claimed, by which he meant bacteria and the like. It also killed any chances of my finding a date.

 

“After a swim one day, I went on a date with this girl. As I approached her, I saw her face curl into a look of disgust. It turned out that I’d forgotten to wash the sardine oil off. I stank!” We roared with laughter.

“This way, Charlie,” his voice called, drawing me back to our tree hunt.

We walked around the forest, looking for a path to enter. The small patch of woods was located behind Victoria Hospital. It surrounded two small lakes and a cluster of dilapidated structures which surrounded a large central one. These must have been houses, I thought, as I spotted a chimney and pillars amidst the rubble. A more complete hut stood at the centre, the white paint on its elliptical wall bitten off by the years.

“I used to tend the gardens here for the hospital,” said Master Zeke. “It was a rehabilitation unit that housed veterans of the first World War. They lived in these,” he said, pointing to the smaller structures. “And this was a canteen.” He pointed to the large central one.

“Many of them struggled with mental issues. They came here to recover, but some never did. One went missing once, and they couldn’t find him for days. He was found dead under a layer of leaves.” We walked silently on. I tried to imagine the yellowed grass around me as they once were, lush and adorned with care.

We arrived at a trail leading into the thicket. We hiked along it, him leading the way and me trailing behind, brushing aside strands of woody arms as we went. The weather had only recently turned warm, and many of the trees had yet to shake off their winter drowsiness. We soon found ourselves surrounded on both sides by maple and ash. The air grew cool. In the distance, I saw the parking grounds of Victoria Hospital, but I heard no sound except that of birds and our boots gently brushing against the forest floor.

“Oh, look!” said Master Zeke, stopping mid-stride. “A locust flower seed.” He picked a dried pod from a bush, plucked out the beady black seeds, and promptly popped them into his mouth. Someone once told me that Master Zeke had a habit of “eating everything”, which included wild flowers,  mushrooms, and the occasional poison ivy. I now had concrete evidence.

Fifteen minutes later, we arrived at our destination. He was right. The tree’s girth was as wide as three adult arm spans, and its peak towered above that of its neighbours. Master Zeke and I fell silent as we approached it.

“Why are all the other trees so much thinner?” I asked after a while.

“This one is probably hundreds of years old. The others never got a chance to grow this big. This is a survivor.”

Master Zeke walked up and wrapped his gigantic arms around the trunk. “There’s nothing like hugging a tree,” he said with a satisfied sigh. “Give it a try!”

As I awkwardly placed my arms around the rugged bark, I realized that it wasn’t as uncomfortable as I’d thought. I looked over at Master Zeke. His eyes were closed and his face had relaxed into a peaceful smile. There is a poetry in existence, and it’s written in a language that can only be understood by someone who has hugged a tree, eaten poison ivy, and rubbed their body with fish oil. How often, I thought, do we take survival for granted?

“It’s time to go, Charlie.” Master Zeke’s voice seemed to come from very far away.

Just a little while longer, said a little voice inside my head.

“Alright, let’s go,” I said out loud.

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Personal Stories, Uncategorized

My Interview at Yale Medical School

On Tuesday, March 8th, I was absent-mindedly surfing the web in my London apartment. Outside my room, my roommate and a couple friends were goofing around with coloured cotton balls. I had joined them for a while, but my mind was occupied with something else. I opened my email inbox. “Yale Medical School,” I typed into the search box. I did not expect any news, as the official date for acceptance notification was not until two days later, or so I was told.

Maybe it was my fingers running across the keys, or maybe it was the little rat running in the back of my mind, but I was brought back to my interview day a month earlier. It was snowing that day. In fact, it was snowing so hard that my flight from Toronto was delayed by two hours, which meant I missed my layover flight from Detroit. Thankfully, there was another flight later that day. That, however, delayed my arrival at New Haven, so I missed the last shuttle to Yale. It was a one-hour ride from the airport to Yale campus, so when I called the shuttle service at Bradley airport I was already thinking of alternative ways to make my way there.

