Dr. Than Naing Oo : Memoirs of Twenty Padauk Blooms Past

Thingyan celebration in Yangon

Image via Wikipedia

An article Dr. Than Naing Oo (IM1, 1987) wrote in 2007 that was published in Annals of AMIM and was posted in FB before too. Just adding some photos.

Still, becoming a government employed doctor did not guarantee that you would get a chance for further study no matter how hardworking you were. Nepotism was rampant at the postgraduate selection committee. Many of my brilliant sayas (young demonstrators) in various medical school departments were bypassed in favor of children of the big shots during the selection process.

Those days, if you had wanted to receive further professional training, you had to join the government civil service. No other alternative was present. Neither private hospitals nor private channels of leaving for further study were available then. Otherwise you remain forever as a GP practicing injection Vit B12 and penicillin to most of your patients. In a GP practice, all diagnoses were guess works with no lab support nor sound scientific reasoning behind. But even then life as a GP was not easy. Due to the presence of so many GP clinics, you couldn’t make a living in the big cities. You would have had to practice in the districts or villages.

But joining the government service was not easy either even if you had wanted to. Out of the annual out put of 550 doctors, only about 50-60 were selected. You either had to bribe the officials from the Public Service Commission (PSC) or be very brilliant or be the favorite sons to get a government job.

Still, becoming a government employed doctor did not guarantee that you would get a chance for further study no matter how hardworking you were. Nepotism was rampant at the postgraduate selection committee. Many of my brilliant sayas (young demonstrators) in various medical school departments were bypassed in favor of children of the big shots during the selection process.

An average guy like me would have stood no chance. Most likely, I would end up as an SMO (Station Medical Officer) in a village and would have become a TMO (Township Medical Officer) at the most in my life. Also overseas post graduate exams seemed extremely tough.

Memoirs of Twenty Padauk Blooms Past

Than Naing Oo, IM1, 1987 

It is said that lunatics act up most on the full moon nights. Or the sight of the water makes a rabid dog goes more insane. If those are true, every year April must be the time I see water on a full moon night. Because that is the time I go crazy most from missing my motherland. The then at home, the fragrance of the yellow Padauk (Pterocarpus Indicus) blooms mixed with the fresh aroma of the rain soaked ground would be percolating in the air. The festive mood of the Thingyan (Water Festival) would be on everybody’s mind. Delightful Thingyan music, hilarious “Than-Gyats” (raps) and the enchanting dances of the damsels would be circulating around in every town and village.

The excitement was always there no matter whether you were a playful kid squirting a water gun, looking out for the arrival of the Sugar King Tha Gya Min (The Chief Fairy) or a love struck teenager longing to plant Padauk Pan ( bloom) on the girl you were having a crush on. My mood this year turned out to be the same as before. Is this an April fool’s incurable Thingyan fever? Am I a dreamer? Hope I am not the only one. But this year in particular, my heart yearns for home even more so since it is the twentieth anniversary of my becoming a doctor. Yes, I graduated from the Institute of Medicine (1), Rangoon, Burma, twenty Padauk Blossoms ago this time in 1987. Even though I was fortunate enough to be able to visit home every three to four years since I left the country eighteen years ago, never a time I had a chance to enjoy the Thingyans anymore or savored the fragrance of the Pan Padauk again. I dearly miss those days. 

If someone had told me in 1987 that twenty years later I will be settling in a middle of nowhere Midwestern US town of Battle Creek, working as a Nephrologist and had become a citizen of my new country, I would have laughed out loud at that individual’s face. How could it be? I knew nobody in USA or had relatives there like some of my Chinese friends. Plus with an existing policy of expatriates never

being allowed to come back to Burma? No way! At the most, I would have wanted to visit that country and perhaps England for a few years as a states-scholar but nothing more. But how wrong I was and at the same time how changed the circumstances were? And I was not alone in that regard. The path I walked was not that extraordinary. I think my story would easily reflect the journey my generation of Myanmar Medical School alumni had taken during the last twenty years. Never a time in our lives had such drastic changes taken place within a year or two after our graduation, forever changing the destinies of many of us. But I will have to relive through those phases and periods to be able to explain to you how those events had shaped our futures. Otherwise I don’t think you would understand. So may I? Would you care to take a ride with me in this nostalgic dream boat? Though I am the one telling the story, it really will be a journey of a generation. Think you will enjoy it. And thank you AMIM for giving me the opportunity to empty my heart out like this on your one year anniversary of establishment.

