Doctors and Dentists in My Life


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Asia » Vietnam » Southeast » Ho Chi Minh City
August 16th 2020
Published: August 16th 2020
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I don’t propose to mention all the doctors and dentists I have encountered during my 68 years on earth – only the more memorable ones. I have enjoyed a largely illness-free life, but there have been occasions when a doctor or dentist has come to the rescue and made a long-lasting impression, not just on my body but on my memory too.

As a primary schoolboy, I was sick most years with either bronchitis or pleurisy. I would be laid low for a week or two, looked after by Mum. In those days – the 1950’s - it was normal for a family doctor to visit the patient at home, so Dr Gledhill and Dr Walford, whose practice was in Denmark Road, a 10-minute walk from our house, would visit me in my bedroom.

As I got older, I grew healthier and no longer had time off school for illness. However, there was one ailment I could not shake off: the mysterious pains that afflicted both my hips.

My parents called these ‘growing pains’, but the pains persisted well into my thirties. I visited a number of doctors in different places, but they were unable to pinpoint the cause of my discomfort.

The pain reached a crescendo in Stourbridge circa 1984. It had now travelled down to my knees, and the specialist I was seeing, Dr Mangat, told me I had bursitis. I was unable to sleep properly at night and was taking anti-inflammatory pain-killers. On one occasion, I received a pain-killing injection in each hip at the local hospital, causing me to scream out loud. Still no doctor was able to tell me the cause of my pains.

In between bouts of hip and knee pain, I was perfectly healthy and enjoyed playing tennis, table tennis and squash. Then the pains would return, and I would suffer in silence and wait for them to disappear. This was the rhythm of my life from primary school until I was 35.

In the summer of 1987, when I was 35, I went to Kashmir and did some trekking in the Himalayas. During the second very arduous trek, my ‘growing pains’ came back with a vengeance, but I was out in the wilderness and had no choice but to soldier on.

When I returned to my mother’s house in Reading, I was in a bad way, in too much pain to return to my job in Cairo. In desperation I visited a Reading chiropractor, Mrs Jackson, an old woman who lived in Redlands Road, not far from our house. She looked at my X-ray and intoned the words that would change my life: “Kevin, I think I know what is causing your bursitis.” She has spotted something in the X-ray that no other doctor had seen: a slight abnormality in one of my vertebrae. She told me that, from now on, I had to change my sleeping position. All my life I had slept on my front which, she explained, was curving my spine the wrong way, thus irritating my dodgy vertebra. All I had to do now was sleep on my back or in the foetal position. After a lifetime of sleeping on my front, this was difficult, but soon it became the norm, and the pain began to ebb. I returned to Cairo shortly afterwards - not pain-free but in good enough shape to resume my teaching duties. It took a few years before my hip pains disappeared completely. To this day I sleep on my back or side and am pain-free - all because of Mrs Jackson, a pseudo-scientific chiropractor, not a recognized doctor, who prescribed no drugs but told me to sleep in a new position. But for her, I would still be in pain. It is no exaggeration to say that she has been the most important doctor in my life.

While at primary school and suffering from ‘growing pains’, I was also ruining my teeth. I ate far too many sweets and, from an early age, was always going to the dentist to have fillings done or teeth extracted. My dentist was Mr Wells, who had a posh surgery in Alexandra Road. He had a distinguished air and was very competent. On one occasion he gave me gas and, while unconscious in the chair, I had a bad dream.

At secondary school, I no longer had time off for bronchitis or pleurisy – childhood diseases that I'd grown out of. However, during my 'O' levels year I developed a bilious disorder that stayed with me for about 12 months. In the region of my gall bladder, I would, from time to time, get a sharp pain which gradually evaporated. Nothing would relieve the pain, and I would cough up bile.

My first experience of this pain occurred on the bus one day returning home from school. I had no idea what was wrong with me but felt so dreadful I had to get off the bus and breathe fresh air. The pain worsened, so I knocked on someone’s front door and explained I was poorly. The people in the house took pity on me and walked me to the nearby Battle Hospital. My parents were notified and arrived soon after, believing I had been in a traffic accident. The pain disappeared of its own accord, and I went home.

The bilious attack recurred a number of times. No doctor ever gave me a convincing explanation of the root cause or of how to stop it, and I always suffered in silence knowing the pain would vanish after an hour or two. Eventually, like my bronchitis and pleurisy, it just stopped and never returned.

The only time I have spent time in a hospital bed was during my bilious phase. The doctor thought that I might have appendicitis, so I was admitted to the Royal Berkshire Hospital and operated on. There was in fact nothing wrong with my appendix – the problem was with my gall bladder. The operation meant that I spent 3 weeks in Peppard Sanatorium recuperating. I was in a ward full of adult men. The thing I remember most was their bawdy talk after lights out – quite an eye-opener for a naïve young Roman Catholic boy. They would discuss the nurses, and I will never forget a comment from the man in the bed next to me: “Sometimes I wish it was a mile long.”

During my 3 years at Leeds University I was in rude good health and had no reason to visit the doctor or dentist. My ‘growing pains’ were still with me, but they had become a familiar part of my life.

While working at Old Swinford Hospital School in Stourbridge, I developed a large sebaceous cyst on my right cheek. The doctor I visited (whose name I cannot remember) was a loud and thorny character who would roar the next patient’s name over the intercom as we sat in the waiting room. He examined my cyst and said I should have it removed under local anaesthetic at the hospital.

