The word 'free' reverberated through my head. If I were a cartoon figure, my eyes would have popped out. The HR manager was giving me the ultimatum for the medical check-up under company expense: use it or lose it, by year-end. So I used it, the first ever medical exam in my life.
I did the check-up towards the end of the year, when I was home for the festive season whilst working overseas. Inbetween the endless rounds of eating, drinking and shopping, I managed to find time to see my doctor. The various tests took half a day or so, and I just gritted my teeth and went through all of them. Except the one which involved the doctor wearing gloves. Eww! No, thank you!
On Christmas eve, I woke up just before noon – exhausted from the eating, drinking, shopping plus jet lag – to find five missed calls from my doctor. I called the clinic and caught the doctor's assistant just before she went home for Christmas. 'There are shadows in your lung x-rays!' She sounded panic-stricken, which I thought was quite strange. Wasn't she used to delivering bad news since she was working in a clinic? Please don't scare me!
When I saw my doctor after Christmas, she calmly but gravely told me I had to consult a specialist. So I trotted off to the specialist she picked, who sent me trotting off to do a CT-scan. With the scan in hand on New Year's Eve, he said, 'You have only one kidney.'
Huh? What? I wasn't expecting anything wrong with my kidneys! 'What do you mean I have only one kidney? Where's the other one? You mean it's shrunken?' Obviously, 'one kidney' meant one kidney rather than one normal plus one shrunken kidney but I was, you know, in a state of shock, jet lagged and hung over from Christmas.
The doctor confirmed that 'one' meant one, then moved on to the more important stuff. The kidney I was born without was just a by-the-way digression. What worried him were the lungs, which had three possible diagnoses: sarcoidosis, tuberculosis, and lymphoma.
He explained that sarcoidosis, an infection of the lungs which usually had no symptoms and required no treatment, was unlikely because it mostly affected darker skinned people like Indians and Africans. He also ruled out tuberculosis.
I felt like someone had just kicked me in the stomach. 'How do you know it's not TB?' I asked after taking a deep breath.
'Experience. It doesn't look like TB,' said the expert in cardiothoracic stuff, who was also an associate professor. Of the three lovely possibilities, he reckoned I had lymphoma, cancer of the lymph nodes.
Lymphoma – gulp! Wasn't that what Lee Hsien Loong had? CANCER?! Oh sh¡t! Sh¡t!! Sh¡t!!!
The next step was to confirm the diagnosis with a biopsy. So I trotted off to the appointments counter, which told me the first working day in the new year was available. Wow, 2 January! The whole thing was hurtling along way too fast! Between Christmas and New Year, I saw my GP, did a CT scan, got the results, consulted a specialist, who said he was damn sure I had cancer . . . . Followed by a biopsy on 2 January, the eve of my birthday? Do I really want to do a biopsy the day before my birthday? Well, it was either that, my birthday or 7 January.
'Ok, I'll take 2 January.' I wanted to know, asap. It was good I took the first date available because after I walked out of the hospital, my entire world ground to a halt. I was in a daze whilst I waited for the surgeon's knife. I went to all the year-end get-togethers but they were meaningless. It would have been easier if I had told everyone I was having a biopsy after the holidays but I didn't want to spoil the party mood.
On 2 January, I checked into the hospital for my first ever surgery, all by my little self. Just before I passed out in the operating theatre, the surgeon popped round and said, 'Happy New Year!' Great sense of humour, eh? What could be happier than starting the new year with an operation? And if anything happened to me on the operating table, at least I was in the hands of a surgeon who was funny!
After the surgery, I was crying as I came out of the anaesthesia. It was a funny feeling, crying before I was fully conscious. I didn't even know that was possible. I guess I was more scared than I was willing to admit. The rest of the day was spent resting, begging the nurse for a cream cracker, and rehearsing how I was going to drop the bombshell on everyone. I fell asleep that night practising 'I have cancer/lymphoma!' in various tones, from downcast to upbeat, matter-of-fact, businesslike and various combinations of these possibilities. I thought 50% upbeat, 40% matter-of-fact and 10% downcast was a good, realistic balance.
The morning after – D-day! I got up bright and early to wait for the doctor, who came around half past seven. As he flipped through some papers which presumably contained the biopsy results, I almost stopped breathing. Out of the three possible diagnoses, he said, I had – drumroll please! – sarcoidosis! Phew! I was gunning for the consolation prize, TB, but I got the jackpot instead! I wish it was more dramatic but that was it. After all the hand wringing, it was over in two seconds. I didn't have cancer. I had an infection in the lungs which, if I hadn't gone for a medical check-up because it was free, would have been undetected.
Needless to say, after the emotional 10-day roller-coaster ride, I had the mother of all birthday celebrations. After that, I went on a massive shopping spree and maxed out two credit cards, the first and only time ever. I had a great time looking for necklaces to cover the surgery scar between my collar bones. I still have the necklaces but the scar is barely visible now, even when I look for it.
A couple of years after the cancer fiasco, I asked the specialist for a medical report because I was buying medical insurance. He sent me something that roughly said, 'Blah blah blah sarcoidosis was suspected, and confirmed after a biopsy.' What the hell! There was no mention at all of lymphoma, and the torment he had put me through! I know the details were irrelevant for the purpose of the report but still!
And where did the dish of beancurd skin or tau kee come in? That was what the hospital served for lunch while I waited for the check-out. It was the best meal in my whole life, bar none!
One last thing: Mom, Dad, if you're somehow reading this from up there (or down there, whatever the case might be) . . . .
YOU LEFT OUT ONE KIDNEY! HOW COULD YOU?!