“Is this CT Limo?” I asked the person who picked up the phone. CT Limo was the name of the shuttle service.

“Yes,” said the operator.

“Hi, is there another shuttle left?” I asked.

“Let me check…” I held my breath.

“We have one left. He leaves in ten minutes.”

“Great! How do I pay?”

“Uh…ask someone at the airport. We should have a rep there.”

They did not. No one at the terminal knew how CT Limo operated or who was really in charge. All they knew was that a shuttle arrived at certain times during the day and carried travellers to and from the airport. But sometimes, it did not arrive as expected. In fact, it seemed like CT Limo missed about ten percent of all of its promised departure times.

I was becoming increasingly anxious as I waited on the promised platform. Shuttle after shuttle came and passed, bringing passengers to the local car rental agency. The day waned. It stretched a red yawn right across the horizon before falling into a deep slumber. At half past six, a white van bearing what looked like a Mercedes logo pulled up. I had a déjà vu to the time in China when I travelled in a black cab (a privately owned taxi, much like Uber but not as accountable or legal).

The driver stepped out. He did not speak much English. He went for my bags. I hesitated. What the heck, I thought to myself, and stepped into the van.

Yale Medical School is located in New Haven, Connecticut. Since its founding in 1813, it had served as the training grounds for many outstanding physicians, from Harvey Cushing, the father of neurosurgery, to Vivek Murphy, the current Surgeon-General to President Obama. When I arrived that night, I met with a few students whom I had been in contact with. One of them, Aaron (names changed), graduated from Yale as an undergraduate and the other, Raj, was from Stanford. We sat in the cafeteria of the medical school residence. In the studio next door, a ballroom dance class was underway.

“Thanks for chatting with me,” I said. “I know how busy you are.”

“Not really. We just finished an exam,” said Aaron. “We’re catching Deadpool later. I’d ask you to come but you probably need your rest for tomorrow.”

I agreed.

“I have a few questions I’m dying to ask,” I said.

“Go ahead.”

“How are you liking the Yale System?”

The Yale System had been Yale Medical School’s educational philosophy since the early 1900s when it was first proposed by Dean Winternitz. Under the System, classes are optional, exams are anonymous and self-directed, and medical students can take classes at any of the other Yale schools. I already had plans to study history and law if I had the time.

“We love it,” they both said, summing up what I had read online. Over the next hour, we talked about how they had taken advantage of the System, what classes were like, and what research opportunities there were. I could tell that they were very enthusiastic about their school and the Yale System. Their passion was infectious. At 9 PM, as I got up to leave, I remembered one last question.

“I understand that you’re Canadian,” I said to Aaron. “Are there many international students here?”

He thought about this for a while.

“I think there are ten of us. Five are Canadian. But…” At this, he hesitated. “…we all did our undergrad in the States.”

Ah well, I thought to myself, I guess I won’t expect too much. I had known that the majority of the medical class already had a postgraduate degree. Compounding on the international factor, the odds were not good. But I resolved to enjoy this experience as much as possible.

“Thank you for your time, guys. I really appreciate this.”

“Good luck tomorrow!”

At 8 AM the next morning, I walked from my Airbnb apartment to the medical center. As I walked, I marvelled at the day. The sun had poured itself onto the streets and pavements of Yale’s campus, and the air had a balmy breeze with a hint of spring.

The night before, I had made up my mind to accept whatever outcome that came. As a matter of fact, I had adopted that mindset even before I began my application in July. Truth be told, there are many reasons why students apply to medical school, and wanting to become a doctor is only one of them. Another reason is that we are afraid. We are afraid of a future of uncertainty, of experiencing a setback, and of coming to grips with our limitations. More than anything else, we are afraid of losing significance, of our sense of pride. I was with my friend the day he received an interview invitation to one of the Canadian schools. I saw his hands shaking as he opened the email. Gosh, I thought to myself as I watched him, do I base my identity on my success so much as well?

