Students notes on Vincent Lam’s story ‘Contact Tracing’

(by tsheeha)

The story is set in Toronto, Canada, the year 2003. It describes a time where SARS disease has run rampant worldwide, a disease which effects pulmonary function and leads to eventual death. The story describes how two doctors who have contracted the disease tell stories about pastimes and try to help each other overcome the disease. Two other characters involved in the story are Dolores, the nurse and Dr. Zenkie, who attends to the two patients.

The story is portrayed in two formats – a professional and personal style of writing. Firstly we see Dr. Zenkie’ notes. His dealing, interactions and treatment of the patients. H is informing us of the patient’s condition at the time. He is almost setting the scene. We4 get aspects of the medicine and procedures used to try and treat the disease.

There is also a personal story being told as the author lets us delve into the lives and attitudes of each character, Dr. Chen, Dr. Fitzgerald and Dolores the nurse. We see how SARS  affects their lives on a daily basis and how they cope with the disease.

Early on in the story we get an insight into how a doctor may deal with the disease. It is like the disease is undermining the authority of the doctor. Dr. Fitzgeraald says that he wants to ask the nurse to stop calling him doctor, but when the time comes he is afraid to let go of his identity, perhaps his only chance to find a cure.

The idea of alcoholism is discussed regularly throughout the piece. Dr. Fitzgerald is an alcoholic who miakes light of his struggles with alcoholism by claiming he only has a few or just a night cap to help him sleep. H eis covering up a deeper problem and his denial is not helping his treatment as he refuses to admit to Dr Zenkie that the real reason he is shaking is due to withdraw from alcohol.

Dr. Chen and Dr. Fitzgerald went to medical school together and although they admit that they weren’t very good friends, it is interesting to see how their relationship and new found friendship helps them cope through this disease. They share nostalgic memories of their old friend who died of pancreatic cancer and of their attending ways of practice.

Through their discussions the author is allowed to portray many themes. One such theme is the stress of Doctors. They both tell shocking stories of how their stress got the better of them and they both did things that they may have regretted. Dr. Chen decided not to call a nagging family when their mother died and Dr. Fitzgerald wouldn’t help a junkie who appeared to be in need of CPR. These stories give the reader a somewhat sinister view of potentially likeable characters.

The story also deals with the role of a nurse and perhaps the poor treatment and unfair working conditions. During the SARS epidemic they were offered retirement with no benefits or if a nurse refused to treat a SARS patient she would lose her seniority. We see how one particular nurse. Dolores struggles with the whole situation. She was unhappy when she thought she had to treat SARS patients. Her children were asked to leave playschool in fear that they would contract the disease and spread it to the other children. I believe that the character Dolores epitomizes the common citizen of the time. While the other characters reminisce of their past glories and sufferings, Dolores is portrayed as just trying to make it through day by day, protecting her home and family.

The concept of loneliness and death is talks about throughout the story. Dr. Fitzgerald talks of Ming, a girl he once loves and now Dr. Chens wife. He regrets not starting a relationship with Ming and blames his loneliness by the void she has left in his life. This sense of lone lines is also a major factor in his drinking problem.

Death is a running theme throughout. The patients discuss the death of their friend and also discuss how being a doctor has chamged their attitude to death.  Dr. Chen stating that he now feels oblivious to the feelings that a loss causes emotionally.  Dr. Fitzgerald says hints that he has nothing left to live for and has accepted that his illness will kill him. He does not want to be resuscitated.

The eventual death of Dr. Fitzgerald is a bit of an anti-climax as it is written as a news report and takes away from the heroic act of Dr. Chen trying to save his life.


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