Malaysian Healthcare Passes the Test

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It’s been a dramatic month for Sarah Rees, but a welcome opportunity to have some vague assumptions proven wrong on a spectacular scale.

“I don’t think its appendicitis…” I had told the doctor, and then the specialist, and then the nurse who clamped a bracelet with my name on around my wrist in a white hospital room. It was the same assertion I gave to the radiographer, and all the pals who had sent messages of sympathy, and it was a thought still floating around my brain as I boarded a gurney and was wheeled towards the operating table, no longer able to resist the tide that was taking me towards surgery.

The assertion developed, as these things tend to, into a fear; fear that I was to be cut up for no reason. That’s the kind of story you hear of all the time I heard myself saying, imagining becoming no more than an anecdote for expats to frighten each other with.

You may be beginning to roll your eyes, lose all respect for me and my arrogant tendency to assume that things in Malaysia are not quite as reliable as “the West.” It wasn’t so long ago, I suppose, that my British brethren marched around the world telling people what to do in the name of the Empire and thinking themselves rather clever. I can understand you thinking the worst of me and, if truth be told, I feel a little sheepish myself.

Malaysia does, as we can all agree, possess a certain flexibility that is often absent in our home countries. Meetings, events, lunch hours are almost guaranteed to run late (“rubber time,” my local friend calls it), traffic lights are more suggestions that laws to be obeyed, and anything you need will usually be “ok-lah” one way or the other, guidelines or protocol being cheerily thrown out the window.

This laxity is part of Malaysia’s charm, especially for those of us who grew up in countries where the leashes are so tight that risk assessments have to be carried out before using the photocopier. That said, there are certain moments when this flexible approach to life can be maddening or even, when it comes to the matter of removing things from your body, a little unnerving.

My anxieties had also arisen from the fact that my prior experience of healthcare has been something of a mixed bag. I’ve visited some brilliant Malaysian doctors, but I have also been told I had a live worm in my ear and sent to A&E in a quivering panic. It wasn’t a worm incidentally, it was just wax, and the specialist seemed rather disappointed.

Bearing this in mind, you can see how I was a little nervous when I found myself under the knife of a surgeon for nothing more than a polite stomachache.

I was wrong, of course. And not just a little bit wrong. Oh no. Not only was it appendicitis, it was a particularly nasty incarnation that had burst and made a huge old mess. It could’ve, I was told by the doctor when I resumed consciousness, turned pretty nasty for yours truly had it been left unattended.

Shame was lost in relief, but the anxieties remained. What would the healthcare be like? I had never been in a hospital before, and I was a little worried that “ok-lah” would reign within the walls of the medical institution too.


I was, it seems, only setting myself up for further slices of humble pie. My room was huge, private, and cleaned daily. The nursing staff, though younger and smaller than me, left no need untended. They possessed bountiful patience and just the right amount of cheery nonchalance, rushing in at the touch of a button to support me on my agonising shuffle to the bathroom.

Even the catering ladies were delightful, smiling cheerily as they delivered trays of balanced, tasty meals that were far more enjoyable than my sceptical mind had allowed for.

Desperate for something to justify my anxiety, I fixated on the insurance. They’ll refuse to pay, I thought darkly as I tucked into my morning muesli on the day of discharge, plead some silly technicality. (Having come from a country where the tax man picked up the medical bill, the whole health insurance thing had always unnerved me a little.) But, of course, the insurance wrangling went without a hitch. Before I knew it, I was delivered medicines, given a return appointment, and nodded out into the world by a team of staff that had proven themselves worthy of anyone’s custom and trust.

I’m proud of you, Malaysia, and ever-so-slightly ashamed of myself. Yes, the traffic may be the vehicular equivalent of Armageddon, and yes, having to wait around for people arriving late may grate, but when your back is against the wall (or, in my case, flat against a hospital bed), you pull your socks up and do some seriously good work.
You may have taken my appendix, but you have restored my faith. Let it be a lesson to us all.


Source: The Expat May 2013

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