In Aequanimitas, William Osler, the great Canadian doctor, co-founder of Johns Hopkins Hospital and one of my heroes, discussed the single most important trait of doctors. He called it “imperturbability”, the ability to remain calm and grounded in all situations. Just as in the biblical parable of the man who builds his house on solid rock, a doctor must also build his identity and principles on firm foundations. The ability to succeed only constitutes a portion of that. Aequanimitas, I repeated to myself as I entered the admissions office.

The first people I met that day were the other interviewees. Because it was a Wednesday, there were only six of us. Three of them were post-graduates. Then the Dean of Admissions, Richard Silverman, arrived. He was an elderly gentleman with white hair and round-rimmed glasses. Beneath them, his eyes flashed with the unmistakable glint of intelligence mixed with a cheeky playfulness.

He talked. He joked. We laughed nervously. “You guys look tense,” he said. “You know, there was once a girl who interviewed here. She was so eager that when she got into the interview room, the interviewer asked her the profound question ‘did you find the place without any trouble?’ to which she answered ‘Yes, no trouble at all’ and launched straight into ‘which reminds me of a time in my research experience…’”

We all laughed. I knew we were thinking of the same thing: pre-meds are such keeners. Then we caught ourselves and smiled sheepishly.

“This is a chance for us to get to know you, and for you to know us,” concluded Richard Silverman. “So enjoy yourselves! You guys will do just fine.” Then he left with a curious wink.

Later that day, I stood outside my interviewer’s office in the Department of Surgery. I looked at my watch: Five to two. I’ll wait for five more minutes, I thought to myself. A lady wearing a white lab coat walked past.

I had already had an interview that morning. My interviewer, an upper year medical student who was an aspiring pediatric oncologist and amateur chef, had come off as a friendly and genuine person. In fact, ever since I met the two students from the previous night, I had begun to form the impression of Yale students as unexpectedly humble, quite unlike the stereotype of students from elite institutions. (Although, I might add that this could only apply to postgraduate schools, and also make mention of my extremely small and self-selecting sample size.)

That morning’s interview had gone smoothly. Yale used a traditional, one-on-one interview format, which allowed for deeper conversations. My interviewer himself had chosen to print off pre-set questions which he had made based on my primary application, but our conversation often diverted depending on what he wanted to know more about. Our discussion ranged from the humanities in medical practice to the idealisms of new doctors.

This afternoon’s interview was going to be different. Dean Silverman had introduced our interviewers by name that morning, from which I took away three things about mine. First, he was a big deal in the department, whatever that meant. Second, he was famous for wearing bow ties; in fact, one of them had sold for $3000 at a charity auction. Third, Silverman had chuckled when he read his name. Whatever that meant.

2 PM. I knocked on the door. Nothing. I knocked louder. “Just a second!” came a yell from inside. “Alright!” I yelled back. What a way to make an impression, I thought to myself. The door opened. I was greeted by an elderly gentleman with thick glasses. I glanced down. He was wearing a brown bow tie.

“Come in, come in,” he said.

I stepped into his office. It was a surprisingly small space made even smaller by the assortment of items piled on his desk. Books, files, stationery and other objects I did not recognize took up residence at seemingly haphazard spots, and a large but old flat screen computer monitor took prime location at the center. A single large window faced the East, upon which a firm layer of dust softened the gentle sunlight that floated in. There was an old wooden rocking chair facing his desk. It did not look comfortable.

I found his office so curious that the first thing I did was to slump into the chair. A jarring protest from my hip against the hard backing reminded me that I was at an interview, so I squirmed to the edge of my seat and kept my back as straight as I could.

“So you’re from Canada?” was his first question.

“Yes, but I was actually born-”, I began, but a loud clicking sound interrupted me. Kr-kr-kr-kr-kr-kr… It was the heater tucked away in the corner of the room.