 

Also overseas post graduate exams seemed extremely tough. Even our Sayas with MSc under their belts in the respective fields often failed at those exams. For me to get a degree like MRCP would be only in my dreams under those circumstances. Many of my friends were feeling the same way too.

 

The country’s political situation did not seem too right either that summer. After 25 years of misguided socialism, the average citizen seemed to have had enough misery. Even though our seven years of university life (1979-1987) was free of demonstrations and strikes, it must have been the calm before the storm. Just about six months ago the government suddenly demonetized the K75 (Kyats) and K100 bank notes without any due compensation. Many became poor overnight. Inflation was rampant and unhappiness of the people could be sensed on the streets and in the tea shops. Socialism was quickly loosing its appeal. Its defects exaggerated by the corruption and the mismanagement of the BSPP government were rapidly being exposed. The more I thought of the future, the more depressed I became then. I felt lost and betrayed after so many years of hard work. Why did I not choose to become a seaman with a tenth grade education? Finally I gave up. I just decided to relax for the time being, to enjoy the Thingyan and start the housemanship fully rejuvenated on the 1st of May. At least I had one more year as a house surgeon before I had to plunge into the real world. I started focusing on organizing the friends who would be willing to pool money in renting an open top Thingyan jeep. After crunching the numbers, we found out that we pooled enough money to go round for one day only but not for all three days of the Thingyan. Still we had fun on that particular day. Army Rum kept us warm despite being bone soaked and the lunch at Kyat Hlar Soon Danpauk (Bryrani) was deliciously unforgettable.

 

“Achit Yay, nay lo ma kaung ye lar?” i.e. “Dear love, are you OK?” was the catchy phrase to greet the girls on the streets. It was a line from one of J.Maung Maung’s popular songs of the time. If we had found a hugging couple in a jeep, we would have yelled, “Nyi Ma Lay, don’t trust that dude next to you. He is married with three kids!”. If we passed by a jeep with older looking folks inside, we would have yelled “UncleGyi, why aren’t you at the monastery observing a Sabbath? The chief monk is looking for you with a cane in his hand”. Most of the jokes were not vulgar and meant in jest. Most people took it well. During the remaining days of the Thingyan we went to the BMA (Burmese Medical Association) water throwing station at Thein Phyu Road BMA office. It would be always crowded with popular and good looking members of the Rangoon medical community. Often a live rock band would be playing. A few drunken Sayas would sway to the tune in an indefinable dance moves. We were no players, just the onlookers then. One sad memory though. One year later from that Thingyan, we would have found out that one of our Thingyan gang members, Thet Khine Lin (aka Arafat) would be dead. Apparently from cerebral malaria in Kalaw where he did housemanship and was practicing. May our jolly friend Thet Khine Lin rest in a peaceful existence! Death did not discriminate according to age, I learnt first hand.

April 1987:

 

 

Whenever I think back of the summer of 87, Bryan Adam’s “Summer of 69” started to echo in my mind’s ear. It goes like this – “those days I was nothing, had little to prove and none to loose but eventually those turned out to be the best days of my life”. For those who had forgotten the roots, back at home summer meant March and April but not July and August like in the west. I had just passed my final part II MBBS exams then. The internship was to begin on 1st May 1987. One would have thought that I would be feeling a relief after years of hard labor and study.

