JB Hospital nostalgia

As news and photos of the fire at Hospital Sultanah Aminah were shared on social media that morning of October 25, I was filled with sadness and empathy for everyone affected and grieved with the families who lost loved ones in the tragedy.

Facade of the Johor Baru General Hospital in 1946
The Johor Baru government hospital was once called the Johor Baru General Hospital or GH, in short.   In 1977, it was renamed Hospital Sultanah Aminah (HSA) after Sultanah Aminah, the first wife of Sultan Ismail.
             
The earliest hospital in JB was a wooden building used since 1882 and was replaced by the original 5-storey structure with a red brick finishing, designed in a symmetrical layout with East and West wings.

The former residence of Ungku Khatijah on Bukit Chengkih
was once used as the JB Hospital Officers' Ward
Construction of the hospital on a site which commands a panoramic view of the Johor Straits, started in 1938 and was completed in 1941.

The layout of the hospital was such that wards located in the East and West wings were naturally cooled by sea breezes. 

JB’s Teochew community fondly refers to the hospital as puay kee lau that literally translates to “airplane building” because the aerial view of the building layout resembles an airplane!

Senior medical practitioners will fondly recall how their skills were honed in the first post-graduate medical center in Malaysia established in the JB GH by three medical pioneers, Datuk Dr Lim Kee Jin, Datuk Dr T Sachithanandan and Datuk Dr Sam C E Abraham, in 1969.

My mum, Lucy Ng [2nd from Right] with her midwife
colleagues at the maternity ward, in an adjacent building
In 1928, the residence of Ungku Khatijah, the sister of Sultan Abu Bakar, was completed on Bukit Cengkih, a hill behind the hospital that earned its name from the clove (cengkih) plantation here.

After her demise, this palace was renovated and used as the hospital’s Officers’ Ward or first-class ward.  This building is now used as the Hematology Ward and part of the Monash University campus while the first-class ward moved to the new extension of the main building in 2009.

The hospital compound is bordered by Jalan Mahmoodiah and Jalan Skudai/Jalan Abu Bakar while Jalan Datuk Wilson which meanders around the main hospital building, was once lined by staff quarters.

As patient needs increased, these staff quarters were demolished to build the polyclinic and specialists clinic, and over time, every available space in the compound is occupied by buildings for wards and other departments.

The government hospital is close to my heart not only because I was born here but also because this was where my parents met each other.

Dad and his three daughters in front of our home at the
JB Hospital quarters along Jalan Dato Wilson: the
writer is seated on the driver's seat!
While dad, who was from Ipoh, trained and qualified as a hospital assistant here, mum qualified in midwiferyFrom them, my siblings and I learnt a great deal about the hospital, its wards, interesting cases and the strict rules by which they were trained under the British medical system.

After they were married, my parents were posted to Kota Tinggi Hospital where they were based for several years.  On their transfer back to JB GH, their home was the staff quarters at Jalan Dato Wilson.

When dad was on night duty, he and his team would finish their duties quickly and to stay awake until the next round of medicine dispensing, he would spend the time learning Tamil from Indian colleagues.

This was how dad acquired a working knowledge of the language and it proved useful to make Indian patients feel more comfortable as dad spoke to them in their own tongue.

It was uncanny that on the day I was born, all three of us – my parents and I – were lying in the same hospital but in different wards!

Mum recalls that she was still working that day and when she felt the onset of labour, she went home to shower and admitted herself to the ward.

In those days, the maternity ward was in a separate building next to the hospital.  Later the maternity ward moved to level four of the main building before it shifted into the new extension along with the first-class and royal wards.

Recently we discovered dad’s old diary noting the dates he was admitted for jaundice, a day before my mother was also admitted to deliver me!

So the first home I knew was my parents’ staff quarters in the hospital compound.

Floods in the hospital compound on Christmas Day 1960
One unforgettable childhood memory here was Christmas Day in 1960 when the monsoon rain coincided with a super high tide and the hospital compound was flooded by the backflow from the sea, washed up to our front steps!

Dad, who enjoyed photography, captured a wide collection of photos of himself and his hospital colleagues – on duty and off duty – and even shots of patients meeting a friendly zebra which had escaped from the nearby zoo and wandered into the hospital compound!

HSA continues to provide affordable quality healthcare to the public and when the polyclinic could no longer cope with the volume of patients, an out-patient clinic was opened at Jalan Mahmoodiah in 2005.

An unforgettable Christmas Day at Jalan Dato Wilson!
The advancements in HSA’s specialists and cardiac departments are so impressive that many patients opt to seek treatment here.  So this public hospital is often over-crowded but there is a system to meet patient needs. 

After my parents’ retirement, I accompany them for regular check-ups and also collect their prescriptions from the polyclinic and Mahmoodiah clinic. 

As a frequent visitor in the wards, I’m familiar with the hospital and saw how space is maximized with new wards created by partitions.  Internal renovations must also include electrical extensions to support the lighting and equipment there.

And over decades, records of countless renovations in the old building may be too sketchy for hospital administrators to review original or updated floor and electrical wiring plans now.

It’s a hard lesson to learn but the recent catastrophe proved how important it is to have a disaster plan and trained safety personnel who are vigilant about conducting strict maintenance checks regularly to guard against fire and similar emergencies in buildings with large numbers of people.

Besides hospitals, disaster plans must be put in place in shopping malls, commercial and industrial buildings, movie theatres, hotels, schools, hostels and dormitories.

A version of this was published in the December 2016 issue of The Iskandarian

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