When I turned up for the operation, the doctor told me to remove my trousers. I obeyed, even though this seemed unnecessary for an operation on my right cheek. Then he asked me to drop my underpants. “Why do I need to do that? The cyst is on my cheek,” I said. He looked startled. Consulting his notes, he announced that, according to my doctor, I had a cyst on my right testicle. I put him right. A more timid patient might have dropped his underpants and suffered the indignity of a futile search for a scrotal cyst. Anyway, he removed the cyst, gave me a few stitches, and to this day I have a large scar on my cheek.

I think I have covered all my most memorable experiences with doctors and dentists in the UK. Now let me talk about overseas.

In Cairo I was in fine physical fettle and hardly ever saw a doctor. However, during my 6 years there I needed a dentist more than once. The dentist I remember was Mr Shabka. He was competent but, like so many Egyptian men, was addicted to cigarettes. During our sessions together, he would occasionally pause, walk away to the corner of the room and have a quick smoke.

After Cairo I went to Dar es Dalaam in Tanzania, where my dentist was the father of a Sikh girl I taught. He was a very civilized man who extracted one of my teeth.

In Dar I was hardly ever sick (I got food poisoning once which caused me to miss 2 days of school), but I had a serious car accident.

Driving back from the airport in a taxi with my girlfriend, we approached traffic lights that, owing to a power cut, were not working. Our stupid driver threw caution to the wind and drove recklessly into the path of a bus, which collided with the taxi. I was knocked unconscious. The next thing I remember was waking up in hospital, my t-shirt drenched in blood, my pelvic area hurting badly. I had a head would that required many stitches, but the more serious problem was my pelvis. An X-ray revealed it was cracked in several places – not broken, just slightly cracked. A Tanzanian doctor told me I didn't need surgery; all I needed to do was lie on my back for a month to allow the pelvis to knit. So for four very boring weeks I did just that, looked after by my girlfriend. I made a full recovery.

During my 2 years in Buenos I do not remember ever seeing a doctor or dentist, but in Venezuela I had an operation for a ripped hamstring or tendon in my knee. This was covered by medical insurance. To this day, I’m not sure what exactly the operation was for, because the doctor who operated on me spoke fast Spanish that I could not understand. Anyway, the operation was a success, and I was able to walk again without pain or constraint.

In Ho Chi Minh City, around 2003, I had root canal work done on my molars at a dental practice called Koseikai. The man who did the work was Vietnamese and highly competent. I have been going to Koseikai for years and, since 2010, have had a female dentist – Dr Trinh - whom I rate the best ever. She speaks good English, has a pleasant manner and, by now, knows my mouth back to front.

In HCMC I've rarely had a medical problem – just colds and catarrh – but in 2002 I had a tumour removed from my left side. I became aware of the tumour on the very first day of my holiday in Myanmar; there was something slightly painful and rather large inside me that I had never felt before. On returning to HCMC, I had a local anaesthetic at Family Medical, where Dr Laurie Hayward (the father of a student I taught) and Dr Jane (the wife of the school Business Manager) removed the tumour. At one point I yelped in pain (“That bloody hurt” were my exact words), so they gave me more anaesthetic before stitching me up. The tumour was, thank god, benign.

I was not happy with Family Medical so switched to Columbia Asia, where I found a doctor as good as any I've encountered. He had the same name as my favourite dentist: Dr Trinh. He spoke excellent English and had a lovely bedside manner. I think it is equally important for a doctor or dentist to inspire confidence and have a good relationship with a patient as it is to make correct medical decisions. Dr Trinh looked after my medical needs for at least 12 years but has now emigrated to Canada. Luckily, my new doctor, Dr Ngoc, is every bit as good.

When I arrived in Ghana in 2007, I immediately developed a very sore wisdom tooth. I cursed my luck, because I had just come from Ho Chi Minh City, where the standard and cheapness of dental work is second to none. Anyway, I found a Lebanese dentist who extracted my tooth without ceremony. Never has a tooth extraction of mine been so brutally done.

The last time I needed medical attention in HCMC was quite recently. It was a freak accident. I opened my PO Box, inserted my hand to see if there was a letter lurking at the back and, as I withdrew my hand, scraped it on the metal edge of the Box. I was bleeding copiously. The Post Office staff patched me up, but I was still leaking blood so decided to hotfoot it to Columbia Asia, where the nurse applied a dressing. Now I have a V-shaped scar on my left forefinger.

I no longer have medical insurance because I’ve stopped working full-time and am over 60, which means I would have to pay a small fortune for annual cover. I am nervous about falling ill or having a traffic accident and not being able to support my wife. However, in case of minor medical and dental problems, I have a world-class dentist (Dr Trinh) and doctor (Dr Ngoc). I count myself lucky to be able to afford expert attention in the event of illness, because so many Vietnamese are dirt-poor and have no choice but to trust the opinions of the unqualified young woman selling pills at the local pharmacy. As for dental work, that is beyond the financial reach of many Vietnamese, who suffer in silence for their whole lives. I have given two members of my wife’s family – her youngest sister and a brother-in-law – the new teeth they have always wanted.

Overall, I have been lucky illness- and accident-wise and hope my luck continues.

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