Edwin Smith – Ordinary Beauty

Disclaimer: This is my personal account of my visit to one of RIBA’s photography exhibition, which inspired me in many levels. I would like to apologise if I had some facts wrong, and please advise me on them if you found them.

I had a great opportunity to attend a photography exhibition titled Ordinary Beauty at Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) near Regent’s Park in London recently. It displayed the works of an architect, painter and photographer, Edwin Smith.

Edwin Smith (1912-1971) lived in Britain around the second world war. He trained as an architect, but grew fond of painting, and had an interest to photography. He started off photographing everyday objects and sceneries, and that interest became a passion.

He amazed me as he not only turned daily activities into beautiful pictures, he was also able to promote conservation of ruined buildings post-world war. He went around Britain capturing beautiful images of the damaged, and the left-over undamaged areas of the buildings, and managed to convince the government and the people to start rebuilding instead of demolishing them.

In addition to inspiring me with beautiful images of ordinary lives, to the point of almost crying in joy, it gave me a few points that I could take home. It encouraged me to continue exploring and trying new things with my camera. The pictures and storied told me that I am, indeed, in the right direction, which made me really happy.

(1) Most of the photos, coming from that era, were black and white. He did try some colour photography, but he did not like the results.

Personally, I have tried black and white, but never really practiced with it, neither have I read up about it. It’s not like I’ve never seen nice black and white photographs. A good friend of mine shot some portraits in black and white, and they were beautiful!

Maybe I should try those out one of these days. My sister and I did actually plan for a black and white photo shoot but we have not managed to do it yet.

(2) Since I have been in the UK within two weeks prior to visiting the exhibition, I tried to photograph old buildings wherever I went. The weather was often good enough that there were bright sunlight with almost-clear blue skies. At times, it was too cloudy.
Many of the buildings are situated along narrow lanes, so shadows is a problem. It is hard to get a clear image of the darker areas without over-exposing the sun-shone areas. It is also not easy to under-expose the dramatic dark clouds without making the buildings too dark that we can’t see any details of the old architecture.

Edwin Smith showed me that it is possible to do both – capturing the effects of those cloudy skies towards the general appearance of the area or the buildings. He also made it possible to use the shadows to our benefits.

Anyway, what is Britain without its clouds?

(3) What if I tell you that you could feel the emotions of the photographer through the pictures that he shot? The awe, the amazement, the curiosity, the excitement or even the fear, could be felt through the images. It could be a photo of an entrance to a church or hall, the lights that go through those doors, or the vast landscape of a country, or the group of people crowding around a roadside stall, the groom looking at his bride walking towards him, or the heat of a war zone.
It could be a planned shot, or something impromptu that the photographer said, “hey, that’s nice!” and immediately shot the image.

That was how I felt when I look at beautiful pictures, and I felt it when I was in the exhibition hall, looking through the photos, one by one. I smiled a lot of times, and there was once, I almost cried.

I do find that the photos that I took, the product would match my mood during that particular time.

(4) There’s something special about capturing daily activities of different people. Mr Smith has photographed kids running in the alleyways, children sitting in front of their house having a chat before running again to their next game, people working in a restaurant, a woman hanging her laundry on a windy day, or people rushing to catch their trains in the train station.

It gives a sense of familiarity, fondness and even sweet memories to those seeing the images.

(5) As an architect, he has particular appreciation for buildings. This love for structures, with the human nature of wanting to leave a legacy, made him work for a cause: conservation of ruins post world war. He managed to save many buildings from demolition by his campaign, carried out, in particular, with his photos. Although some buildings were not salvageable, many were preserved and rebuilt, retaining the Britishness of the country.

It proves that if we do something with all our hearts and minds, for the greater good of the people, the product of our labour would be incomparable.
* * *

I made this visit to RIBA on my day of departure back to Malaysia. I did not have much time, as I left home quite late. As much as I enjoyed it, I wish I was there earlier and longer.

It was an entirely inspiring exhibition. It made me strive to do more with regards to photography. It is a lovely feeling when you found that you’re doing something parallel to someone exceptional like this, although, of course, personally I have so much to learn still.

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Do No Harm by Henry Marsh

This is the second book that made me tear up with joy, amazement and understanding by just reading the preface.

The first is “The Quranic Phenomenon” by a German engineer named Bennabi. I have yet to finish that book as it’s very deep and I could only properly digest a page or two at a time. I would love to make a review of that book when I’ve finished it. I’ll need to make some notes about that amazing book, even more so after knowing about how the book came into production. It is a book laboured with faith and passion, therefore the product is almost out of this world.

