One Night In Bangkok.
COLONEL KEITH FLEMING ushered me into his study. Tasteful Thai art and sculpture did nothing to disguise that his was a very masculine retreat.
“Lets have a look at you.” he said with a softly modulated tone and snapped on a pair of white surgical gloves and spread a blue sterile square across his desk.
“Just rest your arm there.”
Businesslike but not unfriendly as he began to unwrap the bandage from my arm.
I should have given him his full title: Colonel Doctor Keith Fleming, chief medical officer of SEATO1 and a New Zealander. I was given his name by an American Air Force surgeon at the B-52 base at Sattahip and told firmly to call him if there was any problem with the wound after he had removed a small tree branch from my arm2.
A few hours earlier I decided that time was now as the stitches had pulled out of the flesh which was now more a mushy mess than actual skin. And it smelled, something that was impossible to ignore as the last turns of bandage were pulled away.
“OK, we’re going to have to do something about this right away. It’s pretty well infected. I don’t have what we need here so we’re going to get some stuff from the dispensary. Feel like a ride?”
Unlike most farangs (foreigners, especially caucasians) Fleming drove his own car. Even more unusual was his car. New cars in Thailand were subject to huge taxes. It was not unusual that Fleming chose a second-hand vehicle, but what a vehicle. I am no expert in American automobiles, but this was everything you would expect from 60s Detroit: huge, all chrome and leather, fins, two tone paint and a ride like a mattress, even on Bangkok’s fractured bitumen.
The dispensary was in total darkness but Fleming clearly had enough keys to get what he needed and we were soon floating back with the full-throated gurgle of the powerful engine. Three local families could live in this thing and invite friends for dinner.
Back in the study he went to work, tenderly but firmly, swabbing away the putrid tissue, cleaning out with antiseptic solution, applying active dressing and ever-so-neatly re-bandaging. The firm pressure was comforting and reassuring. The box with a course of antibiotics was even more reassuring knowing they were the real thing. Many drugs dispensed in Thailand were counterfeit or worse, having no active ingredients at all.
Fleming tidied up and offered a drink from a well-stocked bar. I gladly accepted and we got to talking.
I said how much I admired the social and medical aid and reformation that SEATO was achieving in the region. He poured another round, shaking his head sadly.
“No? Am I wrong about that, Keith?” We were on relaxed, first name terms by now but I was genuinely puzzled.
Keith settled into his Scotch. “Yes, we are getting a few good things going here. I just hope they will last after we have all gone home. I was thinking of something else … before.”
“Before?” I questioned.
“A previous posting. In Africa. Terrible poverty. Ignorance. Government health services practically non-existent. Disease and epidemics run out of control. Women have so many children so that they can hope that some will survive.”
“Yes, that’s terrible and disturbing but how do you feel particularly responsible?”
Keith sank deeper into his armchair, sighed, and topped up our drinks.
“I mentioned poverty, right? And epidemics and lack of medical services, right? Well one of the biggest killers is cholera. It is feared. It is easily and quickly spread and usually fatal, unnecessarily fatal.”
I leant forward. I could not see where this was going.
“Yes it’s terrible and I’m sure that you and many others do everything they can to help.”
“They do. It is not so difficult to maintain, if not a quick cure. Just good maintenance will achieve survival in most cases.”
“Mmm, so …?”
“Poverty! The people most affected were those least able to afford or access treatment. I developed a treatment using readily-available local ingredients that even the most impoverished villagers could afford and even make themselves.”
I shook my head, wide-eyed and stammered: “Keith, that’s wonderful, amazing, you will save thousands, millions of lives! Have you published this? This is Nobel Prize stuff!”
Keith was clearly unmoved.
“Russell, I have interfered with nature. So many more young will survive — for what? To die a few painful, unhappy years later of starvation and malnutrition — or being shot or clubbed or speared to death by rival faction or tribe. Families will continue to have far too many children, but now more will survive in families that can not sustain themselves.”
I looked down, wondering if there might be an answer in my glass.
There never is.
1South East Asia Treaty Organization It was formed in 1955 based on the Manilla Pact. SEATO was a mainly a defence collective headquartered in Bangkok with the intention of halting the further spread of communism in the region. It folded in 1977 and was generally considered a failure in a military sense but left behind considerable achievements at cultural, educational and social levels.
2For an account of the events that led me here, see “A Traveller’s Tale” elsewhere in this blog.