When I was in Denmark, I spent each free lunch time hour lounging on the new couch the landlord asked me to help him choose from IKEA, watching TV in the apartment. I was the only Asian in the group and the Italians I was with were a big and closely knit group, and delightfully loud, the kind that was infectious and youthful and fun. Being proficient in the German, French and a smattering of Danish languages , in addition to their native Italian, the girls were always surrounded by a bunch of other Europeans with whom they hung out in the library and under the trees in the expansive campus, or the cafeteria. Back then, I had very awkward social skills (even until now I guess) so I often kept to myself rather than be in a big group. We would just usually meet up at night for dinner out if we were feeling too lazy to cook and to wash the dishes, or if we were in the mood for an evening drive and a stroll round the docks and watch ships pass us by, dunking our fingers into a huge bag of chips, if there wasn’t any interesting movie to watch at the Palisades.
Because I had no cable connection, I had to be content with local programming.
That particular afternoon and many times thereafter in the evening and succeeding days, the news that hogged prime air time was the presence of a high school student with pulmonary tuberculosis (TB), diagnosed in one of the local high schools in Copenhagen. As a result of this, the school was closed down for two weeks and sanitized. I remember, the student was white, which probably became an even bigger deal. You see, most cases of tuberculosis are found in less developed countries in Asia, South America and Africa. TB in squeaky clean Copenhagen was supposedly unheard of.
I did not stay in Denmark long enough to find out the conclusion of what looked like a TV series. But last I heard was that, each and every contact of the student was investigated. They were able to trace about 700 contacts in six months and three of them also turned out to be positive for TB through skin testing. If my recollection is right, all three were also Danish.
Many first world countries attribute the resurgence of TB to increasing immigration and Denmark was one of those countries, back then, with the most lenient policies on asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants.
This story made me remember the time (and it was very long ago) when I was a medical student.
The time I met Tom for the first time.
I was a third year medical student when Tom’s group of volunteer doctors went to the health center of my village. He was with Rene, a French doctor who spoke very little English. Rene was married to Kim, a French-Vietnamese nurse who, like him, was also a volunteer. Tom was Belgian, the Flemish kind. He, of course, in the impressionable eyes of a medical student with a small town, small time background, was drop dead gorgeous, not too tall but just-right-enough for me tall, with long curly blonde hair which he loved to flip sideways with his strong, hairy, thickly veined hand. He smelled good (Not that I smelled him on purpose. I knew because I’d ride on his motorcycle when we toured the other villages and I had to circle my arms around his waist as it was one of those small Japanese motor bikes.) He was also mild mannered and spoke often about his Mom and Dad and little sister. He had been to my house on a somewhat on again, off again basis for visits to get to know local traditions and to request my Mama for tutorials of the dialect so he could have better interaction with the locals in the community.
Because it was summer and I did not have classes, I worked as a volunteer in the government health center like I did summers the last two years. This time however, instead of weighing babies and counting fetal heart rates of pregnant mothers and keeping records, Tom requested that I worked with his team. I really did not know what help I could extend but things unfolded as the days wore on.
They asked me to introduce them to the locals, to explain that they were volunteer doctors working on screening for tuberculosis in the hope of being able to discover a vaccine which was, to my understanding, a multi center study being conducted by the research unit of his medical school. In other words, I was their unofficial translator and interpreter both on field work and in clinic consults.
Although they were able to screen and treat many patients with TB, and refer them accordingly to the local registry, their stint was short lived. They came at a time when banditry and abduction threats were big issues in the island. Two of the seven other doctors from their agency, assigned in the neighboring province were kidnapped. Eventually, their lead agency pulled out their presence from my country.
Of course it was with a sense of regret and sadness that I confronted Tom and his group’s departure. But I was thankful that our friendship happened because it was because of him that I found respect for and held in high esteem his unrelenting dedication in voluntarism. It was through Tom that I came face to face with a sheltered only son, who somehow, was selflessness and sacrifice personified.
He wrote me (snail mail) a few times during his short stints in Chad, Sudan and Nigeria after he left my city. In one of those very short almost cryptic letters, he shared that his allowance was enough to make him live like a king but then there was nothing to buy or eat but beans.
Just recently I learned that he had been spending over a decade of his time in Karnataka in India among other Indian states after stints in Peru, Lebanon, Algeria, Bolivia, Zimbabwe, Dominican Republic, Congo, Honduras, Burundi, Liberia and Turkey. He never went back home to Belgium where his family, especially his Dad, were constantly worried about his safety. But Tom, barely thirty years old at the time, loved adventure and embraced everything in life, including all the threats and dangers that were thrown his way. He embraced the children, the painfully malnourished kind, the lepers, the tuberculous patients, the orphans in refugee centers, the pregnant young mothers barely out of their teens, without regard for their class, color or creed.
I do think fondly, randomly of him. He was funny, still is irreverently funny although he now looks older than his years. Even his French beard that covers a quarter of his face are all white. He always looked better clean and shaved. We often got into pesky little spats before about his hair, about how he loved to grow it long until he looked like a lion but he was never one so keen for the aesthetics.
His Facebook profile pic shows him wearing a party hat with curlicues that could be mistaken for his hair. Maybe he has a family, but I did not probe. What I know now is that he has been living his life with consistency of purpose since the day I met him – churning out scientific papers after another, outlining public health policies and formulating guidelines to uplift the health care services in each God-forsaken, village of a corruption ridden country he found himself thrust into: mostly as program coordinator or implementer or both. It would seem that having a family was not the vocation he chose, just a hunch. But I hope that, by now, he will have found whatever it is he has been going around the world looking for and for which he has chosen many things to give up and to endure. But maybe not because his eyes still looked sad.
While the years may not have been kind to him physically, I do not doubt the beauty of his spirit. He must have subscribed to Erich Fromm’s humanistic philosophy about a person choosing a path of ‘being’ and ‘having’. Tom left a very comfortable life back home but he wanted none of those. Instead he chose to ‘be’.
I am writing about Tom because despite our unbridgeable distance (he’s so all over the place it’s difficult to keep track of him) and prolonged absence from each other’s radar, we seem to have lived, presumptuous as it might sound, with a little tweak here and there, parallel lives. Something that I will be able to explain further as I write the conclusion of my three part post ‘Mary, Quite Contrary.‘
After my holidays. Perhaps.