“I spent my childhood in Canada too,” he said. “Victoria Island. You know that, don’t you? We used to go kayaking and we’d see whales.”

In ordinary circumstances, I would have been happy to hear his story. But because it was an interview, I was also hoping to present my own. He apparently had different ideas.

“We would kayak off Nanaimo, and sometimes we would see seals.”

“Seals that far south?” I asked. I could not stop myself. I had gone kayaking in the same area, and I never saw whales nor seals.

“Yes…but I left when I was ten,” he said. I expected him to go on.

“So what do you do for fun?” He asked suddenly.

I was just about to carry on the conversation in the same tone that he had: relaxed, casual and somewhat aimless. But I caught myself just in time. Was this an interview question? Has the interview finally started? Violin, writing, martial arts, I thought to myself and said so.

“What kind of martial arts?” he asked.

“I’ve been practicing Seikido – a martial art based on Taekwondo and Aikido – since freshman year. But I’m also hoping to explore some Chinese martial arts. I’m going back to China to do that over the summer.”

He nodded. Over the next hour, I found an unusual pattern in our conversation. Whenever I began to talk about my “selling points”– the Science Case Competition, Backyard Labs, Friends of MSF – I sensed his attention drifting. I had to cut a few of my points short because of it. On the other hand, he seemed interested in what I thought to be irrelevant material.

“So what’s your favourite course?” he asked.

I smiled sheepishly. I had prepared an answer involving an especially hard course I had taken and how I had shown perseverance by succeeding in it. But having interacted with him for a while, I decided that that answer would not suffice.

“I picked up the Lord of the Rings series a few years ago and loved it,” I said. He nodded emphatically.

“I loved it so much that, in one summer, I read the book series twice, watched the movies six times through, and watched a ten-hour documentary on it.” I could sense his interest growing.

“I learned that Tolkien loved trees. His description of forests and the Ents are some of the most evocative. So I took a course, Evolution of Plants, to better appreciate his work.”

We both laughed at how ridiculous I sounded. But after interviewing at a few schools in both Canada and the States, I think this might be one of the most distinguishing criteria between the two. Canadian schools tend to emphasize “traditional doctoring qualities,” so scenario questions and questions about volunteer experience were common. In the US, I had a lot more questions about my passions, research and leadership activities. In fact, one of my proudest achievements, creating the Science Case Competition, was not even mentioned during my Canadian interviews.

“Tell me about your research,” he said. I explained how I was using machine learning to model how humans sense touch.

“When you model the receptors,” he said. “Which neurons are you modeling? Merkel or Meissner?”

I blanked. I wanted to shoot myself in the foot. I had read it before, but because it was not relevant to my model from a computational standpoint and I had not taken a physiology class, I was not sure. Fifty-fifty chance. I thought it was Merkel…or was it Meissner? I can’t believe I missed this when reviewing! Should I guess? I decided that I had better be honest.

“I’m actually not sure,” I said with ironic confidence. “It’s not essential to the model I’m designing. All that matters to me is that the neurons I model are the ones involved in tactile discrimination. They adapt slowly to changes in pressure, so in the lab, we just refer to them as SA-1 neurons.”

He nodded with a somewhat-satisfied-but-still-a-little-skeptical look.

“Neuroanatomy was the focus of my lab,” he said. “I’m not in the lab anymore. I’ve been focusing on education over the past couple of years.”

“I’m interested in education too,” I said. “As you can see from the science case competition…” I trailed off hopefully. Just ask me to tell you more about it! He nodded. I decided to drop it.

“Yale has the Anatomy Project that invites high school students into the anatomy lab,” I said. “I think it’s a great experiential learning opportunity for those students. I’d like to get involved in it if I come.”

“I created that.”

“Oh! Congratulations on its success,” I said.

“Yes, yes…a student of that program from one of the community schools, you know, underprivileged area, ended up coming to Yale Medical School.”

“That’s wonderful.”

