I was a naïve 1st year medical officer still at the infantile phase of my career. It was 18 years ago in a District Hospital in Sabah. Prior to that, I had just completed the last 3 months of my internship in Paediatrics at Penang Hospital.

On reporting for work, I still remember the Hospital Director telling me, “Since you have just completed your internship training in paediatrics, please take care of the paediatric wards”. Reluctantly, I agreed. Those days, there was only one paediatrician in the whole state of Sabah based 600km away in Kota Kinabalu! In that Hospital, the General Physician was responsible for the paediatric patients.

The first day, I walked into the general paediatric ward and my eyes nearly popped out. There were 20 beds with kids and their mothers cramped together in space suitable for 10 beds. Another 25 kids were in the isolation ward.

And only one medical officer to care for all of them i.e. yours truly!

I was extremely apprehensive to carry out such a humongous task! Although I was aware that there was a shortage of doctors, this was not the scenario I expected.

When the Physician came for his rounds I was temporarily relieved thinking there is some sort of backup for me.

However, he came smiling and asked, “So, you like paediatrics?” I instantly replied, “NO. I hate paediatrics!”

He coolly replied “I don’t like paediatrics either”, and walked off to settle some adult patients first. It’s stressful!

The next three months were laborious and I was relieved to complete my 3 months rotation before moving on to the Medical ward.

However, one afternoon, I was covering for my colleague who was in charge of the paediatric wards. He was exhausted from his previous on-call duty.

Shortly after taking over, I received a call from the paediatric ward nurse that there was an ill 2-year-old boy just admitted with pneumonia. I went over to attend to the child.

When I saw the child, he was in significant respiratory distress with evidence of right pleural effusion which was confirmed by chest radiograph.

Being young and feeling indispensable (90% of doctors posted to East Malaysia would appeal against going there), I arrogantly scolded the father for bringing the child late to hospital without giving him a chance to explain. (Retrospectively, I found out that the father is a cocoa plantation worker earning RM7.50/day, living 95km away from the nearest hospital and had already visited 2 doctors earlier).

I quickly inserted a chest tube to drain the collection which turned out to be empyema thorax. As the child looked very ill, I transferred him to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) for closer observation.

The next day my colleague informed that the child was better and he was back in the general paediatric ward.

About 3 weeks later, at around 9am as I was rushing out from my medical ward (which is at a different level than the paediatric ward) to go to the ICU, I saw the father standing outside the medical ward and was approaching me. As I had unreasonably scolded him, I could still recognise him! However, since I was rushing to ICU, I didn’t stop.

That evening, at about 5.30pm as I was coming out to go home, the boy’s father was standing outside the ward again. I stopped and asked about his son.

“Dia sudah baik doktor. Sudah boleh pulang (He is well, doctor. He can go home),” he replied.

“Bila doktor bagi pulang? (When did the doctor discharge your son?)” I asked.

“Pagi tadi bah (This morning),” he promptly replied“Jadi kenapa kamu tak balik lagi? (So,why haven’t you gone home)!” I asked curiously.

“Oh…, nak ucap terima kasih pada kamu pasal tolong anak aku (Oh, I want to thank you for helping my child),” was his humble reply.

I was speechless.

This was the man whom I arrogantly scolded on admission and never apologised.

Here was a gentleman who lives 95km away, and the last bus home would have left at 5.30pm.

Here was a poor gentleman who is willing to allow his 2 year-old boy who had just recovered from a life threatening illness to sleep on the hospital bench overnight. The next bus home was the following morning.

Here was a great soul who waited almost 9 hours just to say thank you for something that I don’t deserve.

I was baffled and could only utter some meaningless word ‘Jaga anak baik-baik (take good care of you child)” and walked away to my 90cc motorbike.

As I reached my rented bungalow (paid for by Ministry of Health), I decided I like paediatrics after all and will make paediatrics my life-long career. Four years later, I took up postgraduate training to become a paediatrician.

That was the most meaningful ‘Thank you’ I have ever heard in my life.

Rich patients send you expensive bouquets of flowers.

You admire them for a day or two and then they wilt away.

That poor father said a simple ‘Thank You’, changed my career path and left an ever-lasting memory.

Thiyagar Nadarajaw