Chapter 3. Drowning
The cold collar chafes my neck and makes the shivering hard to control. At least I am no longer in the claustrophobic tube, while the machines click and whir around me, listening to a disembodied voice telling me to hold still while I try to convince myself I can still breathe. Even now, when I’ve been assured there will be no permanent damage, I hunger for air. The residents are scheduled to remove the collar around my neck today but it takes them a lot longer than I expected. My patience is wearing thin. I’m not sure if their reluctance is out of their fear of hurting me or just of me, their superior physician.
After I change into my normal clothes and put on my white doctor coat, I slide the curtains that surround my hospital bed open. I am not surprised to find a shapely woman in a voguish red dress and black heels. Kris is my best friend and at one point, even more. But I broke things off with her because I believe serious commitment isn’t an option for me. Kris greets my residents with a traditional Thai wai. She slightly bows, with her palms pressed together in a lotus position and says sweetly, “Thank you for taking care of Orasa.”
The young doctors swoon over her. They quickly press their palms together to accept her wai. A resident adjusts his glasses and scratches his trimmed pepper beard nervously, “Oh– yes, of course. Umm…With pleasure, miss.”
I roll my eyes. I send a dismissal hand signal to my residents. They won’t pay any attention to me but continue to stare at Kris’ smiling syrup lips. I finally find my voice, “Shoo.” The residents turn to me. I growl slightly, “You’re all dismissed.” The minions scurry out of the room.
I turn to Kris and ask, “How’s Awut?” I straighten, tensing. Doctors and nurses nearby were able to subdue him after he strangled me the last time we met. Even though he has just begun to show subtle signs of motor disabilities, my brother’s cognitive and behavioral symptoms are growing rapidly. Coupled with his existing anger issues, the aggression and paranoia symptoms from Huntington’s disease exacerbate my brother’s violence.
It’s been a while since I’ve heard any real updates on Awut’s condition. My eyes scan Kris’ face, searching for clues. I notice that her pupils slightly dilate and her face conveys anxiousness. What is she going to tell me? Or perhaps it’s no news at all and she’s simply going to tell me what she usually does. ‘Not much change, today, I’m afraid, but at least he’s still stable.’ I’ve grown so used to hearing that.
“Is he lucid?” I ask.
“Yes,” Kris says quietly. My pulse quickens. The news is so sudden. One minute my brother is being strapped in bed, losing control of his identity day by day, and now he’s awake and himself. Just like that.
I break into a smile, and before I can stop myself, I pull Kris into a tight hug. She stiffens. I haven’t held her this closely in a long time. She smiles and pats my head awkwardly, but I don’t care. I want to see my brother. “I’m going to the psychiatric ward.”
Just as I am about to head out, Kris grabs my hand and her smile wavers. She says, “Awut told me he doesn’t want any visitor.” My heart twists until it threatens to break. “He just felt really guilty for hurting you. He’s not eating much and has trouble sleeping.” Her voice trails off quietly, “He said he wants some time alone to rest.”
“Oh,” I say lamely. I take in Kris’ words and my fist tightens
“I’m sorry,” Kris replies guiltily. Now that I take a closer look at her face, I notice how stressed out she looks. Her under eyes blacken from the lack of sleep.
Over the course of my brother’s hospitalization, Kris has always been so supportive. I try to come up with ways to thank her but even now that she is standing in front of me; all my thoughts go to mush. I manage, “Don’t apologize. You’ve done all you can for my brother and me. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve such a great friend like you.” I unclasp my hand from hers. “I have a lot of work to catch up with anyway,” I mumble. I know I’m supposed to take a few days off from work but I need to distract myself right now.
I give Kris a weak smile and numbly walk out of the room. As I exit, I find a surgical resident leaning against the wall. He is holding a red clipboard with notes on it, which I am assuming are lists of patients’ stats from his round this morning. He is also sweating profusely and fidgeting.
“What do you want?” I deadpan. I’m dumping my frustration on the resident.
The resident jumps lightly. He adjusts his glasses and stammers, “I’m waiting for your friend, sir… I mean ma’am…doctor. I-I’d like to ask for her number.”
His stammer annoys me. Typically, I would let it slide. But for a second, I want to smack him in the face with the stupid clipboard just to shut him up. “Do whatever you want to do,” I mutter and grab his red clipboard. I quickly scan through the list of patients’ stats. My eyes stop at the name Sang Boonsawang. I swivel my head towards the resident and raise my voice, “Here it says that the acid assault patient is conscious but still unable to speak.”
