Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Extreme Doctoring

This is how you leave Indonesia in a hurry
I am  the kind of pissed-off that has no direct blame or responsibility so it gets redirected everywhere.  

Even worse, it is the kind of pissed-off that has occurred as the result of my own  choices and decisions so, like most episodes of pissed-off, it is me being pissed-off at me.  My choice was the mellow and chilled jungle doctoring job that has been anything but mellow and chilled so far.  Job stress in general should be fairly predictable.  For example, if you work in a busy urban emergency room,  idiots shooting each other, random violence, sleepless nights, bitchy nurses and unrealistic expectations from Friday night drunks are part of the job description.  These are all the trimmings of a busy American Emergency Room  in busy America (or substitute your own Western colony, they are all really the same).  The shirt comes with the pants. Right now my shirt and pants don't match.  This week, instead of daily jungle doctoring, something I enjoy, most of my time is being used for personal security planning, mass casualty planning and reporting to the corporate offices in Jakarta, Singapore, Sydney and South Africa.  We are under a modified lock-down with our campsite in DEFCON 2  (threat of attack from angry, potentially violent public demonstrators just outside the gates).  Because of possible danger our women and children have been evacuated from the mining site. They are kicking it all-expenses-paid-vacation-style at the plush and beautiful Sheraton Hotel at Sengigi Beach, Lombok.   I haven't suppressed thoughts of envy and jealousy at their good fortune.  You give your more to receive your less.  This feels dangerously like self-pity:   stuck in the camp, responsible for the safety of my staff and the potentially injured while the family eats crab and lobster, drinks imported beer out of clean glasses and spends the days on a pristine Indonesian beach.  I've already yelled at my wife three times and my kid once out of frustration.  I feel shitty for doing it.
I'm not going to tell you how this crisis turned out because it is not over yet.  Good stories should have an ending.  I will however tell you another story of what i call Extreme Doctoring.

May 15, 2010, Bangkok, Thailand:  My son's fourth birthday and the day that violence and conflict began to kick off in the now famous Red Shirt Revolution in Thailand.  The rebel leader,  General Khittaya Sawasdipol, had just  been shot through the head by a sniper  while he stood in what was, until a few weeks before, Bangkok's five-star  business and tourist district.  Five city blocks of Bangkok had been turned into a rebel encampment and ultimately a war zone complete with anti-government signs and primitive barricades made of bamboo and burning truck tires.

Before Kevlar
I won't go any further with this description because you could get the same garbage from any canned report from any one of the hundreds of visiting news sources that came to Bangkok. They all gave you the fifty cent version of what life was like during the Red Shirt Rebellion. From where you are sitting in your own city, you probably don't give a shit.  In reality, political unrest and rebellion in Thailand will affect your life even less than a change in the scheduled airing time for Entourage or True Blood. But as the gates to this urban battle ground were only  half of a mile from my apartment, I wanted to check it out.  I had a couple of reasons to want to see what was really going on:  Firstly, I wanted to evaluate our own safety  (with my wife and child being so close to the action). Secondly, it was a once in a lifetime chance to be an up-close, casual observer in a dog fight where I didn't own the dog.  The situation fascinated me.  

After Kevlar

To understand how any bumbling westerner could just wander easily in and out of a battle zone, you have to understand the way Thai people regard foreigners living on the hallowed soil of the Thai Kingdom.  Generally, we are there to spend our money, give our opinion and be no more involved in the intricate cultural aspects of Thai people than can be avoided.  It is similar to having a first cousin  live with you for twenty years without ever offering him a house key.  The great Kingdom of Siam has never been colonized and this is no accident.  We are welcomed with extreme indifference and this is extended to us even during wartime and political unrest.  In Thailand, we foreigners  are Switzerland.  
In 2006 Thailand had a major military coup with the definitive removal of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (whose sister has just been elected Prime Minister recently in 2011.  Go figure).  We expatriates still talk about where we were when the coup occurred.  I was at a bar and dancing establishment.................................... Okay, it was a go-go bar at the famed Soi Cowboy Go Go complex. In my defense a friend had just come to Thailand for the first time and wanted to see the pure cultural aspects of Thai nightlife.  I was trying to be, if nothing else, the perfect host.  On the wall beyond the neon flash of  the stage and six dancing poles was a large television. It usually didn't  get much attention.  I glanced over and saw a special news report:  Military Coup in Thailand.  That's strange, I thought. I'm IN Thailand.  Shouldn't I know this?  In the go go bar it was business as usual.  Drinks were flowing and pervs were glowing under the neon lights and trendy rave music.  I was not a veteran of any other major government coup, but I assumed that in most places this meant the end of the evening:  close the bars, shut the doors, lock the windows and stay home until the bullets stop.  My friend is a sort of twitchy character and it was his first day in Asia.  I didn't want to panic him.  I called over the Mamasan and asked, in Thai, what was going on.  Was there really a coup?  
"Chai, kopp", she said (yes).  
I said, "Will you close the bar?"  
"Mai chai.  Mai pen rai, kopp."  (No, its no problem.)  
I said, "oh,"  and went back to my beer and the show.  
I excused myself and stepped outside into the street to see if there was anything going on. Nope, not a hint of trouble.  The twenty bars in a row were busy with customers and beautiful, tiny girls in bikinis and cowboy hats stood in the road calling people in to check out their bars.  After another hour I told my friend what was going on.  

