Accompanying a Migrant Worker to the Hospital
By Denise Goh
The first thing anyone would notice about Wang Zhi Guo is his rather animated personality and his loud, distinctive voice, which often announces itself in the corridor before you even see him. One of the younger migrant brothers, Zhi Guo is only 38 years old, and he came to Singapore to work so he could support his elderly parents, wife and 15-year-old son. Unfortunately, his plans to send money home were disrupted when he suffered a workplace injury in March 2017. A pipe dropped onto his hand and broke his right thumb, which affected the functionality of his right hand.
However, the doctor at his company clinic did not take his condition seriously, only giving him 2 days of MC and 7 days of light duty. Zhi Guo only discovered how short this duration was when he asked his friend to translate the MC letter for him, which had been written in English and had not been explained to him by the doctor. Worried that this medical treatment was insufficient, Zhi Guo went to a hospital by himself, and his suspicions were confirmed. The doctors at the hospital advised surgery for his thumb, but his boss kept delaying his treatment because he did not want to pay for it. Only one month later did Zhi Guo manage to go for his surgery, and a metal plate had to be grafted onto the bone of his right thumb during the operation.
I remember Zhi Guo’s eyes watering a little as he showed us his injured thumb, which bore the remnant red angry lines of stitches from the operation. Upset, he told us, “Now I can’t bend my thumb, and I don’t have strength in my right hand – I can’t even do simple things like unlock a door anymore. My hand is disabled, forever useless! And when your hand is useless, you cannot do anything anymore, especially in my line of work. This disability is for a lifetime.” His voice, though indignant, trembled with emotion.
Although Zhi Guo had shared with us his frustrations with the medical system, I did not fully grasp the impact of how lost and helpless migrant workers may feel when navigating a foreign system until Joy, another intern, and I accompanied Zhi Guo to his hospital appointment. Although his appointment was scheduled at 11.45 a.m., Zhi Guo had been waiting there since 9 a.m. When we asked him why he came so early, Zhi Guo insisted, “You don’t understand. This medical appointment is very important to me. The medical assessment determines how much compensation I will eventually get – and right now, I have no money left.” Usually boisterous and lively, he was subdued and quiet, his eyes permanently fixed on the screen of flickering cue numbers.
When Zhi Guo’s cue number was finally called, Joy and I followed him into the doctor’s room. The doctor called over another doctor to discuss Zhi Guo’s case. However, despite knowing that Zhi Guo could only speak Chinese, they were talking over him in English, without cueing him in to what they were discussing. Zhi Guo was unusually muted, his eyes darting back and forth anxiously to each doctor as they took turns to speak. Yet, despite his confusion and ill-ease, he did not speak up to clarify. It was discomfiting for me to see such a naturally talkative and spirited migrant brother look so deflated and small in his seat.
Straight after the doctor had issued Zhi Guo the requisite medical letters, Zhi Guo opened every envelope. “Please translate this for me,” he said urgently, handing us every letter to translate. At first, we found his anxiety strange, but then we realised it was because of his bad experience with his very first doctor – the company doctor who had not been upfront with him about his medical condition and how many MC days he was given – that Zhi Guo was so wary and cautious to begin with. Even as we headed towards the payment counter, we were surprised by other instances of dismissiveness. Whenever Zhi Guo would ask a non-Chinese nurse for directions in Chinese, the nurse would not even wait for him to finish before saying, “I don’t speak Chinese”, with some even walking away. In these cases, Joy and I were glad to have been there to help Zhi Guo translate his requests to English.
Through this experience, I got a small taste of what the migrant brothers meant when they felt powerless in such a foreign system. Clearly, neither the doctors or nurses had expressly intended to make Zhi Guo feel disempowered, but they did not realise how alienating and excluding their actions and the language barrier might be for a patient who couldn’t speak English. This is something I myself would not have realised if I did not have the opportunity to see the whole process from Zhi Guo’s point of view. On top of that, migrant workers also face the added difficulty of sometimes being unconsciously dismissed, given that they are not citizens and therefore are seen to occupy a lower priority in our Singaporean society. It was only by following Zhi Guo to his medical appointment that I began to understand just how easy it is to make someone feel so small.
What we think of our migrant brothers is conveyed as much through our small, unconscious gestures as they are through our words and actions. While dismissiveness may be met with wariness, this is not the only possible interaction. In fact, goodwill is often reciprocated with goodwill – and with this, we have the hope of building a more inclusive community.
At the end of his medical appointment, Wang Zhi Guo turned to Joy and I. “Thank you very much for coming with me to the hospital,” he said, beaming brightly. Some of his old vigour and cheerfulness returned to his voice. “Next time when I see you in the office, let me thank you by treating the both of you to a meal.”