I ran the surgical procedures I performed on the patient through my mind. Maybe the surgery wasn’t a success like I thought it was. Maybe the damages to her vocal cords are more extensive than I suspected. Maybe I missed something.
Unsure of what to say, the resident just stares at me. I feel a boiling rage seeps through my dry demeanor. This useless brat is a waste of our government’s resource. “Uhh…I’m not sure…It could be a complication.” He finally clears his throat and says, “There’s another attending physician looking at her case right now.”
I glance over the patient’s room number. 202. Perfect. That’s just two rooms down the hall. I shove the clipboard back to the resident and head to my destination. As I enter, I notice that the room has a low light on, and there are cords hanging down by the patient’s side for the nurses’ call button and the IV solutions. The patient is sleeping; but there is an empty aqua colored glass with a bent straw in it and a half eaten tray of food with the big metal cover that is on the plate.
“Hello, doctor.” I hear a small, squeaky voice. It’s not coming from the patient. Following the source, I bend down to find a little girl with a bob hair cut and uneven bangs. It’s the patient’s daughter I met in the emergency room.
I hear the door propped open and the sound of sensible shoes squeaking on the pristine tiles approach me. The girl raises her index finger to her mouth and whispers, “Shh…” I’m confused at her gesture but I decide to play along. She’s probably just shy.
When I stand up from my crouched position and turn around, I bump into a well-built figure. I inhale his overly strong cologne and recognize the scent immediately. The man speaks with a weird accent, “Birdie, it’s good to see you again.”
I bite my lips, trying to hide my frustration. I didn’t expect to find a psychiatrist; especially the one I had a one-night stand with, as the consulting physician for my surgical case. “What makes you think this is a psych case, doctor?” I ask.
Sujin runs his hand through his hair and says, “The patient has gone through tremendous emotional trauma. It is possible that her loss of speech may be due to psychological reasons.”
Despite our different specialties, he makes a valid point. However, physiological causes should still be considered. The patient could have had a stroke during the surgery that affects her brain’s Broca’s area in the left hemisphere, which typically disrupts the patient’s ability to speak or comprehend language.
I turn my attention back to the patient. There is an electronic machine sitting on a cart with wires leading to it, and a curtain hanging from a track on the ceiling. The patient’s chest is moving steadily and her heart monitor indicates that she is stable. Sujin walks towards me. “I have another consult but feel free to contact me when the patient is awake,” he hands me a small clean-edge business card with his name and number on it.
“You can also call me for other reasons, birdie.” His lips curl into a crooked smile, “I’ll be going to a Thai boxing match this weekend if you want to come along. It will be Champion Veera’s first return to the ring since his leave of absence.”
Nostalgia of my days when I practiced Thai boxing rushes back to me. I started practicing it because I couldn’t take my father’s abuse anymore and I wanted to fight back. I miss the feelings of wrapping my hands with ropes and dipping them in water to harden them. Because ropes are abrasive and able to cut, they’re used to increase blocking and striking power. The elders in my village claim that females are not worthy enough to practice this sacred sport. However, I was able to practice it because I had a hideous boy cut so people mistook me for my brother. As an avid fan, I’m tempted to go with Sujin just to witness how Champion Veera’s first return to the ring will turn out.
But I can’t. Dating leads to attachment and I can’t afford any attachment. It wouldn’t be fair for either of us. I answer professionally, “I’ll contact you if I want another consult, doctor.”
Sujin’s smile falters slightly but he immediately returns to his cavalier tone. “Well, if you change your mind about my latter proposal, you have my number, birdie.” He winks at me before heading out of the room.
At the sound of the door shutting, I hear shuffling noises of skin and clothes rubbing against the floor tiles. The small girl props her head from under the patient’s bed and crawls out of her hiding spot. “He sounds cute,” she says innocently. “I like his accent.”
I ignore the girl’s observation and ask, “What were you doing down there anyway, kiddo?”
The girl rubs her neck sheepishly, “I was hiding.”
“Not what but who,” she corrects me.
“So who were you hiding from then?” I rephrase my question.
The girl sucks in her round cheeks and stares at the ground. Avoiding my eye contact, she mumbles, barely audible, “My father.”