"Listen, don't panic, but I just heard that there's a military coup going on in Bangkok right now."
"Really?  Is that bad?  What should we do?  Should we leave?"
Burn baby burn
"Yes, right away.  We should go down the street.  We'll get a better view down there."

He just stared at me.  He didn't understand Thailand.  Thai people are loving, Buddhist beings who will go out of their way to shoot AROUND a foreigner.  They will not shoot Switzerland, especially while Switzerland is spending good money.  That is until May 15, 2010.

I wanted to see what was really happening in this media-described "urban war zone."  Also, my wife decided that she was a Red Shirt rebel and had encamped herself nightly in the center of the protest zone, often staying with the thousands of other recent rebels until 4 AM.  I knew it would be less violent to let her join the fray than to disagree with her regarding Thai poli-tricks.  Me telling someone not to get involved in interesting and dangerous events in life is like the blind man telling the deaf man he cannot hear.  Very soon I was going to get my chance to closely see what was happening in the Bangkok war zone.  I was even going to get paid for doing it.

It was the morning of May 15th and from my eighteenth floor bedroom window I could see a distant view of the city battlefield only a mile away.  Thick black smoke had sprung up in five different areas and the pop-pop-pop of gunfire and homemade explosives was going off in bursts every half hour.  Because life was fairly normal outside the five block zone we decided, in a Thailand way, that a child's birthday party did not have to be cancelled.  Actually, since the rebellion started routine horrendous Bangkok traffic had miraculously ceased to exist. For once short travel on gridlocked Sukhumvit Road was not an all day event.  My wife had been out shopping for beer and cake, the usual requirements for a Thai children's party (Thai people throw an adult party and invite the kids).  She decided to give up nightly Red Shirt rebel protester duty in order to throw this soiree.

Red, meet Black.  Black, meet Red.

At 11 AM  I received a call from a British acquaintance I'll call "Roy."  I hadn't ever really spoken to "Roy", but I'd seen him hundreds of times in the regular circuit of pubs and pool halls of Bangkok.  We had a number of mutual friends.  I thought he was just another one of the throng  of foreigners riding the wave of relative prosperity in Bangkok  where the booze is cheap and the women  plentiful.  There are literally thousands of these guys in Thailand from America, Britain, Canada, Australia, Holland, Belgium and other places.  I'd learned over the years not to ask them what they did for a living because  it was usually a lie and nothing good could come from  knowing the truth.  And that's why this call from "Roy" was so strange.  He asked me if I was looking for some work.

"Roy" said that an associate of his worked with CNN News out of Hong Kong.  The Hong Kong office was covering the Red Shirt Rebellion and had come to Bangkok to film the action  "Wolf-Blitzer-style", from the street.  Usually (as if "usually" describes any urban civil war), this isn't much of a safety issue. Journalists had previously had the luxury of diplomatic immunity during Thai unrest. They felt safe thrusting microphones and cameras in the faces of actively protesting Thai demonstrators.  This time it was clear that the army and the rebels would, impolitely, not be taking the time to shoot AROUND the journalists and photographers who had arrived with their dreams of media fame and fortune. Several journalists had already been injured and one Italian photographer was shot and killed. CNN wanted, on short notice, a medic who was comfortable walking the five block zone with them and closing up the random bullet holes  should they occur.  The concept was sound, but the idea was flawed:  anyone shot, even remotely lethally, was going to have to be carried at least a mile, through an angry scattering crowd, across a barricade of burning tire and bamboo sticks, to an abandoned hospital with a skeleton staff.  Guaranteed dead.  Still, I could probably plug up the little holes..............

