Mid-Palsy Thoughts

Like many steeped in the certainty of modern science, I've developed a scepticism of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). This field conjures an image of monks amid misty mountains, chanelling qi to levitate and shatter boulders. I remember childhood comics with a lady picking herbs to fend against poisonous human toads.

Desperation, however, is more powerful than scepticism. When Voldemort was terrorising the country, people shelled out precious moolah for pseudo-protective amulets. They were willing to pay when frightened. Wealth, they hoped, would buy health.

I'm no different. If money could bring back a sense of facial symmetry-mobility, take mine, take all ten million dollars I’ve in my bank account.

(Kidding. I don’t have ten millions.)

Faced with the prospect of a drooping face, I didn’t hesitate for long when my father asked me to go for acupuncture sessions. Despite inconclusive research, many have given online testimonies that TCM would help in relieving facial palsy. 

The sinseh sat there, observed and described my face with a certain curiosity. She didn’t seem to have any experience with people who suffer from facial palsy. My lips were peeling, she explained, because I didn’t drink enough water. Throughout the session, she sustained a monologue about Chinese politics, how Chinese women are more fertile and help to stem declining number of babies in Singapore, how productivity is a misnomer for more work, how the Chinese Premier is giving money left right centre to  buy power over other countries but how citizens are suffering.

At first, it felt strange to take off my clothes, put on cheap white cotton shorts, recline on a hospital bed, topless. My soft 6-pack-less belly shone in the dim lighting, accusing me of showing it to the world unnecessarily. It was surreal when the sinseh pulled part of the shorts down, exposing a butt cheek, smooth as smelly tofu. I shivered, fearing that the hitherto innocent me might be taken advantage of. Had I wandered into a dubious settlement?

After the acupuncture – pins on my body – and a electrogel-massage – slight shocks to the face – my face became less flat. It was a noticeable change. I could finally see the contour of my right cheek and my mouth was less lopsided.

Five sessions costed four hundred dollars – equivalent to a good holiday in Malaysia – and I felt somewhat wistful. This episode reminded me that while wealth is important, health is critical. 

The sinseh said to drink warm water – no coffee or tea – shower with warm water – no exercise – eat only bland healthy food – no chicken or seafood – no exposure to chilly winds and air-con. I promised myself that I will be a paragon of good health habits henceforth, only to break this promise a few weeks later.
At the polytechnic, I experienced the failure/ inefficiency of the healthcare system. It is unsettling, how we are bounced from place to place, wait for period by period before seeing the doctor for minutes.

The first session with a local doctor went pretty well. He stared at my face, checked to see if I had infection, concluded it was Bell’s Palsy and sent me off with a high dosage of corticosteroids.

The second session with a foreign doctor was discomforting. She told me that she doesn’t encounter Bell’s Palsy patients often and went online to search for more information. “According to this website, you should have these symptoms…Let me check… I should taper the dosage but I’m not sure by how much…Let me check…” I wondered if I would die from a misdiagnosis. A study based in America concludes that as many people die from misdiagnosis/wrong medication/unnecessary surgical invasions as they die from illnesses. Finally, she messaged a pharmacist and asked for advice.

The third session was a waste of time. I was told to make an appointment and return for a review. But what was the point of making an appointment if I had to wait for an hour? If I were to come early in the morning, I would only have waited for thirty minutes. I felt a sense of anxiety, being trapped into waiting when I knew that there was a better alternative.

After these repeated exposure to one facet of the healthcare system, I can see why people are angry at the government. When one isn’t well, the last thing one wants to face is long waiting lines and being pushed from place to place. What one hopes for are professional expertise and advice and support and reassurance.
It was one of those lazy mornings with nothing much to do, except work or writing. Both activities felt bland, stagnant, unappealing. I felt like moving even though my face didn’t. At the nearby food centre, I ordered two popiahs, rolls with radish, peanuts, cabbage, carrot and chilli. It was an attempt to eat healthily.

While searching for a seat, I met Mrs L, the photocopying lady from school. She is a rich taitai who stays in a condo but finds the taitai life so boring that she would rather work. I hope to have a similar problem one day. Because it was obvious that the right side of my face was sagging, I told her the diagnosis.

“This should happen to people over the age of 50. You don’t know when their legs will go straight and never bend again… but you’re so young! It’s such a pity.”

Her concern was evident, so was her curiosity. Her husband, by then, joined us at the table. They seemed covertly glad that they aren’t suffering an affliction like this and that youth is no barrier to infections and age is no guarantee of illnesses. I suppose this is one way to bring people a sense of joy this festive season.

“When would you recover by?”

“I’m not sure but I hope it’s soon.” Hope is the thing with feathers. My wish is that this ugly crippled little thing with feathers can grow – not a stillborn within an egg or swallowed by a monitor lizard before its time.
I tried jogging. My face twitched. My neck ached. My eye refused to blink and paid the price by becoming dry and red. See, you suffer when you refuse to do your job.

Ms Chan – the first person from my workplace to know about this health condition – told me about her ex-colleague with Parkinson’s. This neuro-degenerative disease causes the brain to rot. The patient loses control of his hands, legs, mouth, the ability to think, remember, reason. It is irreversible, this damage, bewildering for the person and the people around him. How does it feel to lose the ability to stroll in a park, to lift a spoon to one’s mouth? How does it feel to watch someone’s body fall apart, a fork damningly still on the table? During such times, we lose understanding of logic, of science and turn to the warmth of religion.

Many people are suffering worse down the street, a cubicle away, along the supermarket aisle, in a bombed city square, at the foot of a mud slide, within a home. A health scare sensitises one to pain. In the newspapers, people died when an unstable driver drove in the opposite direction of the lane at a speed of 120 km/h. People died when a bus rolled off a slope in Johor. People died when bombs fell like shooting stars on an ancient piazza. They left human-sized holes in the lives of survivors.

I feel loss – lost? – tinged with camaraderie. What I have is merely a molehill-sized affliction but there is something about pain which opens one up, stripping away protective green sheaths. We are here on borrowed time – borrowed from whom, for how long, until when, why for – no one can be sure. After turning and searching, I am left with the truism that what we can do is to do our best, contribute in whatever ways we can and cast our hopes like fishing rods into the cosmic unknown.