Prior to his retirement, Kong Kwai Thong was a “little doctor” at the Valley of Hope. He was what they call, a dresser, someone who assists doctors in bandaging and dressing wounds. He has been a dresser at the hospital all his life, although he had neither the medical qualification nor any kind of training. In an old photograph, he had his hair slicked back, dressed in white, with a grave yet dignified expression on his face. Therefore, one can imagine what an imposing figure he must have been in the hospital back in those days.
Unfortunately, leprosy took one of his legs. Time, too, has worn out his vigour. With a partial loss of hearing and a prosthetic left leg, the 91-year-old Kong Kwai Thong now stays in the male ward. Most of the time, he would either sit idly in a wheelchair all alone, or while away his time with a cigarette. Although smoking is not allowed in the hospital, he always has a way of obtaining cigarettes. He usually has a big carton of cigarettes on his wheelchair and a second larger carton hidden in a wooden cabinet.
Kong Kwai Thong is from Taiping, Perak. When he was 10, his family rushed him to the Taiping Hospital when his nose reddened and his ears swelled. After spending a week in the hospital, police officers sent him off to the Valley of Hope, where he lives for the rest of his life. And that was a parting for good. For all these years, his parents had never visited him. His eldest brother visited him once but never made another visit ever since.
He was admitted to the children’s ward upon arrival. He recalled receiving no special care from anyone and he had to do his own laundry. After he graduated from the Travers School, which was located within the settlement, at the age of 15, he was appointed a “dresser” in the hospital wards, where he helped dress patients’ wounds, administer injections, make their beds, and so on. He said that a dresser had to do basically everything. Sometimes, he even has to assist doctors when they perform leg amputations in the operating room.
Later, nurses at the hospital were required to pass examinations in order to become qualified for giving injections. Yet, having served as a “little doctor” since the 1940s, Kong Kwai Thong could give injections without any formal training or examinations. This indicates that, at that time, the leprosarium was seriously understaffed and run without a proper staff grading system.
“Nobody taught me. I just picked it up by observing others,” he said when inquired of who taught him to dress wounds and administer injections. His answer was hardly a complete sentence, just a few words to each question. Perhaps, it was his age and poor hearing, he seemed lethargic and did not speak much.
He remembered that there were two types of injections – sulphone to treat leprosy and Imferon that worked as a nutritional supplement for patients.
At the beginning, Kong’s monthly allowance was only 2 dollars. The amount then rose to 3 dollars during the Japanese occupation. Later, when the British rule resumed, his allowance gradually increased to 7, 9 and then to more than10 dollars. Since inmate workers are not considered public servants, they are not entitled to any pension. However, thanks to Deputy Director Dr Lim Kuan Joo’s efforts, the government agreed to continue the payment of allowance for inmate workers for as long as they live. So, Kong Kwai Thong is still receiving a monthly allowance of RM100 now.
Inmate workers only had one day off every week. Every day when he got home after work, he would do some gardening by his chalet and earn some extra income by selling flowers. Before his leg was amputated, he lived in a chalet together with a female inmate. The two of them had an adopted daughter though they were never lawfully wedded. However, the woman moved out of the settlement with their adopted daughter later on and thus he became a bachelor again.
Kong has seen many serious cases, took care of countless ulcerating legs, and even witnessed doctors performing lower-limb amputation for patients. He was an able-bodied man at that time. Little did he know that one day, he himself would have to lie on an operating table and undergo an amputation.
When inquired of his leg amputation, he said, rather indifferently, that he had suffered a persistent leg ulcer and the condition did not improve despite the treatments given by the doctor. So, he had no choice but to ask the doctor to amputate that limb for him. Ever since he lost his left leg, he had to be fitted with a prosthetic limb and rely on a wheelchair to get around, and thereafter be admitted to the hospital ward.
Kong left home when he was 10 and has made the hospital his home ever since. Pouring all his passion into his career, he has never thought of leaving in order to get a glimpse of the outside world. For all these years, he said he only went out of the settlement once in his forties to visit his elderly mother, and an elder brother, not more than two years older, in his hometown in Taiping. For someone who has been living in the Valley of Hope for more than eight decades, this Arcadian place meant the whole world to him.
Having spent most of his life working at the hospital, he has seen countless joys, sorrows, farewells and partings by death. Curiously, destiny has brought him back to the hospital ward in his old age, only this time he was a patient, instead of The Dresser.
Narrated by Kong Kwai Thong
Interviewed by Chan Wei See & Wong San San
Written by Chan Wei See
Translated by Zoe Chan Yi En
Edited by Low Sue San