I'd worked previously in quieter, smoldering areas of conflict:  Liberia during the civil war, Ethiopia during a Somalian uprising and Atlantic City, New Jersey after the bars let out at 2 AM.  But I'd always avoided places with active gun fire and bombs.  Those jobs seemed ultimately unhealthy.

"How much?" I asked Roy
"Up to you,"  he said, "They are kind of stuck and need someone yesterday."  So I quoted my price and I was hired.  

I was thinking:  these dopey bastards don't realize that I would have done this for nothing just to get an inside view of this pivotal event in Thailand's history. This was the real deal. Thais fighting Thais.  It was unheard of. The photos alone will be incredible. I now know that disregarding the fact that there would be active gunfire and bombing from an unstable and angry rebel group  made me the dopey bastard.  I'd done this before, but never for money, only for charity. CNN was no charity and they paid in cash.  I was to report to their office in the the battle zone in an hour.

Next, the most stressful part:  selling the idea to my wife on  my son's fourth birthday.  She was upset.  I told her about the money.  She said we didn't need the money.  I said, but it was a lot of money. And a cool experience. And in general my luck's been pretty good. (Luck means a lot to Buddhist people.) I told her I'd  be  back before the beer got warm since most of the journalists clear the streets by nightfall.  

Lavender scarf to show the soft side of force
I took a motorcycle taxi to the edge of the battle zone.  They would not let my driver past the barricade and the police had set up a check-point.  I spoke enough Thai to lie to them and say that my home was on the next street so they let me through.  I didn't speak enough Thai to tell them the truth.  The truth is often a complex and lengthy process. 

CNN's office that was coincidentally in the same group of buildings as my regular office.  I was working for a company that performed emergency medical evacuations for people hurt or stuck in dangerous places.  I thought it was ironic that our office had already evacuated.

From the panoramic window of the fourteenth floor CNN office you could see that Bangkok was on fire.  This view provided a dramatic backdrop for the reporter's daily broadcasts.  In the corner of the room was a heap of paramilitary protective equipment.  There were  Kevlar helmets and flak jackets of all shapes, sizes, lengths and colors.  They had been used for the previous film crew's shift and then dumped on the floor still stained with sweat and dirt.  They stank.  The reporter, Dan Rivers, had a shiny, black, form-fitting flak vest, perfect for hiding those extra ten pounds added by the camera.  I grabbed a puke-colored, over-sized, multi-sectioned Kevlar  vest  that was heavy and uncomfortable. It  had a separate section that hung low enough to cover my private parts.  That extra section made it even more difficult to walk, but  having Kevlar covering my balls  made me feel   better.  I had filled a backpack full of basic supplies: water, tubes, syringes, antiseptic, bandages, wraps, intravenous drips, Ibuprofen, and whatever else I could jam into there.  The pack was overfilled and the straps fit poorly over the flak vest and cut into my shoulders.  It was probably an extra twenty-five pounds of crap to carry  around.  We got into the elevator; myself, the producer, the cameraman and the "talent,"  reporter Dan Rivers.  We looked more like a group of amateur paintball fanatics than war correspondents, but this was Bangkok, not Afghanistan. Ordinarily one would have little reason to equip and prepare for the worst.
Lesson 1:  Don't bring a firecracker to a gunfight
We left the building, one of Bangkok's most prestigious high rises and the offices of many of Bangkok's large financial firms.  There was a rental tourist van waiting for us out front.  We drove less than a mile and parked behind an evacuated building when we could drive no further.  We would have to walk to the center of the protest where a large stage had been set up for the rebel leaders.  We grabbed the equipment (the tripod was delegated to me.  I was no specialist.  For this kind of money   I'd hand-carry lunch if I'd had to). We walked into the Red Shirt crowd.

Bangkok weather in the middle of May feels like a sweaty, fat child sitting on your head. The days are usually close to one hundred degrees.  People usually move from air conditioner to air conditioner to survive.  We foreigners (affectionately and non-affectionately known as "farang")  turn into sweaty, uncomfortable bastards within moments.  This gives endless   amusement  to local Thai people who  are born without sweaty DNA.  I was quickly soaked with perspiration all the way through my flak jacket and back pack.  I wrapped a blue kitchen towel around my neck like a bandanna.  I looked ridiculous, but that didn't matter.  I was in the moment.  The scene in the center of the demonstration was more like a party and a prolonged sit-down than a rebel military operation.  Men, women and children waved red banners and red plastic clacking noise makers. They smiled for the camera.  It was festive.  I even took a picture with the (now incarcerated) rebel leader, Dr. Weng Tojikarn.  Dr. Weng and I bonded as doctors in those few minutes we spoke.  I was a  paranoid at first about being photographed with a  rebel leader, but knowing that Thai people cannot tell one white foreigner from another, I safely felt that I'd never be recognized.  This festive scene of diplomatic protest did not seem like the fodder of CNN battle reporting so we trudged over to where there was more action.

