Jan 28, 2011

My 22-Year Affair with Institut Jantung Negara

For acquaintances, I have a congenital heart condition which requires me to pay an annual pilgrimage to Institut Jantung Negara (National Heart Institute) in Kuala Lumpur. Usually we would then start talking about the "congenital heart condition", but today I'd like to pay tribute to the humble medical center which is an epitome of Malaysian healthcare.

Back in primary school, the annual visit to Kuala Lumpur was a welcoming break away from school. Daddy would usually accompany me take the night bus down to KL, staying one night at my uncle's house at Puchong, and start the following day damn early to avoid the infamous traffic gridlock. My parents lived in an era of bureaucratic medical care - they cluster a year's worth of questions to be asked within the 15-minute intercourse with a pediatric heart specialist. My first physician was, as far as I can remember, Dr. Hasri Samion, who still works there from my last visit.
The typical routine when our number was called include the doctor asking trivial daily questions - "Wow, we have an overweight boy here..." (back then thanks to a kitchen appliance called the refrigerator I cannot stop eating), "how's he doing in school?" etc. A cardiac echo would follow, and I remember the strange feeling of lukewarm gel and the incessant pressing of the echo probe on my ribs. The machine would emit squishy-squashy sounds, which Dr. Samion says is the sound my heart makes. I knew that was abnormal, since normal hearts don't make sounds like that.
Then the ask-all-you-can Q&A session begins. "Does he require surgery?" "Any hope of the defect closing in future?" "What should we take note of in future?" etc. My doctor, from his encounter with countless patients previously, provided quick, definite, and no-terms-for-argument answers that brought our interview to an end as quickly as possible. Thank you and we're out.
After I got into medical school, I would attend these annual pilgrimages myself. From the old single-storey block with 70's blue walls, it's now a sprawling glass-and-aluminium structure with airy lobbies and LCD screens everywhere. Like other Malaysian private hospitals drawn into the lucrative 'medical tourism' field, the decor reminds of stylish hotel lounges, even the canteen is like an Ikea restaurant. Services are world-class, with a concierge and receptionists that would personally show you the way.

The doctors changed too over the years. After Dr. Samion, I've been attended by a vivacious Malay lady, an African woman whose voice is hardly audible, and a Middle-Eastern man with a goatee this year. They developed a modus operandi over the years - shake hands, how're you, echo, no surgery, see you next year. Except this year, Dr. Goatee says I'd do well returning 3 years later. "I should've graduated by then," I said (implying I wouldn't have time for the follow-up). "We'll see about that," Dr. Goatee replied.
Much as I love the service, the canteen nasi lemak, and the friendly staff, chances are that I would fail to turn up for my follow-up 3 years later. It's a sign of the passing of time, parting with a place that witnessed both our growing up. With all my (defective) heart, I wish IJN excellence in quality, and that I have the opportunity to contribute back home.


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