My heart drops. According to the reports, the patient’s husband is the main suspect for the acid assault. However, there isn’t enough evidence and because victims of domestic violence rarely come forward to testify, the husband is still free.
I notice the bruise on the girl’s cheek and say, “Did your father hurt you too?”
The girl doesn’t reply and continues to look down at her feet. I understand her reluctance to talk to me. When I was younger, I avoided answering any question regarding my father’s abuse like a plague because I didn’t want to face more punishments.
I walk towards the table by the patient’s bed and grab the empty glass of water. I pour water into it and return to where the girl is standing. “You should tell the authorities,” I hand the girl a glass of water. “Here, have a drink and then we can talk more about it.”
Her eyes harden and her cheeks turn red. “The authorities don’t care. No one cares. They’ll just say it’s none of their business and that it’s a family affair. They’ll say that my father is just teaching a disobedient daughter like me a lesson. To them, I’m invisible.” The girl raises her voice and pushes me away.
I lose my balance and drop the glass of water. The glass shatters and water spills all over. Immediately, I reach for the napkins and start wiping the floor. I look at the shattered pieces of glass and suddenly stop cleaning. I remember what the elders in my village taught me: how to carry beverage without spilling, how to cleanup after someone else makes a mess, how to be a good girl, how to be a virtuous daughter, how to respect even if the person doesn’t deserve it simply because he is a man and your father, yet still, how not to respect your own self worth. I can relate to the girl’s pain and burden.
I feel a prick on my index finger and notice blood flowing out of it. A broken glass must have cut me. The girl’s eyes widen and she snaps out of her anger. She scoots closer to me so she can look at my wound. She says quickly, “I’m so sorry, doctor. I didn’t mean to push you. I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t’ worry about it, kiddo. It’s just a little cut.” I smile. I know that if I continue to probe the girl about her father, she will just shut me out. I need to gain her trust first. I reach into my pockets to search for my business cards but I only find the business card Sujin gave me. So I grab a small stack of neon sticky notes and a cheap hospital pen I found on the nightstand near the patient’s bed.
I write my number on it and hand the sticky note to the girl. I say, “Feel free to contact me if you have questions about your mother or just want a friend to talk to.”
The girl reluctantly takes the sticky note. She looks up from it and I notice that her face is filled with concern. “I was so caught up with my own problems that I forget to ask.” She says, “Who’s the man that hurt you the other day?”
I tilt my head slightly, trying to figure out how she knows about Awut’s attack. Then, I remember that the girl was there when it happened. I reply calmly, “He’s my brother. He’s just sick, that’s all.” I keep the tone light. “Don’t worry about it, kiddo. Siblings quarrel all the time.”
The girl giggles, “I think I can relate to that.” She nudges me lightly, “But y’know… if your brother is sick, maybe you can ask that cute doctor for a consult. His accent makes him sounds like a knowledgeable British knight.” The girl reaches into my pocket and pulls out Sujin’s business card. She places it on my palm and beams, “Here. Call him. If you end up going out with him, I want to hear all the details.”
I look at the business card and then at the girl. Even though it’s obvious that the girl is playing cupid, it doesn’t hurt to call Sujin since I have to contact him about the patient’s psychiatric consult anyway. Maybe the girl will open up more if we talk about boys and knights in shining armor or whatever. I smile and say, “Alright, kiddo.”
I walk into the hospital’s café, distinguished from the other parts of the hospital not by walls or a door but merely a change in the pattern of the floor tiles from plain white to different shades of beige. As soon as I step into the café, warmth embraces me. I approach the glass display glittering with meals and desserts. I scan the treats then look up to the chalk menu hanging on the wall above the coffee bar.
“What can I get you?” asks the barista in a bored, drone-like voice. I gesture with my index finger and give him an amiable, apologetic, and closed-lips smile. I’ve been so busy with surgeries lately that I barely have time to go to cafés. Occasionally, my residents get me coffees in hopes of getting on my good side, but I actually don’t drink coffee. I’m going to cherish this moment, where I can place my own order.
“It’s just a drink, birdie,” Sujin whispers, leaning towards my ear. He turns to the barista and chirps, “Double espresso for here please.”
Ugh. Double espresso? Disgusting.
“Coconut Thai Tea Latte for here, please,” I finally place my order.
