Sultanah Aminah Hospital's Fire Rekindled Old Ugly Memories
M. Bakri Musa
Like many, I am saddened by the tragic death of six patients from the fire that started at the Intensive Care Unit of Hospital Sultanah Aminah (HSA) Johor Baru last Tuesday, October 25, 2016. My condolences to their families and loved ones. Those patients came to be treated and instead ended up being killed.
Having worked at that facility in the late 1970s I have endless fond memories of the place and the many wonderful people I had worked with, as well as the countless grateful patients I was privileged to treat. As a surgeon, that particular ICU was familiar turf to me.
There was something else hauntingly familiar to me on seeing those frightening videotapes of the huge fireballs and the bellowing black smoke. Perhaps it was because I had just been through a massive forest fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains in California that forced my family’s temporary evacuation. More likely it was the familiar bright red bricks of the hospital building, unchanged over the years but for the telltale stains from tropical black molds, that opened the floodgates to my old memory banks.
Yes, I have many pleasant memories of that place. However, I also remember the more than a few not-so-wonderful ones of all-too-frequent VVIPs' visits. That particular sediment of my memory was stirred by videos of visits to the hospital by VVIPs only hours after the fire. The embers were still smoldering when the sultan and his chief minister as well as the Deputy Prime Minister and his equally huge federal entourage flooded the hospital.
I do not question their good intentions and can appreciate the boost in morale among those visited–patients, nurses, doctors, firefighters and others. Well meaning though those visits may be, they also interrupt and interfere with the immediate and pressing business at hand, that of ensuring the welfare and safety of patients as well as the public. Those colorful videotapes and glossy pictures of appreciative hosts and the genuine concerns expressed by those important guests do not reveal the entire picture.
What you do not see are the crowds of patients kept waiting for their treatment or whose transfer to safety was delayed because their doctors, nurses and other personnel are occupied with the big shots. Nor do you appreciate the consequences of scarce resources being diverted from patient care and services towards hosting those important visitors.
There were also many VVIP visits during my brief tenure at HSA. Two in particular I recall for specific reasons; both happened at a time of acute crisis at the hospital, though not as critical as the present one.
The first was by the Ministry of Health’s then new Director-General who had just taken over from the retiring Dr. Majid Ismail, a former Queens scholar and accomplished orthopedic surgeon.
This new DG had a point or two to prove, one being that he was a worthy successor to his distinguished predecessor. This new official was determined to not only show the flag but also demonstrate that he was not the typical senior civil servant afflicted with the sultan syndrome–departmental heads who behave like detached sultans but clueless as what to do except issue endless edicts.
On the appointed day this gentleman arrived. Late of course, in fact very late. By the time we finished the obligatory long line of introductions, it was decided that since it was close to lunchtime we would retreat to the nearby country club. The rest of the day was a washout.
It was a Thursday. Later I discovered that it was a favorite day for federal officials to visit Johor. With Fridays and Saturdays being the weekends there, those officials had an early start for their weekend of shopping across the causeway.
The second episode was when the state sultan and his consort were involved in a car accident. Both were hospitalized in the royal suite, which coincidentally was just above the ICU. Within hours (and for months afterwards) the hospital was inundated with VVIPs from all over the country.
Late that first night at the height of the crisis, a colleague was called to the hospital to help on a complex case. He had not heard of the accident and on seeing so many strangers loitering and one in his private office, asked him to vacate. Unfortunately, that gentleman happened to be one of Malaysia’s many sultans.
Within 24 hours that good doctor was banished out of state. I heard of the incident the next morning when there was confusion in the operating suites as the doctor’s surgical cases were left in limbo.
Had there been a tipping point to my decision to emigrate, the summary banishment of that physician was definitely one. I saw the basic indecency and unfairness of it all.
No, that specialist was not a pendatang or contract consultant from abroad (not that it mattered); he was “the son of the soil.”
Fires erase memories. The fire at HSA however, rekindled my old ugly ones.