 

But given the circumstances, it was just the exact opposite. I doubted I would even enjoy the forthcoming Thingyan despite having no exam aftermath like in the preceding seven years. Everything looked depressing in my life. All our lives, we were told that once you had become a doctor, your future is secured and you had made it. Well, it may had been 10-15 years ago, but not in our times. Where should I begin? At every level I felt trapped with no way out seen in the horizon. As an individual, I had not had a soul mate or a girl friend yet. The response from the one I was having a crush on wasn’t encouraging. As a bridegroom, an ordinary MBBS in 1987 didn’t fetch much respect from the prospective in-laws or the bride compared to a sailor from an overseas shipping line or an officer at the Custom’s department or a second lieutenant in the military. In my family, I am the eldest one with two younger sisters. My parents were teachers for the most of their lives and as expected, had accumulated no savings. Being non home owners all of our lives, we were staying in a government subsidized rental apartment. Having lived mostly in district (Maymyo) for the previous twenty years, we did not have good Rangoon connections. The marriage of my parents was also falling apart. As in many Asian cultures, I felt responsible for supporting the family being the eldest son. But the prospects as a newly minted doctor in our times were bleak. 

I was quickly loosing faith in the whole system and the so called family life and was disillusioned.

 Housemanship (May 1987-April 1988):

 We would be addressed as “U” or “Daw” for the first time in our lives and would be called as “Saya”. Otherwise my internship was pretty uneventful. Yes, we had a good time at the graduation ceremony and the graduation dinner half way through the internship. The medical school concert i.e. “Ah Nyeint” and the stage show were excellent. Drunk, stupid and jealous, many of us cursed and raised our sandals at poor Soe Thu while he was singing on the stage. I think he was in second MB then. Those days Soe Thu, Kyaw Thu and Yè Aung were the heart throb actors for the teen age girls. Among the artists, Soe Lwin Lwin, Htoo Aein Thin and Hay Mar Nay Win etc. would have been the most popular ones. But those of us who were in the early twenties considered ourselves a little more matured and preferred Sai Htee Saing and Khaing Htoo etc. Ha, ha, how funny in retrospect. I love the songs of both Soe Lwin Lwin and Htoo Aein Thin now. Bo Bo Han was an oldie for us then. As many of you may know, sadly our batch was the last year our medical school honored a traditional graduation dinner and a show for the newly graduates. With the subsequent 8888 affair, for many years to come, gathering of students were banned let alone a dinner night. A coming of age traditionfrom our alma mater was lost.

I elected to stay mostly in peripheral hospitals than the crowded RGH to get more hands on experience. Medicine was in WRGH under Sayagyi U Sein Oo and Surgery was in ERGH under Sayagyi U Tun San Maung. OG in Dufferin and Pediatrics in Sayagyi U Myo Min Aung’s ward, I believe M-2. During the housemanship, I started to learn about this PLAB (Professional and Linguistic Assessment Board) exam in the UK. Apparently if you can pass that bugger, GMC ( General Medical Council of England and Wales) registration and a job is definitely waiting for you earning about £1000 per month as a Senior House Officer (SHO). This was a fortune in Burmese standard let alone receiving a training at the same time. In 1987, at the black market rate, a US$ cost about K50 and a £ cost about K75. Of course the official exchange rate printed on the front page of Time Magazine Asia edition would have shown a US$ equaling K5.25. You could buy a Corolla sedan or a Mitsubishi Lancer for about K one lakh. A Publica pick-up truck would fetch about K90, 000. Those were the popular cars for the rich. Most new cars were imported by the sailors except the locally assembled Mazda Jeeps and Mazda B 600 cars. The cabinet members and the Politburo members of the Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP) drove the imported Mazda 929s and 323s. They were considered luxury items then.

But the hurdles remained insurmountable in trying to take on the PLAB. For a start, the average pass rate for Burmese graduates was only about 15-20%. Many had to leave UK as they could not clear the exam in the allowed two years time. Unlike in USA, you could not easily find alternative or illegal or under the table part-time employment with a PLAB (student) visa while studying for the exam. So you really needed a lot of money in your bank account. And it had to be in a foreign currency as BSPP government did not permit any official exchange of Burmese currency to a hard currency. The exam questions were both in Medicine and English. English portion seemed quite tough including essay writing, listening comprehension and a viva in addition to the usual multiple choice questions. Many failed that. Also it was very difficult to get an educational clearance from the Burmese government without which an official transcript (grading) would not be issued from the medical school. With no such transcript, you could not apply to sit for any type of overseas exams. To get an educational clearance, you must have been in the government service for a minimum of two years but there was no guarantee either that government would allow you to resign once you had joined them. So it was like the chicken and the egg.

