As often happened in the course of 1943 and 1944, the theatre in Chungkai Camp was shut down for a period, because a production had offended the prison guards. During one of these periods Barry remembers:
With the closure of the theatre, I rejoined the group of volunteer orderlies in the ulcer ward and here met Dr Jacob Markowitz for the first time. For some months more and more men with large infected ulcers had been arriving at Chungkai from up-river camps.
These ulcers were nearly all in the legs and were caused by scratches from the thorny bamboo, which like most wounds in the jungle soon became infected and ulcerated. The doctors decided that when an ulcer patient had a life expectation of not more than a fortnight then the limb would be amputated.
The doctors had a supply of Dental Cocaine and this was used as a spinal anaesthetic, very suitable for leg amputations. As I worked up and down the ward with the other volunteers, cleaning and dressing the ulcers we would regularly be asked “Will it be my turn soon?” Most of the men were anxious to be freed from the misery and pain of an ever-growing ulcer, and were prepared, even anxious, to undergo the risk and pain of an operation.
I worked for a short time as a member of Dr Markowitz’s team. My job was to tend a small fire under a cut-down paraffin can in which the instruments were boiled. We had, as I recall, two scalpels, a bone saw, and several retractors made from table forks. The operating theatre was in the open, without a roof as it was the dry season.
The area was surrounded by screens of rice sacks on bamboo frames. My job was to keep the fire going and to fish out the instruments with homemade bamboo tongs and to lay them on a piece of sterile cloth on a small bamboo side table.
There were no comforting pre-med drugs, so the patient was immediately rolled onto one side and one of Markowitz’s assistants inserted the needle into his spine and injected a suitable dose of cocaine. Marco usually had one or two doctors assisting him. When tests showed that the anaesthesia was satisfactory a very tight tourniquet was placed around the patients upper thigh or groin and the operation proceeded.
I believe about 80% of patients survived these operations, a great advance on certain death in a fortnight. Many of the ulcer patients would have preferred death to a continued endurance of their miserable condition.
There were no painkillers and the next few days must have been agonising after the anaesthetic had worn off. These patients, referred to as the “Amputs”, lived all together in a separate hut and no doubt comforted one another. By the end of the War most of the survivors were getting about on some sort of bamboo prosthesis.
Goods for these and other operations were supplied very secretly by Mr. Phi Boon Pong, a Siamese merchant and barge trader.
Boon Pong and other members of his family were crucial in the delivery of life-saving supplies through the underground to some of the camps. Many, many prisoners owe their lives to him.
It is almost unbelievable what people can go through and survive, and to see the humanity of someone like Boon Pong in even the darkest hour. –Curt
There’s a whole story to Boon Pong which is not part of my story, but I think maybe I should give him a post. There is almost no Far POW story in which he does not feature and he suffered for it.
Please, Hilary. I would be very interested in reading more of his story. –Curt
They went thru the tortures of hell, quite literally. Does anyone know what happened to Boon Pong?
Yes, and I am planning to put up a post about him. It’s a complex story, give me a few days.