Back to Do No Harm. I’ve only read three pages into this book (excluding the preface) after finishing Cecelia Ahern’s latest book. What I can say is, it gave me palpitations (imagine being the patient AND the surgeon) and reminded me of those days spent with the inspiring neurosurgeon in HKL, Mr Azmi.

I wanted to say just that for the time being. Since I’m done with exams (for the time being), I shall read the above two books in parallel. “The Quranic Phenomenon” needs to be studied with a dictionary and a notebook, perhaps on the table, and “Do No Harm” could probably be read as bedtime stories.

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November

Here I am in this unfamiliar place, yet I could feel the presence of two persons that I miss quite a lot; one more than the other.

You, and you.

Both of you were born only two days apart in November. To be exact, 14 years and two days. There are things that both of you could have a conversation about with each other, and visit certain places together without having to worry about boring each other out.

You, with whom I held hands while walking along River Thames last year. It was with you that I spent days of smiles, laughter or even a bit of anger. You were, and are still, the person who could understand exactly what I feel, without me having to say a single word.

We dragged those heavy bags together, up and down the trains and their stations deep underground. It was with you that I had such a harrowing experience of riding a crowded elevator, 11 floors deep into the earth. It was you whom I waited for, while you were going around Tate Modern, understanding things that I could only half appreciate.

It was you who were annoyed with my fear of dogs. Yes, I do find them adorable but I just don’t like their fangs and bark. I’m sorry.

We walked around from sun rise until it’s pitch black. We ate whenever we felt like it, and that is not very frequent. Even a snickers bar would do for lunch.

It was a trip that I did not regret even a second of it. When you left home, I felt thankful that we spent all those days together, because I don’t know when would be the next best time for us to go for such a trip again.

It was because of you that I asked him all about London and Edinburgh and where should you visit to encourage your already profound love for all things beautiful.

And you.

Even up to this moment, I could not understand why you were so important in my life. It came as a surprise for me when I realise it. You came in my life for such a short period of time but I guess you don’t know how much you meant to me. I doubt you will ever know it.

Here I am, arriving on a gloomy day, in this city with its red- (and grey-) bricked old buildings and narrow one-way streets. I wondered what I should do here, where should I go first. It’s not like I did not make a plan, but since reaching this place, I did not feel like doing anything at all.

You see, before coming over, before even deciding on where to go after the exams, I contemplated on asking you about this place. I knew, many other people have come to this place. They could have told me what to do, but most of them said, “there’s nothing there, go somewhere else.” The city intrigued me so I decided to come anyway.

Unlike the rest, I knew you would not say “there’s nothing to see.” I knew the traveller in you would have listed down a few places for me to visit and things that I could perhaps appreciate. I knew you would have encouraged me to go and explore this old city. Anyway it was you who wanted to be a travel journalist, while I dreamt of being a travel photographer.

It could have worked but it just won’t.

I decided not to ask you. In fact I have lost your phone number. Well, actually I did not lose your phone number. I changed to a new phone and your number is in my battered Blackberry. Because of our circumstances, I thought that it’s better for me to just leave it like that.

Now the dreamy part of me regretted not getting your opinion.
The rational part of me said it’s better for me to do this on my own.

* * *
I know you miss me as much as I miss you, and I know you wish to be here with me as much as I wish you were here.

And you, I don’t think I ever crossed your mind anymore, especially not these days. But it’s ok. Wherever you might be, whatever you might be doing at this moment, I hope you are well and happy.

* * *

“I know it’s hard to remember the people we used to be,
It’s even harder to picture that you’re not here next to me,
You said it’s too late to make it,
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Grand

I was sitting alone at Central Station sipping my cappuccino slowly when I saw an elderly man holding a pink back pack on one hand, and the other hand holding his granddaughter’s hand. She’s probably about five year old. They seemed to be waiting for someone. His face was soft and gentle, as if holding her hand is something that gives him the most peaceful feeling in his life.

I can’t help but shed a tear.

Well, I actually cried in the end, one hand holding my paper cup, another hand trying to wipe all the tears that fell.

I looked at this man wondering how much love has bound him and his granddaughter, how much time spent together, and whether the girl would have ran to him for all the things that made her cry, laugh or jump with joy.

Doing what I do, I see many elderly people who became unwell quite suddenly, and before you know it, they leave this world. So I can’t help but wonder, how much time together do they have left.

Will this girl be mature enough to understand, when one day her grandpa has to leave? Or will he be lucky enough to be alive and well to see her grow up, graduate or even get married? Will he always be the one she turns to when she has doubts about herself or about life?