But still, I felt like atleast I had discovered a little ray of hope compared to a year ago. I started to attend English tuitions and search for PLAB exam preparation materials. “A Manual of English for the Overseas Doctors” by Joy Parkinson was the first ever book I got. I was so unaccustomed to the western cultures and names that I thought the author was a man until I got to the UK and later learnt about her actual classes at the Southwark College where she taught English. The study material was scarce as not many people were going for PLAB then. Of course there was no internet to browse and download from. Everything came in the snail mail then. Finally I felt that I will just read the standard textbooks such as Davidson, Ten Teachers and Bailey and Love etc. to get a good foundation. I felt that once you had mastered the fundamental concepts, you could easily polish thing up in a short time when needed. I found that out to be true later. The political situation became even more so volatile that year. The whole country was tense and it was palpable. In March of 1988, a gathering of RIT students was brutally crushed by the riot police (Lon-Htain) killing a student by the name of Phone Maw. On 16 March 1988, another gathering of RASU students demonstrating against Phone Maw’s death was similarly crushed in a brutal way killing a few students at the “Tatar Phyu” i.e. “White Bridge” bus stand. It was on the Prome road next to the bank of Inya Lake. Later it was unofficially renamed as the “Red Bridge” and the event was known as the “White Bridge Affair”. All universities and colleges were shut down. Rumors of student leaders secretly organizing in districts with equally intensified vigilance of MI (Military Intelligence) service were rampant. Many were expecting that something big was yet to come.

We as house surgeons were paid about K300 per month which provided enough pocket money (allowance) for us. Of course all of us were still staying at our parents’ homes. Every month on the pay day, we would go out and had dinner at a restaurant. Sometimes, the AS in the hospital might ask you to go to his clinic as a relieving doctor paying you about K50 for the night. That was good money for us then. Than Soe (currently a consultant pediatrician in UK) and I picked up smoking to look cool. Fortunately that habit lasted only for a few months. We also started to learn about the tricks of the trade in General Practice (GP). In GP you can never turn away a patient by saying “There is nothing wrong with you”. To get repeat customers, you have to please a patient by treatments such as injecting Vit B12 without any medical indication, as long as patients asked for a “tonic”. During the OBGYN rotation, I skipped the call duty for 3-4 days and took a bus to Magway to court my future wife. She was a Magway native and was doing her housemanship in Magway General Hospital at that time. My buddy Aung Naing (currently a pulmonologist in Florida) covered my back during my absence reporting to duty for me. Once we had become house surgeons, we rarely met each other any more like in the school as many were spread out in different hospitals working in different shifts. One of my close friends Than Htut Aung (currently the owner of Eleven Media Publishing group in Burma) decided to go to Mandalay General Hospital as his parents lived in Mandalay. About twenty of us from IM-1 were sent to DSGH in Mingaladon. Many met their future life partners there among the IM-2 graduates. A few fell in love with nursing cadets in the DSGH or nursing students in the RGH. The only occasion the whole class met again was the graduation ceremony. The last hooray was the community medicine field trip to Hmawbi Township. And pretty soon the party was over just like that. Everybody started walking their own paths.

Life as a GP (May 1988 – November 1989):

Once the internship had completed, for a while I did not have anything to do for the first time in my life. No work and no need to study either. Fortunately that ended quickly for me. At that point I had already set a goal in my life even though I had no idea how the road map would be in the process of reaching it.

My dad’s input was crucial in making me set that target. I made up my mind that I would set up my GP clinic only in Rangoon but not in the districts. I had made up my mind that I would go for PLAB test at one point in my life and I would have to stay in Rangoon to prepare for that exam. I would have to be as prepared as I can be before leaving Burma so that I would not require long periods and large amount of funds abroad before passing the exam. But I had no idea how long it would be before I could leave for UK given the financial and logistic obstacles. On the other hand my career plan surprisingly did not start out that way at the beginning. At first, I told my parents that we needed money and I planned to go set up a clinic in a district. My dad did not agree to that idea. He gave himself as an example. He was a perfect victim of the system being a wrong person at the wrong time at the wrong place with a wrong qualification. He was an old Paulian and was smart enough to be chosen as a states scholar at the Inter-B year to be sent to America during the U Nu government era. He was to study Nuclear Engineering but nothing else as the country had plans to build a nuclear power reactor eventually. But he found himself unemployable on his return six years later as the government had changed and the nuclear plans were scrapped. He wished he had never returned to Burma or stepped out of it again right away then. Instead, as he needed money to support an elderly widowed mother, he had to take a teaching job as a Physics demonstrator in DSA where he was left forgotten for the next eighteen years.