“Yes, yes…” he said, more to himself than to me, then he looked at his watch. We were over time. “Well, it was a pleasure to chat with you.”

“Likewise,” I said. “Thank you for your time.”

I left that interview with mixed feelings. Later that evening, I received a message from my friend. “How did it go?” she asked. “I really have no idea,” I replied.

 

On Tuesday, March 8th, 2016, I was absent-mindedly surfing the web in my London apartment. It had been a hectic few weeks, with midterms, assignments and interviews all rolled into one continuous barrage. But I felt strangely peaceful amidst it all. Maybe it was because I understood the role of chance in this process, or maybe it was because of my friend’s muttered prayers that echoed in the dark, but deep down inside, I knew that I would be O.K. with whatever the outcome may be, that I would not lose my sense of worth, and that my success or failure doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. I opened up my mailbox. “Yale Medical School,” I typed into the search box. I read the first result that came up. I blinked hard and read it again. It had gone into my spam box so I did not see it all day. But it was real. I couldn’t believe it. It was a letter of acceptance.

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Personal Stories, Philosophy

A Life Lesson from Professor Tom Haffie

I knocked on the door. There was shuffling on the other side, and a subtle but familiar anxiety rose in my mind. Still nervous, after all these years? I wondered to myself.

The door opened, and Tom Haffie’s face appeared in the crack. He was a late middle aged man whose hair had started turning white, and whose eyes shone with a glint that suggested that he knew more about you than he cared to show. He usually gave a rather serious impression, but he smiled as he greeted me.

“Hi Charlie. Come on in.”

“Hi Tom,” I said as I entered. “These are for you.” I handed him the items in my hands. “Green tea and raisin tea biscuits. Hope you still like them.”

“Always have. Thank you. Have a seat.”

It was three years ago when I first met Tom in this very office. He was my first year biology professor then, but our relationship had progressed over the years. In fact, we recently published a paper together.

Yet in some part of my mind, I still thought of myself as a freshman who wanted to pick his professor’s brains. I remembered the first time I visited, when I’d asked him a question about Okazaki fragments. “Hair splitting” was the phrase he used to describe my question. “You will never have to think in such detail,” he had said.

“How have you been?” I started, watching him break the raisin biscuit into bite-sized pieces.

“Busy, as usual…You remember Elysia?”

“The chloroplast-eating sea slug from first year. How can I forget?”

“New research came out…” he said, gesturing at a paper on his desk. “Turns out it doesn’t actually use the chloroplasts for photosynthesis after all.”

“You’re kidding!”

“And there is no evidence of lateral gene transfer either.”

“You mean to say…”

“The slug just digests chloroplasts for food.”

“So my first year was a lie?”

“I’m hoping you didn’t just learn about the slugs.”

I chuckled, partially at his comment and partially because I imagined myself as a naïve freshman and couldn’t help it. When I stopped, I noticed that a stillness had settled in the room, like time had frozen and there was no one in the world talking except us.

Tom was a master of silence, and maybe that’s why it can be unnerving talking to him. He injected long pauses between sentences, and each word that came out always seemed adamant on asserting its effect on the listener. As a freshman, I’d often wondered what to say to fill in those pauses. But now I steadily met his gaze and waited.

“So…how’s life?” he said ten seconds later.

I updated him on my medical applications. In fact, I’d recently been rejected by McMaster’s medical program. He didn’t have to know that.

“You know, I’ve been reflecting recently,” I said, and I felt his gaze intensify. “I have two competing motivations in me.”

He nodded.

“I am driven by curiosity. I want to try a bit of everything, to learn different things while I’m young. That’s partially why I picked bioinformatics, because I knew I’d learn all the health-related stuff in medical school. But at the same time, I can’t help but be influenced by how everyone around me is doing. Despite all of my achievements, my ego wants to be recognized, and oftentimes it gets in the way of what I really want to do: to learn.”

