I have a patient, R, who has been under my care since 1996. In 2007, she ran into a serious non-medical problem. She was conned by her employer, the owner of a number of tuition centres, who paid her only $750 a month.
Her duties included taking the children from one tuition centre to another and calling their parents when necessary. But she had to spend her own money to ferry the children by taxi, and she wasn't reimbursed for the calls she made on her mobile phone.
Her boss faked ill health to gain her sympathy. Eventually, she became broke and borrowed money. She then took some money from the tuition fees to pay off loan sharks, intending to pay her boss back from her future earnings.
But he found out before she could make amends and threatened to report her to the police if she did not reimburse him immediately.
Her parents repaid him, but he went back on his word and made a police report nevertheless.
It was a long sob story - even for me, used as I am to hearing many sob stories. I threw my hands up in despair at R's naivety. But I had to try to help her, so I asked a senior psychiatrist to see her.
He spent four hours talking to her and more time drafting a letter to the judge to plead for R not to be sent to jail.
I also arranged for lawyers to represent her pro bono. They informed the court that R was undergoing treatment for depression as well as epilepsy. She was doing well in her treatment.
If she continues with it, the chances of a relapse - including the possibility of committing another crime - were close to zero or slim.
Imprisonment would have devastating consequences for her, for it would most certainly derail her treatment.
The mitigation plea helped swing the balance in favour of a fine as opposed to a jail sentence. All involved in helping R were delighted with the judge's decision.
A few days later, on the Thursday before Good Friday in 2008, I received a tiny parcel. I did not open it until I received the following e-mail from R on Good Friday itself.
"Dear Prof Lee," it began, "I just want to say a big thank you for going that extra mile for me. If it wasn't for your assistance and your team, I would not be able to send you this e-mail today. Where I am sitting today, able to lead my daily life, is all thanks to you. My parents are very grateful for your continuous help and support all this while, even when you yourself are not feeling that well. You are really what the phrase says: 'A person sent by God.'"
The little parcel contained a clay tablet with the following words imprinted on it: "It doesn't matter WHERE you go in life... WHAT you do... Or HOW much you have… It's WHO you have beside you."
The irony of it, I thought. My friends and I had done no more than human beings should do to help their fellow human beings. And here was R describing me, an atheist, as "a person sent by God".
I forwarded her e-mail to my friend, the managing partner of the law firm whose lawyers had helped her. "God sends an atheist!!" I exclaimed.
He replied: "God does have a hand in everything, He works in wondrous ways and His unseen hand is everywhere."
Fearing I had offended him, I responded: "You are not an atheist? I guess I must be more careful to whom I make my cynical remarks."
I later told him that I thought it was his law firm and my psychiatrist friend who deserved the credit for saving R, not God acting indirectly through a diehard atheist like me.
I put R's clay tablet on my desk in my bedroom. A few months later, on May 12, 2008, there was a deadly earthquake in Sichuan and my mother suffered a stroke on the same day.
After spending several weeks in hospital with no sign of improvement, we brought her home. We nursed her in her bedroom, with my father moving his bed to his study.
One day, I noticed the clay tablet had been stuck on the door of my mother's bedroom. One of our two Muslim Indonesian maids must have done that.
My mother passed away in October 2010. My father moved his bed back to his former bedroom. The clay tablet is still on the door.
In the meantime, R's epilepsy is under control and she is working full-time in a job she is happy with.
This "Easter story" shows there are still people in this cynical world who want to do what is right, even if it does not profit them personally.
That gives me hope that we can develop into a compassionate society whether or not we believe in God, or whether or not we believe in the same religion.
This article was published on April 20 in The Straits Times.
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