Since he was never a formally trained Physicist, his career in the field of Physics did not progress much either. That is why he encouraged me to leave for abroad and get further study at any cost. He didn’t want me repeating his life saga in a trapped land even as a GP doctor. He never had a chance to be a real engineer in his life despite being trained as one. He told me to keep high aspirations. When I countered him at that time saying that, “Dad, you are daydreaming. You know that we have no money to afford such a scheme. We were living from pay check to paycheck for the last twenty five years. Besides, with the way we were trained in the BSPP era, I doubt I can pass those exams. At least that was what most people especially the old hand missionary school trained were telling me”.

He replied, “Son, if there is a will, there will be a way. But you must have a will and a dream first. Beyond that, work hard and trust in Buddha. Keep no ill wills to others. Things will just turn out fine for you when the time comes. I trust in you. A son like you who intend to support and pay back the parents will always be blessed and succeed at the end”. Little had I known how true his words were then?

I set up my GP clinic in the Hlaing Township. As expected, income was not great. I was also able to get a volunteer position at the Malarial Research Unit which was based at No 2 Base Military Hospital on the U Wisara Road. The boss was Colonel (Dr) Kyaw Win. After six months as a volunteer, I was offered a Research MO post. The real benefit was not the salary but was rather being attached to a hospital ward. I was allowed to participate in the consultant rounds. Lt Colonel (Dr) Ye Thwe and Lt Colonel (Dr) Aung Kyaw Zaw were there in addition to Uncle Kyaw Win. That helped me a lot in preparing for the PLAB. Suddenly life became very busy for me. Day time hospital work and night time GP clinic with study hours till mid night for the PLAB. Weekends were for English tuition classes. Despite all those, I often had doubts on whether I was doing the right thing or wasting my time. Many a time I thought of giving up in leaving for UK. I still had no clue of how to actually materialize my plan. I did not have the means. I knew nobody in UK.

Quite a few of my friends at that time had become successful GPs, mostly in the districts. Myo Myat Lwin (currently a consultant Pediatrician in UK) was in Nat-Ta- Lin Township. Ko Ko Naing (currently a GP in UK) was in Mu-Sè following his fiancé who was a native of that town. Thaung Win had become a GP king in Tha-Kay-Ta Township where he still remained to this day. Some joined military. Some were hoping to join the government service when the PSC exams were supposed to be held in a year or two. Some decided not to practice medicine and ran their family businesses. Some decided to leave for abroad, may be not in the capacity of a doctor but at any hard currency paying jobs. Some got cheated by the bogus employment agencies while trying to get a “Ship Doctor” job in Singapore. A few seniors with some clinical experience got UNV (United Nations Volunteer) jobs in Africa or some third world countries but that did not apply to new grads like us. Though it paid only a stipend of US$ 600 per month, it still was a well sought after job for Burmese doctors then. Those who could speak Chinese were trying to leave for Taiwan. 

Some of the classmates who had relatives and planning to migrate with Immigrant visas to USA were reading for ECFMG and TOEFL. For me it was an even more unachievable dream. FMGEM exams were held only twice a year compared to the monthly PLAB exams. And the house officer positions commence only once a year in US and if you miss that July intake, you would have to wait the whole another year. In PLAB, everybody get a training job within one month after passing the exam. Therefore if one planned to go to USA, you had to have funds to live on for a minimum of two years before you could start a residency, receiving some income. Ten times more expensive than the PLAB. Plus US visa was extremely difficult to get as a visitor or a student. But then suddenly all of those changed overnight after a few fateful weeks. Yes, I was referring to the country’s uprising in the months of August and September 1988, finally toppling the BSPP government. 

