Have you heard of the classic TV series “Untouchables”? After medical school I was in basic training mostly at the Queen Mary Hospital of the University of Hong Kong. After that, I was destined for America. That was unusual at the time since most Hong Kong graduate doctors went to the United Kingdom for further training. After all we were then a British Colony, the Medical School was led by Brits, and the UK was even described by elites as “the homeland”!
However, American TV was much more exciting than British ones. Every Friday night the resident trainees loved to watch the TV series Untouchables, describing vicious Chicago gang warfare in bloody detail. Blood and guts wins over British manners!
Are you really going there? Once my friends learned I was going to Chicago, they mercilessly needled me. “You’re going to Chicago? They kill people all the time! They use machine guns! The schools are like ‘Blackboard Jungle’ (the movie that had just come out)!” And everyone had seen American westerns with lots of bang-bang-you’re-dead scenes. America was not a mystery, but a very dangerous place which I was going to!
How long is a honeymoon? You might have heard an old Biblical instruction for newlyweds to have a one year honeymoon. At least the husband should not be sent to war in that year!
We were married on a Sunday in Hong Kong, and left on the following Saturday, for our pretty wonderful “20 day honeymoon” on the way to my residency training site. Flying and stopping in Taipei, Tokyo, Honolulu, San Francisco and Seattle, before landing on the really hard ground of Chicago! Was this the start of the honeymoon year? …
What war? Within a very short few days after landing, I received my draft board orders to report to the military! The Vietnam War was going on (did I even know that?), and doctors were needed, so I was instantly conscripted (1), likely to be sent back to Asia! That was quite a welcome, especially since I was still carrying my British passport. There had never been conscription in Hong Kong, and there was not even a Hong Kong Army (remember the Brits were in charge)!
There was a bit of quick comfort when I found out that I could join a military officer Berry Plan, which allowed a delay to finish my medical specialty training, but right after that, I would be assigned wherever needed! After all, there was a war going on. And I felt strangely patriotic in a new land. I duly reported to the Selective Service Board for physical examination, and was approved. So now I was in the US military!? I wasn’t sure whether I was fully excited or not.
Don’t argue with the draft? My wife and I were just adjusting to this new reality, when a new draft board order arrived. Surprise, it claimed I was actually now assigned to the lowest draft level! “After women and children,” I would tell people. Whatever the reason for reversal, I’m sorry I did not argue with them! I quickly got out of the Berry program to get back to “normal civilian life.”
Drafted for war, then not. It was poetically consistent with the bible principle of no war in the first marital year. Though I doubt that was the bureaucratic reason.
How often on call? I’m sure residency training is more or less similar all over the world. As the rookie, the new trainee, I was soon put on call, every other night. Starting from the bottom up! My poor new wife barely saw me. Honeymoon was an aspirational word.
And pretty soon I was sent to the infamous emergency room, dealing with big city gunshot wounds, rape and trauma, around the clock. It was Chicago at its best after all, highly ranked in violence scores!
Just like in the movies. A war zone essentially, so my Hong Kong friends were right. To top it off that year, we had the notorious race riots of Chicago, so it was all a baptism of fire indeed! In theology, baptism prepares you for a new better life, and so it was… But it was a long baptism. And I learned a lot of high drama medicine.
What’s the definition of a heinous crime? Close by to us there was a hospital with a nurses training program that included many Filipina nurses. Only 2 weeks into my training, Richard Speck, a drifter, systematically killed eight nurses overnight. By knife stabbing and strangulation. A shocking crime worse than gangland murders, definitely sealing my deep distorted impression of Chicago!
With all this as background, we reassured ourselves that we could always move to a safer place after my training. Freedom to move, a cherished American tradition! Of course we understood also that evil lurked everywhere, not just in Chicago, which really wasn’t that reassuring. And major hospitals were often in high crime zones.
Can you say it snows cats and dogs? We had never seen snow before, so we were fascinated when it arrived. It was storybook-like at first, a beautiful white blanket over the city. But that winter it came down in massive amounts just for our sake. At the time, it was the heaviest snowfall in Chicago history, 68 inches of snow and 180 inches of snow drifts! Enough snow for us, for a lifetime.
Chicago basically froze over. Even the expressways froze and stopped for 3 days. Helicopters brought in patients. And I couldn’t go home, even though it was only a few blocks away! But we survived. A good story to tell…
What can go wrong with a normal baby delivery? To complicate an already complicated resident doctor’s family life, our first child was born in the middle of all this. And to everyone’s puzzlement, my wife became paralyzed in her lower limbs! None of the doctors could figure out what was happening.
Thank God, a wonderful Chinese Church couple, the Chinns, invited us to stay with them for a month while my wife’s legs recovered. By living with them, we also learned a lot about normal American life, so we were doubly blessed. Otherwise, I cannot imagine how we survived.
Only years later, we found out that the paralysis was likely a complication of spinal anesthesia for the delivery. Seems like that would be an easy diagnosis nowadays, but for some reason the doctors then did not understand what happened. They even thought, without precedence, that it was related to my wife’s inherited anemia! At least it was a reminder that even a normal modern delivery might go awry.
Was my drastic weight loss to be expected? In the middle of all these disastrous events it seemed unsurprising that I was losing a lot of weight. In fact for my small size, losing 20 pounds was highly significant.
As I was trying to start an intravenous treatment for a premature baby, I found my hands shaking, making it impossible to insert the minute needle into the micro-vein. I went to see my internist: when I walked into his office, one look at me, and he said “thyrotoxicosis”, or overactive thyroid.
Sure enough, that it was. And it was the best thing that happened, since he insisted on putting me in the hospital ward to gain weight. He insisted on giving me five meals a day and bed rest for two weeks to cure me.
It’s not something I think we would do today, but it was fantastic for me since it was the only time I really rested during my 3 years of training. And I had rare time to read many neonatal medicine papers and books, which gave me great ideas for my budding clinical and research interests! Good came from bad… again.
Is it safe to walk on a USA freeway off-ramp? One night, it was baking hot 115 degrees F at Redlands University in Southern California. My brother Freddy, six years younger than me, was trying to escape his college dorm heat by walking outdoors. Apparently he wandered accidentally onto a nearby exit ramp, past midnight.
A car spun off from the San Bernardino freeway at 80 miles per hour, killing him instantly. I went over to the accident scene and even met the driver. It was one of the saddest moments of my life, and the saddest certainly for my parents.
My brother was an affectionate and sensitive musician. The family had great hopes for his artistic future. But in retrospect, when I was in high school in Hong Kong, it seemed every year we had a memorial for a school graduate who died in the US, often on its freeways. So there was always an implied danger somehow for students going overseas. Even without going to war! It was a stark reminder also that we are all mortal, even at age 22…
Now wasn’t that a tumultuous welcome? We certainly thought it was. Tumultuous Chicago, land of the Untouchables, shook us up. Face to face with the raw realities of real life. We were certainly not untouchable.
Quite the contrary, we felt increasingly touched to respond better to life’s harshness, and to the lives of others. We became more “touchable”, more sensitive to God’s hovering over us, especially over our very long “honeymoon year”. Welcome to life in America!
⦁ I was classified as an American citizen at birth, because of my Seattle born mother. But technically, because I was past the age I “should have returned,” when I landed in Chicago, I was considered an immigrant, a “green card holder”. But unknown to me, a change of law happened, and I was soon re-recognized and re-classified as citizen through birth again. In either case, however, I was draft eligible! See “Where are you from” on reggietales.org.
Coffee Reggiegram: what’s your response to wave on wave of challenging “welcomes”?
Do you ask “why me” , or do you keep getting stronger?