As soon as I entered his consultation room, Dr Terence Koh said: “God is watching over you, my friend. I have no other explanation!”
My GP is being modest about what he did two weeks earlier, and why he’s the hero of my life right now.
I’d been feeling under the weather, feverish, with discomfort in my stomach when I saw him that Friday evening. He examined me and said it looked like stomach flu, then said: “Or maybe it’s your appendix.”
He wrote me a note and said if I felt worse, I should take it to the nearest hospital A&E department. How would I know it’s bad enough, I asked. He replied: “Oh, with appendicitis, you’ll know. The pain will be real bad.”
In this story, God made his presence felt in that clinic in Ang Mo Kio that day.
Two weeks later, Dr Koh insists he has no idea why he had a hunch my appendix might be the problem despite the absence of typical symptoms. Doctors hate writing referral letters, he said. “Something told me to do it.”
You know when people say “Something made me do it,” they usually mean God. Or the other guy.
The next two days were a weird mix of feeling all right and poorly. I’d begun Googling “appendix”, checking the lists of symptoms, never scoring even half, sort-of. I watched a video of an American surgeon saying appendix operations are so routine, they’re day surgery at his clinic. Three small punctures for keyhole surgery, you go in in the morning, go home in the afternoon. Nice.
I experienced no excruciating pain on my right side. No nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea. Only a mild fever on and off. But on Sunday afternoon, when I felt my belly, there was a sharp pain on the right that wasn’t there before.
“I think I want to go to the A&E now,” I told my wife, Hedwig.
I took Dr Koh’s letter to the A&E department of the spanking new hospital near my home. Between 2pm and 5pm they did blood tests and urine tests and then a woman doctor swung round to say the tests showed nothing to indicate appendicitis. All clear.
It was my cue to say: “I’ll go home then. Sorry for wasting your time.”
But God turned up again, and this time He used WhatsApp.
While I was in the A&E ward, Hedwig had been texting and updating her friend Suelyn, a doctor.
Suelyn texted: “Tell AJ to ask for a CT scan.”
Hedwig texted me: “Ask for a CT scan.”
So I asked for a CT scan.
The doctor said: “You can ask for a CT scan, but it doesn’t mean you’ll get it.”
I said: “Life is so hard.”
She said: “It’s like, your children ask you for all sorts of things but you don’t give them everything, do you?”
She said if I had the scan done at A&E it would cost $600 but if I was admitted to hospital and the surgeon asked for it, it would cost much less.
I asked to be admitted. The surgeon looked at my test results with no sign of appendicitis and said it might be some other gut-related problem common in older people, like colitis or diverticulitis, both treatable with antibiotics. “But let’s do a CT scan and see,” he said.
It was Sunday evening and there was no rush. Eventually, the scan took only a few minutes. Then, suddenly, everything changed.
A young doctor was at my bedside saying I needed surgery right away because my appendix was badly inflamed. There was a chance they might remove a section of my colon as well, and then I might need a blood transfusion. She pointed out that transfusions carry a risk of hepatitis or HIV infection, and could I please sign these documents.
I was supposed to undergo keyhole surgery, just like in that video.
When I woke from anaesthesia at three in the morning, a smiling woman informed me that everything had gone well. They made the three punctures for keyhole surgery but abandoned that for a 6-inch cut to get to my appendix, which was inflamed, gangrenous and ready to burst. I still had all of my colon though, and did not need a transfusion.
I stayed in hospital five nights, and recovery was a pretty awful process. It’s too much information, but your gut goes to sleep after this kind of surgery and then it must come to life again. Suffice to say I crossed the necessary milestones, gathering along the way that the three most important things in life are the ability to pee, poop and pass gas on your own. Everything else matters less. They let me go home on Friday afternoon.
“Someone Upstairs is looking after you.”
“God is watching you.”
I began hearing a lot of this after surgery. What if the GP did not have a hunch and write a note. What if my friend did not say: “Ask for a CT scan?” What if I chose to go home after the A&E tests showed nothing wrong? A ruptured appendix is pretty nasty business. I Googled.
Why is anyone upstairs watching over me? I’m Catholic, I own two Bibles but don’t read them. I go to Sunday mass and come out of church ranting three Sundays out of four about rubbish homilies and hopeless hymns. Why would God bother, when I’m always complaining?
A lot of people turned up saying they were praying for me.
My sister Audrey in Sungei Way Subang.
My sister Barbara in Subang Jaya.
My cousin Baba in Taiping.
My cousin Philomena in Taiping.
My nun friend Sister Gerard in Toa Payoh.
My friend Iris, and her friend Sharon, in Singapore.
My friend Mary, Lyn’s mother, in Singapore.
My old university friend Aggie, in Petaling Jaya.
Why are all these women praying for me? Clearly God listens to them! Why aren’t there any men who pray for me?
Eleven days after surgery, I’m in Dr Koh’s clinic and all is good as he checks my stitched-up belly.
He mulls over the inexplicable turns in what was, seriously, a close shave.
“You have a high threshold of pain,” he says.
“But I’m a South Asian Male!” I protest.
South Asian men have a notoriously low tolerance for pain, and even with their wives ministering day and night at their hospital bedside, will call out to their mothers frequently. A common cry: “Aiyoh, Amma!”
“Clearly you are not like that,” the doctor says, before turning to my wife. “If this fella complains of pain, you better take him seriously.”
I’m not Indian enough, no matter how hard I try. But that’s another story.
“Your work is not done.”
“It’s not your time.”
I’ve been hearing a lot of this too. Just like in 2004, after I had a heart attack. Funnily, that time too, I had no typical heart attack symptoms but one special doctor persisted in checking thoroughly. Afterwards people said: “Someone is watching over you! What if! Your work is not done!” Now here I am, 15 years later, wondering again what God has saved me to do.
In the dead of night, when What-ifs have a way of churning in my mind keeping me awake at four in the morning, I start speaking to God.
Dear God. It’s very kind of you to look out for me when I’m not very nice to you most of the time.
But why is it that every time you speak to other people in the Book, you appear in a cloud or a burning bush, or just from out of the blue. And your voice is always clear, loud and powerful, your message unmistakeable?
“Do this,” you’ll say.
“I want you to get moving now.”
I would drop everything if I heard your voice from the sky, or my frangipani tree or the bamboo bush. But no, you speak to me through my appendix. And through WhatsApp: “Ask for a CT scan.”
Now everyone says they hear you saying to me, again: “Your work is not done.”
So tell me what you want me to do with my Extra Time.
I’m listening. I’ll be looking at the sky, the clouds, the trees and the bushes.
I’ll be checking my phone.