“We tell ourselves stories in order to live, and probably the biggest story we have ever told ourselves is ‘The scientific story’ and we always think of science as this ultimate truth, but science is just a story”.
That was Lynne McTaggart, the American investigative journalist and author of “The Field”quoting Joan Didion during an interview with Movie Director Tom Shadyac (Ace Ventura, Liar Liar etc) for his 2010 documentary “I am” in which he attempts to figure out what is wrong with this world and what we can do about it.
As I finished watching that excellent documentary in Philadelphia in 2012, my mind went back 11 years to 2001, 9/11, anthrax and a frosty December day in Flint, Michigan. On that day, Dr. Kim ThetOo, a doctor from Burma (present Myanmar), proved the truth of McTaggart’s statement to me. Much in the news today because of the Rohingya massacres, the protracted pogrom by Burmese Buddhists against Muslims over decades in the longest ongoing conflict in the world went completely under our radar.
Dr. Kim lived through that, and, as a Buddhist and humanist, didn’t care what race, cast or creed he treated. This is his story my friends, and I share this with the hope that you will smile, as I did, so many years ago.
I had taken a Greyhound from Ann Arbor to Flint to meet my Theravada Buddhist friends Ken and Visakha Kawasaki to help them set up the Buddhist Relief Mission and Burma Relief Fund websites when I met Dr. Kim for the first time.
Having joined the 8888 uprising in former Burma, he fled the Junta in 1990 just months before graduation. He lived the next 11 years in the jungles along the Thai-Burma border. The Kawasakis had somehow managed to get him and his family out of there and over to America. He had arrived in Flint just a few months before my visit. As you would find out he was already accomplished in many ways – including driving on American highways.
We talked, chuckling over the reason why only Sri Lankan and Burmese people eat rice with the tips of their fingers, clucking in disgust at the way Therawada ritual had almost killed off Therawada practice in our two countries, skimming, inevitably, through various conflicts across the world from Peru to the Philippines. Hesitantly, I also asked him about his experiences in Burma. In response, he described an interview with a breathless youth from the local newspaper in Flint. So vivid and detailed was his description of it that I felt almost as if I were there, so I am reproducing my notes from the perspective of a fly-on-the-wall.
Breathless Young Thang (BYT):You were exiled before graduation.
Doctor Kim ThetOo:(smiles) Yes. I graduated in the jungle.
Kim: There was no one else in the jungle with medical experience. Just me. My practice stretched 1000 miles. I tended thousands of Burmese homeless. Many sick. Burmese and Thai authorities were hounding and pounding them. Do you know any American doctor with such a practice?
BYT:(blinks) er…no, I guess not.. er…we had some of that terror during 9/11.
Kim:Yes. I am sad. Many people died without knowing why.
BYT:Nothing can compare to that.
Kim: (mildly) There are situations that compare.
BYT: (looks blankly at Kim)
Kim:You experienced 9/11 once, I dealt with it five or six times a year for 11 years.
BYT: (Gapes) huh?
Kim: (smiles) I was joking.
Kim:Definitely it wasn’t more than three times a year.
Breathless young Thang wisely decides to change tack.
BYT:There has been much worry in the USA about Anthrax.
Kim:Yes, I feel sorry for those medical people. They are in great fear.
BYT:I think, surely, anybody would be terrified?
BYT:(laughs) You aren’t?
Kim:In the jungle, I did not have those protective suits I saw the doctors wearing on TV. Jungle doctors cannot afford fear.
At a loss for words, BYT stops. She smiles weakly around the room,wishing she were somewhere else. But she had this darned interview to do. She steels herself, takes a deep breath and asks the next question.
BYT:(carefully) You…you mean you treated anthrax cases in the jungles?
BYT: Without protection?
BYT: (Incredulous) Couldn’t have been many cases or you would not be here.
Kim:(shrugs) You are right. I am lucky. I did not treat more than four or five a month.
Poor BYT. She just gave up. Wanting an interview she walked into a reality show. Not just any old reality TV but something that literally and figuratively broadsided everything she had ever been taught about life and science. If I had been there, I would have seen Dr. Kim watch, with deep concern, as she walked a bit unsteadily out the door and I would have heard him mumble, “She doesn’t know…she cannot know… she will never know”.
He drove me back from Flint to Ann Arbor. He was studying to get a licence to practise in America and I asked him how that was going. He said it was tough.
“Language?” I queried. He shook his head.
“No. My problem is trying to find the answers they expect from me”.
What do you mean?
“They ask these various questions you know. Like about some procedure maybe say like setting broken bones”.
“So, yes…” he said, swishing past a few vehicles Asian style.
“… there is a correct answer in medical science but I also discovered about 50 other far better methods. But medical science has never heard of those. Because medical science did not have to practise medicine in a bamboo hut with no drugs, no nurses, no equipment. The only thing I had was my will to somehow cure the patient. But American medical exams do not know how to ask about such things so it is difficult for me.
- Therawada ritual had almost killed off Therawada practice in our two countries
- In people who see beyond their noses and feel beyond their hearts, prove that science is just a story
We were silent for a couple of highway miles and then Dr. Kim said something that changed my view of science forever.
“I learned something in the jungle. Desperate desire to heal is a far better weapon against disease than science”.
Something clicked on in me at that moment that has never been un-clicked. It is this: Science, despite how big a story it is, despite its laudable successes, is a very limited tool, and, because of its structure, it can never be anything more than a limited tool. More seriously though, I realized that it was also a limiting tool.
“Dr.Kim” I said. “I really don’t know if I should sympathize with you or be jealous of you”.
“Neither. I am human. And, humans do what they must, not only what they can.I not only had to provide medicine, but also food and shelter since my patients did not have those either.No point giving them any sort of medicine if they died of starvation or exposure. My hospital hut was also a hostel and a hotel. I cooked. I cleaned. I doctored. We ate this really heavy rice because we never knew when our next meal was going to be”.
As we barrelled down that American highway I thought to myself that at that very moment, similar miracles were probably happening in the north of Sri Lanka. That thought, contrarily, served only to depress me.So I thought about his family instead.
Warm, inviting and never out of a hot meal for the hungry because Asian hospitality is always ready for the uninvited guest. He had three lovely daughters. One was around 12 and the others around five or six years of age. That got me thinking that he must have got married while still a student in Burma and I asked him about it. He said in his usual quiet voice, “We have been married eight years now. We met in the jungle”.
I glanced up sharply but he had anticipated my question “My oldest was two and dying of diarrhoea when her mother brought her to me. She didn’t expect the child to live. Neither did I. I fought for her life but it was hopeless. I was exhausted. I slept. The mother disappeared in the night thinking the child would be dead by morning. But she survived. Somehow she survived. Not because of me. Not because of medicine. She is my daughter now. She rode to America on my back”.
I smiled then. I am still smiling. Ten such and this earth will be a worthwhile place to inhabit. In the darkest places on this planet, where the worst qualities of human beings are seen, there, I firmly believe, are to be found the finest as well.
In people who see beyond their noses. Who feel beyond their hearts. Who prove that science is just a story. Join me people and say “Thank you Dr. Kim for being around”.