“Now show me your face!”

The first time I saw her face was when she was being put under general anaesthesia for her surgery. Even when she visited my consultation room with her husband for a neck swelling, she was wearing a top-to-toe burkha with gloves, covering every visible part of the body, following the directions of the holy book of her religion. She briefly lifted the veil to expose the neck, but the face was firmly secured by a band around the chin. Awkward as it was, it was sufficient to clinch the diagnosis. It turned out to be a large goiter (enlargement of the thyroid gland) suspected to be malignant. Her surgery was scheduled for later that week.

Beliefs can take you only so far in matters of health. The additional layers would have to come off for surgical treatment. And they did, but only in the operating room. Dealing with the religious and cultural obstacles that come in the way of a proper diagnosis and treatment can be frustrating at times, but that’s just the way it is. Once on the operating table, the veil came off and her young, beautiful face was fully exposed for the first time. As the anaesthetist placed an endotracheal tube in her throat for the general anaesthesia, the face was once again covered, but this time with surgical drapes. We surgeons could hardly care less about looks with a serious disease lurking just a few inches below and the patient prepped and draped.

The procedure was uneventful, a resounding success. But when I went on rounds to her ward the next day, I was surprised to see that there was no veil. It was gone. She gave me a wide smile and greeted me in her normal voice, and I was reassured that all was well as far as the surgery was concerned. The reason of course being it rules out any accidental surgical injuries to the delicate nerves that control speech located around the thyroid. We chatted for a while and I assured her and her husband that she was good to be discharged the following day.

As I started to turn to continue my rounds, her voice rang out behind: “Now show me your face!” A bit startled at first, I realised that she really had not seen my face up to that time. I had been wearing my N95 mask throughout, from the first consultation up to that day. Life is indeed very strange. One covers up out of cultural and religious compulsions, the other due to a pandemic that is running amok. Sometimes, both simply need to go for human relationships to be established.

And I removed my mask to reveal my face briefly, before covering it up again with a smile.

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