8888 event was a Pearl Harbor or a 9/11 kind of life changing event for many of us. I would not elaborate the details of those two months as much had been written on that with even a movie being produced (Beyond Rangoon starring Patricia Arquette). Yes, like many of us, I did walk with the crowd in those demonstrations. Not a staunch activist or a leader though. One of my close friends became actively involved in those and ended up having had to run away to the Thai-Burma border when the military finally took over. Fortunately, he was able to leave the border eventually and had now become a successful Neurologist in America. But fighting spirits must be still running in his veins as he remained to be a Major in the US Army Reserve Medical Corps. To me, at the end of the uprising, things had started to approach to an anarchy state and became a bit scary. Lawlessness started to set in. Still, for me and my batch-mates, all of those eventually turned out to be mostly a blessing in disguise. But for some such as those who were in second MB and stuck for next three years due to school closures, taking ten years to complete the medical school, I could understand if they had felt differently on those events. 

For one, my GP became suddenly busy and cash flowed in. It was because of the 8PM curfew. Many doctors had to close their clinics in peripheral suburbs by 7PM to return their homes in time. I decided to sleep over in my GP clinic and opened my clinic till five minutes to eight. With everybody else nearby closed so early, my clinic had no competition and subsequently the community loved and supported me.

For the first two to three years after 1988, as you may all remember, SLORC tried to play an open door policy with even promises of the Army returning to barracks after the election. I think they underestimated and miscalculated the strength of the NLD and the desire of the people. They must have thought that their Ta-Sa-Nya party could win or received a major chunk of the ballots at the election. 

Anyway, foreign travel and passport applications became easier. For the first time in twenty five years, expatriates were allowed to return home. Professional graduates (i.e. doctors and engineers) were allowed to get educational clearance letters easily as long as they compensated the government for the costs incurred in their training. Two year government service prerequisite was abolished. Those who were in the government service were allowed to resign if they wished. Suddenly many vacancies opened up and to get a job in the government hospitals and health services became very easy. Almost all who submitted an application to the PSC would be chosen. Foreign companies were welcomed to invest in Burma. Many joint ventures turned up. Suddenly and much sooner than expected, I had a passport and an educational clearance in my hand. A few other things happened in my favor too. 

One of my Dad’s St Paul high school friends who had been working abroad for many years returned home for a visit. He found out how destitute my dad was in trying to support a son’s education and offered to help. To him, it must have been like some parents in the west struggling to pay for their children’s college education. My dad asked him to lend US $ 1000 for me. He agreed without asking any questions. His name was Mr. (uncle) Allan Khoo and he was working at the Asia Development Bank (ADB) in Manila, Philippines then. I have never met him in person to this day. Of course eventually I repaid him as soon as I received my first pay check in UK but I still wish that one day I can personally thank him face to face. He may have never realized how much his act of kindness had made a difference in my life but it had. Next my maternal grand mother passed away leaving some inheritance to my mom. Though not much, my parents initially wanted to buy a house with that money as otherwise they might never have a place to live after their retirement. But later they decided that my future was more important and such that they gave me all that lump sum money. Yes, it was a major sacrifice and a gamble for them knowing such high failure rates in the PLAB test. It also served as a morale booster to me since it was the unmistakable gesture that my parents had trust on me. Or may be I’ll just call that a parent’s love now that I have become a parent myself. In any case it made me work ten times harder so as not to let them down. 

Lastly I was able to find a person who would sponsor me and he agreed to pick me up at the Heathrow airport on my arrival although we were not previously aquainted. One day, I met Aunty (Dr) Daw Nyunt Nyunt Sein (Helen Sein) who asked me what I was doing those days. In addition to knowing my parents, when I was a house surgeon in the WRGH, she was a first assistant to Sayagyi U Sein Oo then. I told her my plans but also about the lack of a sponsor preventing me from leaving for PLAB in the UK. She said, her brother in law Dr (Ko Zaw Lin) and her sister Dr (Ma) Tin Htar Sein were in England and she would request them to help me. I couldn’t believe my ears on what I had heard. Still I had my doubts. Why would they? They had not even met me before. But, still my prayers were answered. Next they replied that they could sponsor me. Of course, everything had to be at my own expense but securing just a sponsor letter was a major step forward to me those days. Later I learnt that Ko Zaw Lin himself had humble roots being born and raised in Minbu. He also had struggled hard earlier in his career and such that had an understanding and desire to help those in need. He was a great role model to me.