Sujin and I saunter towards the drink-delivery end of the counter. “Double Espresso,” the barista calls out, leaning over slightly as he places the ceramic cup on the counter. Sujin takes the cup, taking a sip immediately without a thought. That disgusting hot water probably burnt the tip of his tongue.
After I receive my order, I take in the perfect image and aroma of my beverage. Its orange color and sweet taste come from crushed tamarind seeds and condensed milk. When I turn the cup at certain angles, I notice that the reflective sheens from my coconut Thai tea latte catch light and play tricks with anything and everything that screams ‘paradise.’
We head towards the corner table that is squeezed into the small space, shoved amidst the shelves with selections of coffee beans and tea bags. We sit there, taking off our white coats. Sujin’s brown eyes look at me as he excitedly devours his espresso like an addict. When he finally places his drink on the table, he says, “It’s too bad that this isn’t a date. I’ve managed to get us front seats at the boxing ring.”
My ears perk and before my logic can stop me, I ask curiously, “How did you manage to get that?” Darn it. He successfully reels me in.
“Champion Veera is a close friend of mine,” he replies smugly as he returns to his nasty drink. “If you want, I can get you his autograph.”
Interesting. I’ve heard rumors that Champion Veera had to take a leave of absence because he was suffering from hallucinations in the middle of a boxing match. I can’t help but ask, “Are you the psychiatrist that treated his Schizophrenia?”
Sujin stops drinking and says quietly, “You know that’s confidential.” His gaze shifts from my eyes to his espresso and then back to me. “But even if he does have Schizophrenia like the rumors say, schizophrenic patients, like other patients with any illnesses, can live a relatively normal life with proper treatment and support. I have patients with mental disorders who go on to have families and successful careers of their own,” he adds protectively.
I take a couple sips of my coconut Thai tea latte and look to the right to avoid meeting Sujin’s gaze. Suddenly, I feel a vibration in my pant pocket. “Excuse me,” I say quickly and move my fingers downward to pull out my mobile phone.
When I answer it, I hear panic seeping through the speaker. All I can manage are a few “ahuh” and “I’ll be there soon.”
“What is it, birdie?” Sujin asks.
I try to compose myself but somehow the air in the café seems thin. I can’t breath and I feel like I want to vomit. The coconut Thai tea latte is betraying me and is climbing its way up my throat. Restroom is the first thing that pops into my head. I tell Sujin I have to go. I almost run when I see the restroom sign. Forcing my way through the crowd, I lack the time and motivation to throw out redundant apologies but simply use my palms to push people off my way, unable to focus on anything but the growling queasiness rising inside my stomach.
There’s no one in line so I lunge at the stall. Without bothering to shut the door, I lean over the toilet stall and move my head closer to the water. A loathing sound escapes through my lips. I taste the acid, battling its way up my throat. I bring my face closer to the water, arching my saliva between the liquid and me, as if bringing two star-crossed lovers together, our lips longing for a desperate wet kiss. I wonder what will happen if my face unites with the water and I just allow myself to drown in it. I wonder if it will be the happy ending to my tragic story. I used to love happy endings but then I grew up and realized that they are all lies.
I pop my eyes open to find Sujin, kneeling beside me. A string of saliva pathetically hangs from the corner of my lips. My chest heaves heavily and I try to take in as much air as possible. Sujin hands me a brown paper bag with the café logo on it and says calmly, “You’re having a panic attack. Just breath into this.”
I take the bag and put my face into it as I breath in and out. When I finally manage to control the dizzying sensation, I straighten myself up and take some toilet paper to dry my mouth. I push the door open and attempt to get out of the stall only to stumble and hold onto Sujin’s arm for support. I push him away and take two steps away from him but then turn back as if a string has attached me to him.
Maybe I’m emotionally vulnerable right now or maybe it’s the lack of oxygen that impairs my judgment. But I pull Sujin towards me, and my arms wrap around him. I’m so unused to touch but instead of pushing him away, I close my eyes and collapse against his chest. His shirt is rumpled and soft against my skin, and beneath it, his warm body pulses with the faint beating of his heart and it calms me down. A labored breath escapes me. “I-it’s my brother.” I bury my head against Sujin’s shoulder and finally let myself cry. “He tried to kill himself.”
For more information on the coping strategies for HD patients going through depression and suicidal thoughts, please refer to our article.