Does this flak jacket make me look fat?
The street called Rama 9, named after a famously beloved Thai king, was the scene of the major standoff.  At one end was rebels and curious locals who were unwilling to abandon their homes.  At the other, Thai military crouched behind sandbag turrets with patient AK47 rifles trained on the rebels.  They fired no shots.  We were with the rebels.  Every few minutes a rebel would run out into the street and heave a homemade explosive at the military turrets.  The toss would fall about 200 feet short of the target so the military were kind enough not to shoot them.  I was happy about that.  The CNN cameraman stuck his camera around the corner to get the rebel's eye view of the military.  I got on all fours and crawled under the camera to see the view myself.  I figured if shots hadn't been fired in 3 days of fighting, chances are they wouldn't be fired now.  It all comes down to how you perceive you luck and your luck's relation to reasonable statistics.  Across Rama 9, someone had just thrown a flaming stick on a pile of gas-soaked truck tires piled 10 high.  It took about a minute for thick carcinogenic smoke fill the sky.  This maneuver was intended to block the view of the soldiers who weren't  firing their weapons.  This crowd was here to pick a fight.  The wind changed towards our direction we left.

There were a lot of interesting moments during the three days I got paid to hang out with CNN.  Nobody ever shot at us, but a group of rebels, seeing our Kevlar helmets just over the top a fence, mistook us for soldiers and heaved a homemade explosive at us.  Nobody was hit, but we had to scattered and hide behind a crumbled cement block.  It took a few minutes to convince the rebels that we were the media and not the intended receivers and they opened the gate and allowed us to pass into the rebel camp.  The gate controller was about 4'11" and probably just over 100 pounds soaking wet (we were all soaking wet by then).  He smiled at us with both of his teeth.  We asked if we could see his weapon, but he declined to show us.  Through his ripped shorts you could see a small caliber pistol in the front pocket.  If this guy was the gauntlet to pass, these rebels were looking at a short rebellion and indeed that was the case.  The next day the army brought through heavy vehicles and scattered and removed thousands of people in approximately thirty minutes.  The five week Red Shirt Rebellion was quickly over.  The morale:  don't bring a pistol to a tank fight.  I felt bad for the rebels, but admired their commitment to fighting a losing battle with conviction.

As night fell on that first day of work, my son's fourth birthday, we headed for back to the CNN office.  I dumped the sweaty, smelly flak jacket, helmet and medical bag on the floor in a heap where it would lay until the next day.  "You coming back tomorrow, Doc?" the cameraman asked.  "Absolutely." I said, "Who'd want to miss this kind of fun?"

Got a match?
I have a few friends I've met across the world who do this kind of work for a living.  Most of the time its a lot of sitting around, eating, sweating, waiting and coming to a compromise with living a foreigner's life in an unhealthy local environment.  They wear the work as a badge of courage and at the end of this day I did too. But these guys have bigger balls than I do.  Most of them are single and have no family.  They have few close friends and usually all of them are in the same sordid business of war.  They move from place to place, conflict to conflict.  The money is very, very good.  Most people cannot relate to jobs like this.  Every doctor I know went through medical school with a similar dream  of experiencing heroic battle medicine and feeling the rush of being in a place  where things could go very badly, very quickly.  After medical school, for most doctors it rapidly left realm of consideration.  But a  few of us, we got and understood the rush of this particular experience--a good, but potentially damaging experience.  

Wake me up when the revolution is over
I walked nearly a mile to the first police check-point and onto Sukhumvit Road toward my apartment.  I wanted some time alone to wrap my mind around what I'd seen that day and to experience the empty streets of a Bangkok rebellion after curfew.  It was deserted like a bad zombie movie.  Just up the road it was a subdued, but typical Bangkok night.  The bars would be open, but the girls would be in the street bored and frowning.  Rebellions are not good for business.  I took a motorcycle taxi the last quarter mile up Sukhumvit Road to my apartment.  I didn't want to be late for the party.

1 comment:

  1. my hat:) amazing:) Erik, very emotionally and deep, i think you need once to write a book:)bravo...