Currently he is a consultant cardiothoracic surgeon in Hamilton, New Zealand after being trained in UK (FRCS and a stint at the renowned Papworth Cardiothoracic Hospital in Cambridge) and Australia.

I started to believe in the fate again. I started to feel that there are people out there who were genuinely kind and willing to help others without expecting anything in return. I started to believe in my dad’s words. All the pieces were starting to fall into places in my life. I realized that just a small token of help by one can have a major and a lasting impact on some others’ lives. Likewise, I promised myself that one day when I am in their shoes, I will try my best to help out those who are less fortunate than me. And I am forever grateful to those who had helped me knowingly or unknowingly during those difficult times.

My last few weeks in Burma as a permanent resident:

 I subsequently left Burma on November 15, 1989 in a London bound Russian Aeroflot airliner. I was leaving the country for good though I didn’t realize it at that point. The weeks preceding that date was such a quick blur to me. Suddenly so many things needed to be taken care of. Getting various T forms, D forms and permission letters from different government offices was such a chore. I had to arrange to

hand over my GP clinic. My friend and classmate Tin Aung Hla (currently an Internist in Texas) took it over. I had to resign from the Malaria Research MO post. Went around paying homage to family elders and the relatives. Went to the tailor to get a few suits. Later when I arrived at the UK, despite their convincing assurance that they made the suits in the exact western styles, the suits from Burma were found to be totally out of place in style and workmanship. Everybody advised me to buy an attaché case which I later found out to be of very little use in England. “Cat Globe” brand of shoes weresupposedly stylish too. They were too costly for me. I just bought a shoe from the “Inn Daing” government shoe factory. Likewise I bought second hand luggage sold by the bdeparting diplomats as I could not afford the new ones. Thrifty me also bought two ties, both polyesters, from the Scott’s Market. Those days, due to restrictions in importn policies, foreign goods, no matter how basic they were, were still expensive and scarce. There was news that government was going to change the post graduate medical training system. Already many were easily getting government jobs. Royal Colleges were to come and hold part 1 MRCP and FRCS exams in Burma. Everybody including even GPs may be allowed to sit for the exams. Future looked somewhat brighter than a few years ago.

Still, my mind did not waver. I had started the river of no return. I would just have to forge forward. My intention then was to return to Burma after my post graduate training in UK. I still was not thinking to immigrate like some others. And that was exactly what I had told to Aye, my girl friend who subsequently became my life partner. Yes, by then she had given me a nod and agreed to date me. She did not intend to wait and see how I fared in my exams or whether I would come home empty handed. It was another gesture of trust and a big morale booster for me that she would not be a fair weather companion. But I did break one promise to her. I told her that I will come back and marry her to start our lives together in Burma once I get my MRCP. I did get my MRCP eventually and I did come back to marry her. But by then I had to break the news to her that my return was not for good. I wanted to go back and live in abroad. She had to accompany me. It took her a while to forgive me on that.

The day I left Burma, my parents and my sisters sent me off at the Mingaladon Airport. Luckily my friend and classmate Gyi Phone Mo (currently an Internist in Philadelphia) was in the same flight with me. As the plane ascended, everything beneath became smaller and smaller till I could not see anything anymore. Only then I turned my head away from the window. I still could not get rid of the image of my family waving me good bye. Suddenly I felt alone for the first time in my entire life. Tears welled up in my eyes. Little had I known that it was just the beginning of the countless struggles in a foreign land and that much more tears were to be shed in the subsequent months?

Pyee Par Bi (The End). 

With metta

Than N Oo, MD, FRCP (Edinburgh)

Michigan, USA.

magwaythu@sbcglobal.net 

 

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One Response to “Dr. Than Naing Oo : Memoirs of Twenty Padauk Blooms Past”

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