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.


Thoughts on An Insistent Tide story by Vincent Lam

(by mcbridei)

An Insistent Tide is a short story about one woman’s journey through the final stages of child birth and how situations changes quickly and don’t always go according to plan.

We join Janice in a dream just before her water’s break. She is dreaming she is lying on a beach with water flowing around her thighs. At first she seems at peace in a trance like state but then begins to feel pain as her uterus expels the water as series of “waves”. A bird fly’s high over head, its spirit is described as rising which perhaps represents the foetus about to become a baby. This dream as well as the later ones shows how the mind is in tune with the body.

She is awoken by a call from her husband, when she tells him her waters broke he seems hesitant to accept this, suggesting she gets a plumber. Then when she says she is in labour he asks “Why do you say that?” suggesting she doesn’t know her own body. We feel as if the relationship between the two isn’t very close. I would expect as a woman approaches birth of her child it would bring partners closer together.

Next Janice arrives at the hospital where she is examined by her doctor, called Dr. Ming. Janice seems to have respect for Dr. Ming as she seems relaxed in her presence. We see Janice is a little annoyed with Dr. Ming’s vague answers when she replies to how long labour will last when she says “That depends”.

When she thinks back to the books about pregnancy she read, she refers to them lie exam preparation, showing that a few months ago giving birth seemed like a distant event and she was more concerned with her day to day living. This is completely understandable considering all the other changes she would have to adjust to. Sections which bored her at the time now seem very relevant.

When Janice goes for her ultra-sound she describes the equipment as a “wand” implying it is like magic, while words like “hissed” suggest a more sinister side to the equipment. We then are once again reminded of the distance in Janice’s relation with her partner when she forces “a casual disregard for her husband’s absence” when Dr. Ming asks about his absence. This distance is almost painfully echoed when she refers to being able to contact her husband in North America as giving “the illusion that he was nearby”. When Janice says she has to go as the contractions get worse Oliver asks “Did you bring the champagne?” which really makes one question his priorities and concern for his wife.

Janice then enters another dream, this time induced by laughing gas. Once again she is on a beach but there are two birds this time. We sense something is wrong when the fish start to nip furiously at her thighs. Suddenly one bird appears to collapse and the other dives after it. The one who fell most likely represents her child whose face she felt she should recognise while the second one was Dr. Ming who is trying to save her child. This is confirmed when she wakes up to find Dr. Ming trying to find out why the unborn child’s heart rate is dropping. For me this really shows the fate Janice has in Dr. Ming when she knows in her dreams Dr. Ming will come to help as soon as her body feels the child is in danger. This shows once again that mind and body are intertwined with each other.

Yet conscious Janice still doesn’t seem to recognise that something is wrong when she remarks naively “That’s wonderful” to Dr. Ming’s comment that she can feel the umbilical chord. Eventually she the gravity of the situation hits her when she realises her baby will suffocate. Dr. Ming seemed to want her to figure this out for herself instead of telling her straight away. This highlights that doctors sometimes have difficult things to say and they need to develop ways of dealing with this.

Dr. Ming decides instantly that a Caesarean section is required. Janice is shocked by the sudden change in plans, she had always imagined thing to go gradually wrong. This shows how health care staff always have to be prepared for the worse. Janice was shocked by how a simple decision changed so much for her.

Janice shows remarkable control when her husband calls asking about videos at such a crucial time yet she just  tells him  to get them if he wants as she does not want to burden him with news of the current incident.

As Janice is whisked towards the Caesarean Section room she is told “everything will be fine” but Janice sees this as just a mantra that they would say no matter how things were. As she passes other rooms she hears women grunting and men shouting “Push, Push”. This reminds her and us that every minute of everyday new children are being born and women becoming new mothers.

When she reaches the room we sense an element of desperation on the team as they try to get an anaesthetist. Yet no matter how many times they are paged they do not turn up. This shows the understaffing that is present in many hospitals and reminds us that the staff are human and can’t be everywhere at once.

We once again see that Dr. Ming is very experienced when she spins into her gown. While previously we saw that the mind and body are closely linked she is still unable to stop the contractions and her baby from crushing the umbilical cord. She feels hopeless, describing herself as “dissolving into this table”. Yet suddenly survival instinct seems to take over her when she shouts “you don’t need the anaesthetist”. Dr. Ming looks shocked yet relieved that she is now able to do the procedure despite breaking away from normal practice. Janice almost instantly questions her decision but it has been made. She is then dosed with morphine, injected with the local anaesthetic lidocaine and her skin is frozen. Through out the procedure Janice issues a series rhetorical questions trying to distract herself from the pain. She seems to become separated from her body as she hears herself screaming as if from the outside.

She then enters another dream in which a “gravity lower within her … had been removed” but it is replaced with pain. She wakes to see herself being stitched up with the “movement of a bird’s nest-building”. This image is poignant as if her womb is getting ready for the next child whenever it may come. The story ends with Janice no-longer feeling pain.