Throughout my rant, he nodded along with an amused look on his face, like he knew exactly what I meant and maybe a little more. When I finished, he drew a slow breath. Outside, the snow had begun to fall. Flakes of iridescent crystals hung onto the window pane briefly before evaporating into the morning sun.

“Charlie…you have so many expectations, about life, about yourself, about everything,” he said. “…Did you ever question these expectations?”

“Question them?”

“Yes, how do you know that they are the best for you?”

I considered this for a moment.

“For example, your aim is to go to a certain medical school. But maybe that isn’t such a good choice. Maybe you end up hating that school. Maybe you go to that new city, and the second day you get there you get hit by a bus, or maybe you meet some girl there who breaks your heart and destroys your life.”

I’m amused as I write this. For one thing, his bus illustration echoed the one I used in a blog post three years ago. For another, that very evening after my conversation with Tom, my friend and I were walking near my apartment when a car collided into a van, knocked its front bumper off, and skidded onto the pavement where we had been five seconds earlier.

But I was also amused by his girl comment.

“That reminds me of a story I once heard,” I said. “It’s supposed to be about marriage, and I think it works for life too. Do you want to hear it?”

“Sure,” he said.

“They say picking a partner is like picking a corn in a corn field, but you can only walk in one direction, and once you pick a corn, you’re stuck with it. (This analogy probably doesn’t work very well in modern times.) Some people start walking, and they see a pretty large corn. They think to themselves, there’s probably a bigger one up ahead, so they give this one up. But as they keep walking, they realize that the corns get smaller and smaller…”

Tom began to chuckle.

“…until finally they settle for a small one and live their lives in regret.”

At this, Tom let out a long, drawn-out laugh. I’d never seen him laugh like this before, and it was very unprofessorlike. I joined him out of politeness, but I couldn’t see how my story could be that funny.

“No,” he said when he finally stopped laughing. “Marriage is not like that at all.”

“How so?”

“There is no concept of bigger and smaller corns. Plus, what if you’re the type who likes small corns?”

He glanced at his watch.

“Another student is coming in soon. I’m going to have to kick you out for now. We’ll chat again.”

Then he took another slow breath and looked at me intently.

“You’re at an exciting time of your life, Charlie.”

“So are you, Tom.” Then I cast an exaggerated glance at his white hair. “A different kind of exciting,” I said, grinning.

I left his office and entered the snowy world outside, feeling oddly lighter than before.

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Personal Stories

A Most Incredible New Year

The harsh winter air numbed my face, but I kept on running. A slight tremor was running up and down my spine, but whether it was because of the cold or the adrenaline I could not tell. Rounding the corner, I was greeted by flashing lights and the piercing scream of sirens. The paramedics had arrived first.

Earlier that morning, Mel (name changed to preserve anonymity) was going about her usual business. She had gotten up early, taken a shower, brushed her hair, and prepared breakfast for her nine-year-old son and mother. She glanced at the clock: 8 AM on New Year’s Eve. Her family would be awake soon. It was at that time that she first felt a dull ache in her lower abdomen. She had an ominous feeling then, like a receding wave just before the tsunami struck and all hell broke loose, but the pain subsided and she thought little of it.

She had found out that she was two months pregnant a day before. This was welcome news, and she was planning to call her husband in China at midnight to tell him about it. It would be a New Year’s surprise, she thought. They were about to have a new child, their son a new sibling, and their family would finally be complete.

But the pain grew worse in the evening, and then there was blood, and she began to feel numb and breathless and cold. Her mother and son panicked.

“What should we do?”

“Call…call an ambulance…”

Her son bolted for the phone. Mel’s husband would have to wait.

“And…” she said to her mother. “…hand me my cell phone.”

 

It was 9 PM, three hours before the New Year, when I received the call.

“Is…is your mom…at home?” said the voice.

“No,” I said, and before I could ask who it was, the caller hang up.

I returned to my computer. It had been an eventful day. My eleven-year-old brother’s friend had come over, wolfed down his lunch, jumped around like a madman, and promptly puked on the floor right next to the sink. I had just cleaned up his mess and sent him home when I received the call.

