“Your mother is in a downward spiral,” the doctor said, very – pardon the pun – clinically.

That was when I decided to get her out of that private hospital, where she had been a patient for more than a decade, as fast as possible.

He was referring to her immune system, which was unable to fight off a “simple” infection: a lingering bacterial invasion which (they said) occurred after an operation at that hospital to fix a fractured tibia left a gaping wound in her leg.

The microbes entered her body (they claimed) through it and travelled to her artificial knee joint.

That bug is apparently a common cause of hospital-acquired infections, one of the five most common, in fact. Just saying.

That statement by the doctor was made one year ago, and as of today it’s been almost two years of constant suffering for her since the op and infection.

The checklist includes:

> Hours of agony after the tibia op which required morphine;

> A dozen hyberbaric chamber sessions – transported by ambulance, as the hospital didn’t have such equipment – to help heal the open wound;

> Sudden onset of fever and chills when the infection flared up in her knee;

> A debridement procedure (under general anaesthetic) to wash out the knee with antibiotics;

> Six weeks of intravenous antibiotics, administered four times daily;

> A cyst developing as the result of an infected tissue sac just below her knee (indicating the debridement was not 100% successful in clearing out the infection);

> Four different doctors looking at it and passing her case from one to another – talk about tai chi – during which time the cyst grew from the size of a 10 sen coin to a golf ball;

> A bout of delirium from the long-term antibiotics (and more shenanigans during the subsequent treatment for that).

I really have to thank the doctor for making that statement. It jolted me out of my foolish trust, in spite of all the experiences listed above, that that place was still capable of doing anything – anything at all – right by my mother.

I’m sure that doctor did not mean anything hurtful and in fact, he was one of those who had always shown her kindness during her treatment. But I just didn’t think there was any point staying there any more.

We have since sought treatment at a different hospital where, let’s just say the change has done my mum a world of good even if the long-term prognosis is not encouraging.

The artificial knee is still infected. This is something they seldom tell you when pitching TKR (total knee replacement) surgery: an infection of an artificial joint is a seriously messed-up complication.

Her choices: live with the infection, control it with antibiotics but risk potentially fatal septicaemia; or, have a massive operation to remove the joint and (because of her age and medical condition, including rheumatoid arthritis) have a permanent “cement” stopper put in instead of a new joint, so she will have a permanently bent knee and must drag her leg when she walks; or, amputate the leg above the knee and hope the wound heals so a prosthetic leg can be fitted (followed by months of rehabilitation).

Great choices, huh?

My mother chose the first. One effect of living with the infection is to have fluid and pus constantly build up in the infected joint and then force its way out through weak spots in the flesh by forming more cysts/bubbles/boils.

Doctors will have to make an incision in the thing and drain it.

Not as simple as it sounds; I’ve witnessed fairly huge gushers from such incisions, which my mum gamely refers to as volcanic eruptions. (I think it’s her spirit, more than mine, that has brought us through all these trials.)

But the whole point of this piece is not to lament about her suffering. Heck, it’s part of the human condition after all and others all around us are experiencing much greater pain.

As a certain mindless philosopher once observed, we seem to be made to suffer; it’s our lot in life.

Maybe I just need to unburden myself of all this pent-up emotion – guilt at being too trusting and rage at an establishment that never took any responsibility for the suffering and what was, to me, unsatisfactory overall care – by writing this. (I had a whole litany of complaints, which the customer service guy dutifully listened to, and then came back to say nothing could be done.)

And hopefully, it might serve as a reminder of sorts to others to think twice before subjecting themselves or family members to elective/semi-elective surgery without exploring all the alternatives, especially the non-surgical variety.

Am I trying to put surgeons out of business? Definitely not.

But I am haunted by the ease with which we capitulated on both occasions (first for the TKR, then the tibia repair); and bothered by how strongly surgery-averse it has made us, rightly or wrongly.

After all, we’re only human. And of course, so are the doctors and nurses who attended to my mother at that hospital we no longer go to.

Though, given that shared trait of humanity, we had expected a little more compassion – and accountability – from a place in the business of healthcare. Or is that all we were to them? Business?


Associate Editor Davin Arul believes the last two years of shared suffering have truly opened his eyes to the healing and calming power of prayer. The forgiveness part … he’s almost there, but not quite.