by Dr Andrew C S Koh
From Mobile Clinic to and Air Force
Nothing that we do, is done in vain. I believe, with all my soul, that we shall see triumphCharles Dickens, a tale of two cities
After completing the housemanship in the Ivory Tower of University Hospital, I joined the ministry of health Malaysia in the middle of 1978. My first posting was to Taiping District Hospital as a medical officer. This is a small hospital with very basic disciplines such as Medicine, General Surgery, Obstetrics and Gynecology, Orthopedic Surgery, Dentistry, Oral Surgery, and Anaesthesiology. Taiping is the second largest town in Perak with a thriving population of 245,182 in 2013. It is located 48 km north of Ipoh and 78 km south of George Town, Penang. It is famous for its Taiping Zoo and Night Safari, Taiping Lake Gardens, and Maxwell hill. By this time I was already married to my wife who was also posted to Taiping Hospital as a dental surgeon.
Working in Taiping was an entirely different ball game when compared to working in the teaching hospital of University Hospital. It was a service orientated hospital and not a teaching hospital. There was no emphasis on training, research, or continuous medical education. In those days, doctors were short and the patient load was heavy. The hospital had a vacancy for 15 medical officers but at any one time, there would be only about 5 medical officers in the establishment. This is in stark contrast to the situation today where doctors are way far too many. The medical library facilities were severely inadequate and the system was not at all conducive for any postgraduate medical education or research.
After the first 6 months of manning the outpatient department, I was posted to the mobile health clinic team. The mobile health clinic team consisted of one medical officer, me, one hospital assistant, one staff nurse, one dispenser, one attendant, and one driver. We offered our service 5 days a week, traveling by the mobile clinic van from Taiping Hospital to the rural towns in the district of Larut, Matang, and Selama. Upon arrival at the site, we open the doors to the public using the van as a mobile clinic. We offered consultation and treatment for simple, stable conditions and we dispense basic medications for hypertension, diabetes, antibiotics, deworming medications, creams, lotions, eye drops, and so forth. Patients who required hospitalisation or specialist care would be referred to the Taiping Hospital by way of a referral letter. The team leave Taiping Hospital at 7 30 am and return by 4 pm daily from Monday to Friday. In exchange for our services, some satisfied patients gave us fish, crabs, prawns, fruits, and vegetables to take home as tokens of appreciation.
Besides medical practice, my wife and I also attended the Taiping Gospel Hall church for Sunday service and weekly Bible studies.
After 1 year in Taiping, I joined the Ministry of Defence as an army medical officer on a 2-year contract. I was drafted into the army by the government of Malaysia. I underwent a 1-month army training course in Kinrara Camp Kuala Lumpur after which I was commissioned as an officer with the rank of a Captain. After the training, I was posted to serve in an army hospital in the Royal Malaysian Airforce Base (RMAF) in Labuan, East Malaysia for the next 2 years.
So towards the end of 1979, my wife and I left on an army aircraft, Charlie 130, from Kuala Lumpur en route to Labuan to report for my tour of duty. The flight took us three and a half hours and we arrived at the Labuan RMAF Airbase. We were provided with free accommodation in the officer quarters near the military hospital. My wife was also posted to Labuan District Hospital as a dental surgeon.
The military hospital in RMAF airbase Labuan was a small setup with a facility for outpatient consultation and a treatment room for minor surgical procedures. My job was to look after the healthcare needs of all the army officers, rank and file soldiers, airforce officers, airman, and all their family members. I was also required to do yearly medical examinations for all the soldiers as part of their service requirement. Patients who required admission or major surgery would be referred to the Labuan District Hospital nearby. The clinical workload here was very light. I only got to see about 10 patients per day. In the evening I like to play tennis, and at night I like to visit the officers’ mess for social gatherings, chit-chat, and refreshments. The beer was cheap as it was a duty-free item.
Life in the army was very relaxing. Clinical work was minimal and this gave me a lot of time to study for the MRCP part 1 examination, (Internal medicine specialist examination) which I managed to pass before my tour of duty comes to an end. As a Captain, I wore an army uniform at work and would be saluted to and called Sir many times a day by the rank and file, and I had to salute back as a sign of courtesy.
I get to know and made friends with senior air force officers, pilots, and their families. Sometimes, when I travel on army aircraft for official duty, I got to sit in the cockpit next to the pilot. There was once when sitting in the cockpit, I saw a genuine full-circle rainbow. It was breathtaking, to say the least. The panoramic view from the cockpit was extremely impressive and beautiful, especially during take-off and landing.
There was one unfortunate incident too. One of my pilot friends lost his life in a helicopter crash in his mid-thirties when he was on a search and rescue mission due to bad weather. He was survived by a young wife and small child, and she was devastated. This incident was so heart-wrenching and sad that even until now, I felt could emotional whenever I thought about it.
Apart from all these, my wife and I also attended an Anglican Church in Labuan, for Sunday service, weekly bible study, and other activities.
Serving in the army was a great experience, away from the hustle and bustle of city life. This unforgettable tour of duty is second to none. The highlight of my army life was the regimental night held once a year in the officer’s mess. All officers arrived in style, dressed in their official regimental attire. Sitting would be according to ranks. A multiple course meal was served according to protocol and all the officers had to adhere strictly to it. We had to know how to use different kinds of knives, forks, and spoons for the different courses and correctly hold them. It was a solemn affair. There would be speeches, toasts, and so forth. No one was allowed to leave the hall until the commanding officer had left. There was a rehearsal before the regimental night for those who are new to familiarise with the protocol.
Labuan is an Island located off the coast of Sabah. At that time, it was a tax-free port. Electronic products were very cheap. Imported cars were also very cheap as these were completely duty-free. Almost all the officers in the army and airforce drove flashy and expensive cars, waiting to ship them back to West Malaysia at the end of their tour of duty. I bought a Honda Accord and my wife bought a Nissan at a fraction of the cost in West Malaysia and we sent them back to West Malaysia by a Navy ship at the end of my tour of duty.
To be continued……..