Many important lessons on life come not from textbooks but from real people

Source: The Sunday Times, 21 Dec 2008

In 1983, I was training as a neurology resident at Massachusetts General Hospital, the premier Harvard-affiliated hospital that some termed ‘Man’s Greatest Hospital’.

This was where the rich and powerful came to seek medical treatment. It was where Dr Henry Kissinger, for instance, had the triple heart bypass that saved his life.

I was doing a six-month posting in the neurophysiology laboratory. By sending small electric shocks down nerves and inserting needles into muscles, we could try to figure out the health of the nerve cells supplying various muscles as well as of the muscles themselves.

My patient one morning in summer was a businessman who owned a shoe factory in New Hampshire. He came with a note from his neurologist that said he had ‘progressive bulbar palsy’, a variant of Lou Gehrig’s disease in which the first and dominant symptoms relate to weakness of the muscles of the jaw, face, tongue, pharynx and larynx.

The tests of the nerves and muscles in the rest of his body were fine, and the final test was to put a fine needle in his tongue. I had never done this before, so I asked a senior colleague to supervise me.

The electrical activity picked up by the needle confirmed the dreaded diagnosis. I told the patient that a report would be sent to his neurologist. Then, as he changed from the hospital gown into his street clothing, he asked me where I was from. I replied that I was Dr Lee and that I was from Singapore.

‘You are Lee Kuan Yew’s daughter,’ he said.

I was dumbfounded and asked: ‘How do you know?’

‘I didn’t know,’ he replied. ‘I have heard of Singapore and of Lee Kuan Yew and meant it as a joke. So you are Lee Kuan Yew’s daughter! I am Jo.’

It turned out that Jo’s daughter was considering studying political science at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and was in correspondence with the NUS admissions office.

Jo invited me to his home in rural New Hampshire. I accepted because I intuitively trusted this man, who I knew would soon be told of his death sentence.

During autumn two months later, when New Hampshire’s fall colours would be at their peak of loveliness, he drove down to Boston to pick me up for the four-hour drive to his home.

By now, he knew what he was facing. There was calm acceptance and he was putting his business in order so that his family would be financially secure when he passed on.

His speech was slurred and I had to concentrate to make out what he was saying. He had to make an effort to try to pronounce his words as clearly as he could.

We went hiking on the hills near his home. I won’t even try to describe the magnificent scenery of the autumn foliage. It has been captured on many canvases as well as calendars.

Once, we came upon a paddock where someone probably kept his horse(s) during summers. Jo told me a joke attributed to Ronald Reagan about how two people reacted when they found a paddock empty with only horse dung in it.

The first said: ‘Dammit! The horse has escaped.’ The second said: ‘The horse dung is still wet, the horse must still be close by.’

Jo did not say more than that, but tacitly I knew he was taking the second attitude. He would face his predicament as positively as he could. I respected him for his courage.

The next time he invited me was in winter when we went cross-country skiing. Although his speech was even more slurred on this occasion, his body was still strong and he out-skied me because he was a more experienced skier.

On Sunday morning, the family was going to church and asked me to go along. I did not have any appropriate attire for church, but Jo told me: ‘God does not care how you are dressed.’

So there I was, a scruffy non-believer, attending mass with the Catholic family that I was spending a weekend with. I wondered whether Jo drew his strength from his religion, but speaking was such an effort for him now that I did not ask.

The last time I saw him was when he was admitted for an operation to put a tube through the abdominal wall into his stomach. He could neither speak nor swallow on this occasion. He looked emaciated but he was still alert and cheerful when I visited him.

Soon after, I returned to Singapore after undergoing three years of training in neurology. A few months later, I received a card from Jo’s daughter informing me of her father’s demise.

Many of the most important lessons that I have learnt about life and how to live it have come from my patients. Jo was my first teacher in a subject that cannot be taught through lectures, tutorials and textbooks.

I may have no choice in the misfortunes that life chooses to inflict on me. But I do have a choice in responding to those misfortunes positively or negatively. To a certain degree, my happiness is within my control. That is an easy lesson to preach but difficult to practise.

More than once over the last 25 years, I have been faced with nasty circumstances beyond my control. Twenty-five years on, I am better at accepting adversity and trying my best despite them. I am still trying to do so every day.

Perhaps if this philosophy of life had more believers, we would have less of the whining that Singaporeans are prone to, less misery and a more positive outlook towards all of life’s situations no matter how adverse they may be.

Finally, learning should not be too tightly linked to formal academic institutions. Instead, it is a lifelong process that occurs in all spheres of life. Every encounter, positive or negative, is a possible lesson if we analyse it deeply.

Jo taught me something that ‘Man’s Greatest Hospital’ didn’t.