I sat at my desk and thought about the year ahead. Will it be a good year? I mused. Then I laughed at myself. Good? What is good? Four years at university had instilled in me an aversion to vagueness. Instead, I decided to imagine what medical school would be like, and what I would do if I didn’t get in. I thought about four more years of school and an additional number of years doing residency, and I thought about whether I would enjoy being in the hospital for the most part of my young adult life. I thought about where I would go, and where (or if) I would settle down.

At this, the parakeet I’d bought for my mom as a Christmas present issued a shrill cry. I looked at her and examined her cage, trying to figure out what it was that caused her to assert her presence, while she looked at me reproachfully for not understanding whatever it was that she wanted me to understand. She shook her head in annoyance. I think she’d given up on me.

I remembered showing my mom how to train the bird. I would hold a piece of millet in my hand, extend my other arm, and speak a command. The parakeet would fly onto my empty hand, and I would convey my approval by clicking my tongue and feeding her some millet.

“She’s so cute,” my mom said. “If anything should happen to her, we’d all be devastated.”

Outwardly, I agreed. Secretly, I doubted that the bird had any real human attachment. Unlike mammals, bird brains are ancient and basic. Sure, it could learn tricks, but the underlying motivation is obviously treats, not sentiment. But the tendency to anthropomorphize  non-human objects is universal, and from an evolutionary point of view probably useful, as the very same neural circuitry underlies parental instincts.

Then again, are humans all that different from birds? Certainly, we are more complex, we have emotions, we build, create, and destroy. We connect and relate with each other in subtle and powerful ways. But like all elementary beings, we share the same biological components and face the same physical constraints. My gut tells me that there is something special about humans, but my brain wasn’t convinced. Maybe on some higher level we, too, seem like birds. Either way, I didn’t think I would cry if something happened to the parakeet.

Another shrill sound brought me back to the present. It was the telephone again. Was it my imagination, or was there a sense of urgency to this particular call? I picked it up.

“Can…you…come…?” the voice on the phone said.

“Who is this?” I asked.

“Your neighbour…Mel.”

“I’ll be right there.”

 

When I rounded the corner to Mel’s house, the paramedics were already making their way upstairs to her bedroom. Mel was lying on her bed. Sweat poured from her face as she gasped for air like a fish out of water. Her son, nine-year-old Lawrence, was in tears. I clasped his shoulder as I entered the room. I saw a familiar fear in his face: the fear of a child who thought his mom was dying.

“Everyone stand back,” said one of the taller paramedics. “Who are you?” he asked me.

“Her interpreter,” I said.

“Alright, you stay. Tell her to control her breathing. If she doesn’t get that breathing rate to come down, she’ll be in big trouble.”

For the next thirty minutes, we struggled with Mel to find out what her problem was. I flipped between Mandarin and English, trying to be as helpful as I helplessly could. When they decided that she had stabilized enough to be transported, the paramedics brought in a stretcher for the ambulance.

“You need to come with us,” said the tall paramedic to me. I admit with some guilt that I felt excited about this. This was my first time in an ambulance, and thankfully it wasn’t as a patient.

During the ride, the tall paramedic quizzed her on her symptoms. When did she last eat? How profuse was her bleeding? How much pain was she in, on a scale of zero to ten? I knew the results of this interview would reach the hands of a triage nurse, who would determine the level of urgency her problem was. The more urgent the problem, the higher on the priority list Mel would be placed. I briefly considered colouring my translation a bit to make her condition sound worse, but eventually decided against it. She looked bad enough as it was.

Ten minutes later, we arrived at the Urgent Care unit of Markham-Stouffville Hospital. Mel was wheeled into the triage area. Oddly, besides the patient, nothing about the place seemed particularly urgent. It was New Year’s Eve, so few nurses and paramedics were on staff, and the ones that were there were in a lighthearted, almost festive, mood. I felt some indignation for their apparent frivolousness, but realized that they’d probably seen so many emergency cases that they’d just gotten used to it.