* * *

I have seen so many elderly cancer patients come and go throughout my career, some I remember more than the others. I have spoken to them as if they were my own grandparents. I had joy sitting with them over the weekends while they shared their life stories. It gave me peace to see families coming together to care for their loved ones, even more when they are old and frail.

There’s something about these grandparents that warms me up inside, but I can’t really tell what it is. Perhaps it’s from their stories. Perhaps it’s the years of experience that has soften them up.

Or maybe they just reminded me of my own grandparents, whom I love and miss to no end.

Just Some Thoughts on Photography

I may have said this before, but I’m going to talk about this again.

I have always wanted to be able to capture nice photographs. When I was young, I loved to browse through Malaysia Airline’s in-flight magazine, Going Places, and be amazed by the wonderful photographs in there. I was also awed by those travel and nature photos in National Geography magazines that my uncle used to subscribe.

I did wonder whether I will ever be able to capture those kinds of inspiring images.

Well, probably not award-winning but I certainly do have the chance now.

Looking at those awesome photos is like looking at the world through the photographer’s eyes. The thing about travel photography is being able to feel the energy, excitement and curiosity of the photographer. You could almost feel the warmth, the noise, the cold, the wind, or even the smell of those places they visit.

Being able to photograph means being able to show the world our own feelings. It shows the world the kind of mesmerising beauty we see, the heights of energy surrounding us, and even the kind of love and contentment that we feel deep inside us.

I’m not a professional photographer. I did not even go to classes (I plan to, one day). It’s all from my sister’s trial and error and she taught me (she’s a GREAT teacher!!!), or my own trial and error, reading the manual, reading photography books and some magazines. My best friend bought me a book on nature photography for birthday present a few years back, and even though I have yet to finish reading it, it IS very useful.

The best teacher is actually being absorbed by the ambiance, the love, the energy that I’m in, to lose myself in the emotions, be invisible, and start capturing. With some basic knowledge, that is the way I could think of some new techniques (new for me, but perhaps others do it all the time).

* * *

It has been almost four years since my sister bought our DSLR, and looking at our photos, our father bought a second lens during my sister’s birthday: the ever amazing macro lens. It is particularly useful for the types of photos we usually take: flowers, insects and portraits.

I have my own collection of favourite photos; those moments of love, joy or simply mesmerising beauty. They are:

KL Performance Art Open Day – colours of arts and culture
My aunt’s Hari Raya open house
Those beautiful flowers around our house
Those beautiful flowers in Fraser’s Hill
My cousin’s engagement day, and wedding day too
Hari Raya barbeque and gathering when my aunt and her family were back from Auckland
Adzrul’s wedding day
Ahmad Sharif’s wedding day (because his cousin, Ihab loved it so much!)
Movements – photos of trains, cars and buses during busy London (and Edinburgh) winter evenings

The latest favourite is of the pretty flowers in King’s College, London.

Here you are:

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Tough Love

“Show gentleness, for if gentleness is found in anything, it beautifies it and when it is taken out from anything it damages it.”

* * *

A colleague of mine told me before, that he believed gentle reminders don’t work, at least not for Asians. He said Asians need scolding, being shouted at, for things to work, for advice to be heard or followed.

I disagreed. Although to be honest, I had those thoughts before, up to a certain extent. I don’t believe in that anymore, especially after hearing the above quote.

* * *

You see, I’m sitting for a specialist exam next week. The assessment includes seeing us communicate with the patients and/or their loved ones; the ill, the sad, the angry, the anxious; and they carry quite significant marks. Many of us from around the world are sitting for the exam, including Asians like us.

I attended a course within the last four days on how to pass this exam with flying colours. We were given scenarios and acted out as if it is the real exams, and more importantly, as if we were seeing the patients in our daily work. The exam is there to make sure that, on top of making the correct diagnosis and treatment, we communicate, educate the patient as best as we could and with the best manner.

In summary, good manners is expected, not only in the exams, but in our daily practice too.

We had the chance to see how the Brits speak to those around them, ie, the doctors and coordinators of the course speak to each other and to the wonderful patients and actors who came to help out in the course. It was all smiles and respect. They treated us very well and gave us positive feedbacks.

When they needed to give criticism, it was done in such a constructive way that we did not feel like we were put on the spot, picked on or judged. It felt like it was done purely to improve our skills and manners.

The last time I studied in hospitals on this side of the world was 10 years ago, and their good manners have not changed.

It was all good, until a senior doctor of an Asian descent took us for a round of teaching.

