Of appendicitis epidemic and dressers


REMEMBERING: The past actually happened but history is only what someone wrote down — A. Whitney Brown

Phyllis Wong is delighted to receive an email from Dr John Fozdar of Kuching in response to her last week article – Fishing up history – which he finds ‘very instructive.’

Here is the additional memorabilia of his exciting early days and memories in Sarawak medical services:

The Sarawak Medical Department has recently been in the news with the launching of the history of that department.

If the authors had cast their net wider in history, especially pre-Malaysia history, they would have discovered that the Sarawak Medical Dept has claims to international acknowledgement for some of its vagaries.

In the late 1950s or early 60s, Sarawak featured prominently in the British Medical Journal and even the UK newspapers as the only country in the globe to have an appendicitis epidemic.

This happened in Sibu when an expatriate doctor, under work pressure, began to diagnose many cases of abdominal pain as acute appendicitis. He performed appendicectomies on a few hundred patients in a very short period and the people in Sibu panicked.

The Director of Medical Services, also an expatriate, related that there was a long queue of several hundred patients winding along the shop lots, and past some hotels around the Lau King Howe hospital, holding their hands over the appendix region.

They would be diagnosed as acute appendicitis and lined up for operation.The British papers took notice and reported this strange phenomenon.

The Director sent Dr Wong Soon Kai (now Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Dr Wong Soon Kai) to Sibu. I think Soon Kai had recently returned from the UK with his FRCS, the first Sarawakian to be so qualified.

Dr Wong Soon Kai took up his duties at the outpatient department and diagnosed that there was mass hysteria and almost none of them had appendicitis.

In a few days the scare died down. The expatriate doctor was repatriated to UK on medical grounds. Sarawak had gone down in medical annals for an ‘appendicitis epidemic.’

There were other significant ‘happenings’ in Kuching in those early years.

One expatriate doctor working in Kuching was not attending to his duties and would often be found in another establishment, close to the GH.

He managed to get three hospital assistants – ‘dressers’ – to work as ‘doctors’ and carry out all the clinical work.

It was pointed out to him that these ‘dressers’ could not sign death certificates, which still required a doctor to sign.

He managed to get these ‘dressers’ registered as doctors and work went on.

When another doctor was posted to Kuching, he noticed this anomaly and put a stop to this and ‘deregistered’ these ‘doctors’.

The ‘doctors’ went to court. They admitted that they were not trained doctors, but they had worked as doctors and had done nothing wrong during their term of service. Now to deregister them would be an injustice.

The Rajah upheld their argument and they were allowed to be doctors – personal to holder.

I was told that another of these expatriate doctors complained to the DMS that patients could get confused when they see dressers going around with stethoscopes, which should only be carried by genuine doctors.

The DMS told them that the dressers had been carrying stethoscopes for many years and it would be difficult to stop this practice. However, if the doctor felt strongly about this issue, he could carry two stethoscopes.

There must be a lot more to those extraordinary days.

The work done by these ‘dressers’ was of high standard. Many years ago world-renowned Sir GB Ong, (Ong Guan Bee of Bau) Professor of Surgery in HK University visited Kuching.

He was invited to do some surgery in Kuching. After all, he was world-renowned.

He did some thoracic surgical cases in Kuching General Hospital which required open chest surgery.

I asked him who gave the anaesthesia for this major surgery and he said one of the dressers who was trained to work in the surgical unit.

He said he found the service provided to be excellent and he had no anxious moments.

The dressers were a great and necessary asset to medical services in pre-independence Malaysia.