A nurse came over to check on Mel. “We’re just waiting for the doctor to arrive,” she said, and moved on to the only other patient in the room. That other patient was an elderly woman hooked up to a dozen tubes. She could barely speak, and her heart monitor occasionally gave sad, isolated beeps.

It would have been disrespectful if I’d said it, but I thought she was what the medical community called a “gomer”, an elderly patient with so many problems that no doctor was able to treat her completely. These patients could go in and out of emergency rooms for years, each time tumbling through the healthcare system in a series of examinations, medications and, most importantly, observations.

It was 10 PM when a bed opened up for Mel. “Wait on that stool. We’ll call you when we need you,” a nurse said to me. They wheeled her into a room and shut the curtains, sealing Mel in and the rest of the world out.

 

There was a digital display in the Urgent Care Area, its lights prominently displaying the time in red. Red is an interesting colour. Although it was probably there for prominence, red can mean many things. It can mean life, its being the colour of blood. It can mean sex, which sometimes precedes life. It can also mean a sunset at the end of a day, where the longer wavelengths of red pierce through the atmosphere while shorter ones are scattered by dust and debris.

At 11.45 PM, a nurse emerged from the curtains. I sneaked a peak at the heart monitor behind her and saw a blood pressure reading of 53 over 30.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“We think it’s a cornual pregnancy,” she said. “The pregnancy is in the wrong place. We’ll need surgery immediately.”

The cornus is part of the Fallopian tube. In a normal pregnancy, the egg is fertilized in the tube, but migrates to the uterus before attaching itself and developing any further. In a cornual pregnancy, the fetus is prematurely stuck in the Fallopian. By 8 weeks, which was Mel’s window, the fetus would have grown to about 1.2cm in an area that was usually less than 1cm wide. Four hours ago, Mel’s Fallopian tube had ruptured, causing its contents to spill into the surrounding peritoneal cavity. Her abdomen had filled up like a water balloon with blood and infection. Over the next two hours, Mel would lose two litres of blood out of the roughly five litres that her small frame held.

The nurse brought me into the room, where the gynecologist asked me to translate the surgical procedure and risks to Mel.

“We will make three incisions around the abdominal area, two on one side and one on another. We will insert a small camera to help us see inside. We’ll also need to insert a syringe to remove the blood.”

I translated. Mel nodded weakly.

“As with any procedure, there will be risks.”

Mel nodded.

“There may be infections.”

Mel nodded.

“There may be bleeding. It may affect other organs.”

Mel nodded.

I’ve heard of a healthcare critic in the States once comment about how patients are easily taken advantage of in their state of weakness. Of course, in America, where health services besides those under Medicare and Medicaid are covered by private insurance, the conditions are much more auspicious for doctors with questionable morals. But I could now see his point. Mel was in no condition to argue or negotiate. Thankfully, there was no need to.

“Do you have any questions?” asked the gynecologist.

At this, Mel beckoned me closer. “Will…it…hurt…?”

I was struck by her childlikeness when she asked it. “Will it hurt?” That’s what my brother asked before he had his first injection in kindergarten. At that I wanted to say of course not, I will make sure of it! But I had to stick to my role as interpreter.

“You will be completely under,” the gynecologist said, smiling.

The consent forms were signed, blood transfusion was set up, and we waited outside the OR for the anesthesiologist. I looked at my watch: 11.59 PM. In the distance I could hear the nursing staff chant. “Ten, nine, eight…”

I thought back to last year, when I spent New Year’s Eve at a sleepover downtown with my friends. And the year before that…I couldn’t remember any more.

“Three.”

“Will it hurt?” Such a simple question.

“Two.”

I will probably cry if something happened to the bird.

“One.”

“Happy New Year, Mel,” I said.

Another year. Another year alive. It is going to be a good year.

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