At first I thought, after all the years of working with the British, their manners still failed to rub on this person. Then we noticed that this person was only being rough and stern to fellow Asians, and very nice and sweet to the whites.

The first thought that came to our minds was, “racist.”

But perhaps it was not racism. Maybe this person had the same thoughts that my above colleague had, that Asians need to be scolded for us to learn. In short, maybe this person thought we needed “tough love.”

No, we don’t.

I believe we are all human beings, we have the same instincts, the same nature, at least deep inside our hearts. Our hearts respond to gentleness the same way, whether one is white or black, Asian or Latin. Our hearts do not know colour.

Of course there are exceptions. This is just my guess, but I think those who do not respond positively probably have major issues, psychologically or even with their physical health.

My aunt moved overseas more than ten years ago. Her son was such a naughty little boy (I guess it’s just like an average energetic and smart boy) that she had such a headache raising him up. He got scolded for many things, by many concerned family members.

At one point of time, my aunt read up about other options of bringing up such an active and smart child. Then she discovered that gentle persistence is the way to go. There are other ways to spare the rod without spoiling the child.

True enough, it worked.

He grew up to be such a fine teenager who is polite and gentle. He loves and respects his parents and would do anything for them. How often do you see such a 16-year-old boy? My grandmother would have been really happy to see him the way he is now.

Another aunt of mine had four very active boys, before giving birth to another three beautiful girls (consecutively). As with any other kids, there were problems with each of them, but what I saw was only her gentleness and patience with them. They grew up to become fine and respectable young men.

I was on the train the other day when I thought about it. If gentleness and beauty comes hand in hand, why is our people so rough to each other? Why do many believe that scolding and shouting is the only way to get our message across? Why are there still “tiger mothers” amongst us Asians? What are we worried about?

Maybe some people have never had others speaking gently to them. Maybe they have never experienced someone being soft and tender with them. Maybe our people is too poor, so much in a rush to make more money that we did not have time to sit down and look at someone into the eyes and give good advice.

Maybe we think that the time we have is so precious that we would rather shout to make sure our daily chores run quickly and smoothly, rather than sitting down and patiently explaining about why certain things need to be done in a certain way.

Maybe we truly believe that being harsh and rough is the only way forward, so when we do speak gently, we do it half-heartedly, not believing that it is effective.

A lot of maybes, yes. Maybe none of it is true. We would not know the real answer unless a proper study is done on this.

Educating, communicating our messages and advice are things that need to be done with patience. With patience come gentleness. People need to know that they are doing something for a good reason, not because “takut kena marah” (worried they will get scolded), be it children or adults, students or patients. It is an art that needs to be learnt and mastered, so that this world will be a more beautiful place.

* * *

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the Westerners are all kind and gentle or Asians are all rough. We all have good things that we could learn from each other. That’s why we were created physically and culturally different.

* * *

The quote I put at the beginning of this article came from the most gentle of man that has ever lived in this world, our beloved Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him).

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A Letter From Hell

I don’t know why I’m spending this precious Saturday morning writing this letter to a naive junior colleague who is currently working a few thousand miles away from this hell. Perhaps I feel obliged to tell him, or whoever feels that this is worth reading, what this so-called “system from hell” has made us what we are now.

First I have to say, I may have written this post:

https://mariakamalmilatu.wordpress.com/2013/09/21/what-the-public-doesnt-know/

…which may have sounded like just a bunch of complains to some of the readers, feeling that probably I (and many other doctors around me) have lost our integrity, our honesty, to serve the people.

But then, I also wrote this:

https://mariakamalmilatu.wordpress.com/2014/03/02/a-day-in-a-doctors-life-in-remembrance-of-allah-swt/

…because as Muslims, we have our purpose in life, and we need to remind ourselves about it every once and then. It is with this remembrance that we could get back our spirit and motivation to go through fulfilling our responsibilities as true Muslim doctors.

You see, adik, I am, like, you, an overseas graduate. My name is followed by MB BCh BAO (Ire), and I hope, soon it will be followed by MRCP (UK). Not yet, but striving for it. I took a loan from the government and guess what, I’m still paying for it. I could have worked overseas as I am not totally bounded, but I chose “hell” instead. I am also paying for my exam cost in British pounds, with my own hard-earned ringgit.

Is this truly a hell, though?

Those were our thoughts before we start housemanship. We were scared by our seniors who decided to stay back overseas because they heard it is hell here. They have never worked here, so how would they know?

Of course, it was not entirely wrong, but neither was it entirely true!

Yes, all of us wished for shorter working hours. All of us wished that we could go home the morning after being on call. All of us wished we had shift system. We all know how working overnight affects us, we have experienced it, we have tried to do something about it, and things have improved, you see.

You may have noticed that culturally, Malaysian and British are different. I am sad to say that we are more manipulative and cunning in a lot of ways, hence ANY system at all would not be perfect if we aren’t good INSIDE.

If you are responsible, any system is good.

But if you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth, brought up having had everything you ever wanted given to you at your doorstep, you would probably grow up thinking that the system should change you. You would end up believing that a perfect system is the only way to cater a good healthcare.

That’s where you’re wrong, adik.

I have to admit, we have all felt frustrated before. Those who have worked in university hospitals would feel frustrated with the lack of service they could offer in a district hospital. Those who started working in a first world country would feel deeply frustrated that the system is not as “perfect” as it was back there in those cold (and wet) countries. Even for myself, who have only worked in two specialist hospitals, have felt some frustration about the service that we have.

Now THAT lack of service bred different kinds of doctors we have in this country.

Some stay back passively and just go with the flow.
Some work hard to spark a change and make the world a better place for patients and healthcare workers alike.
Some quit their jobs to look for greener pastures.

Nobody is wrong in this sense, we all have our own lives and problems to think about.

Before I go any further, I would like to remind you that I’m not saying we should not improve. I’m not saying that the system is unchangeable.

I’m talking about what we should do while change is happening.

I don’t know whether you were a student paid by the government to study in the UK. If you were, then you were obliged to come back and serve the people, like your other friends.

Do you know why you were sent overseas to study?

Or let me rephrase that. Do you know why studying overseas is actually good for you?

I’m sure you were blessed with some degree of intelligence, that you were accepted into a scholarship programme. With that intelligence, you were expected to learn from the mat sallehs and BRING BACK all those good things that you have learnt over there.

Studying overseas opens our eyes to a lot of possibilities, experience, discoveries, and teaches us to maturely appraise a system for the benefit of the patients. The British text books even taught us how to deal professionally with the juniors, with the nurses, with our senior colleagues. Have you come across those texts yet?

So instead of loudly wanting to slap the senior doctors over here, why not do it the mat salleh way? Talk it out in a professional manner, discuss the ways to improve working conditions, and help out each other so that better healthcare is delivered.

You see, adik, a good healthcare is not just about better working hours or conditions. It is up to you, deep inside, to serve your people in the best way that you ever could.

We were blessed with good grades in school, and to some, it signifies intelligence. But for me, intelligence does not mean a thing if we expected to be served by a “system from paradise”, rather than trying our best to help the people, with whatever we have in hand.

There are people on the top level who can’t prioritise on which sector needs money the most. There are those who think more of entertainment than the health of their people. Sadly there is not much we could do at this particular moment to change their attitudes. Personally I think our best bet is by educating the younger generation to make decisions wisely and campaign against corruption.

What does that leave us with?

OURSELVES.

You probably have heard this quote before: “BE the change you want to see in this world.”

You have not worked here, so you have not met the various amazing consultants who work in government hospitals. You have not met those who have served decades in this “hell of a system” and made a difference wherever they go. You have not met those soft spoken gentlemen, those hardworking ladies, who lead their departments and made the most out of the little budget given by the government.

You have not met those who actually go out of their way to train themselves overseas with their own hard earned money, and come back to be a better surgeon.

Even the not-so-senior ones like me and my colleagues, we are trying to train our juniors in the best way possible. We are trying to be more patient, despite the poor attitude shown by some of our juniors. We strive to be more professional, unlike those horror stories that you heard from here. Of course there ARE seniors who still speak unkindly to the juniors, letting out rude words, attacking personally rather than correcting someone in a proper way.

A good healthcare is not only provided by giving the best medications and equipments, from the freshest looking doctors who work 60 hours per week. Obviously, that would be really great, I would welcome that with open arms and a happy heart.

There is so much more to job satisfaction than just working hours or conditions. It is also about seeing that smile from them after we have tried our best to improve their health, about sitting and talking to them about what has happened in their lives that made them stop caring for their own health, it’s about empowering the patients to get up and work hard for a better life.

It’s also about talking to the loved ones when the worst is coming, preparing them, getting them to come together, make peace with each other and say their final goodbye, or even encouraging them to write their wills, so that when the end is reached, there is no more guilt.

You could work in any perfect system, but still be unhappy and frustrated, as proven by many horror stories that we could hear from the UK.

Or we could work in a seemingly imperfect place, but still be happy and satisfied because we know that we have done to the best of our abilities to help those in need.

In the end, it all comes from within.