Medical emergencies require immediate attention, but this shipyard worker endured 31 hours of pain before getting the help that he required.

By Cara

The first thing you might notice about Thirumoorthi is his serious, almost harsh gaze with an intensity that’s emphasised by asymmetrical, bloodshot eyes. I soon learn that this is the result of a sandblaster accident that left him with tiny shards of metal lodged in his eye. Months later, the 30-year-old worker from Chennai still suffers from blurred vision and a sharp pain in his eye. This injury has rendered him unable to work for nearly nine months. With halting English, he describes how his eye hurts and tears when in bright light: “Sun come, many pain. Water come out.”

In August 2012, while he was working at the Jurong shipyard, the splashback from Thirumoorthi’s blasting gun broke his protective mask and minute iron splinters flew into his left eye. With a searing pain in his eye at 3am in the morning, the startled man tried calling his safety officer but to no avail. He was asleep. With nobody else on standby other than a group leader who could not do much to help, he then tried to get some rest but was kept awake by the unyielding pain in his eye. An attempt to wash out the eye with eye drops was unsuccessful, and the hapless worker had no choice but to wait till his staff meeting at 7am to seek help from his foreman.

A sleep-deprived Thirumoorthi finally got his foreman’s attention at 7am, but instead of getting the medical help he needed, the frustrated worker was told to visit a doctor in the evening. Weary and wrought with pain, he tried again in vain to get some rest. At 11am, he called his foreman. “Many pain come, want go hospital,” he said with panic in his voice. Once again his cry for help was met with flippant instructions to wait till evening to see a doctor.

Silently suffering from before dawn to nearly dusk may be unthinkable to most in a country with readily available medical care, but a low-wage foreign worker grappling with language barriers hasn’t much choice but to obey his foreman’s directions and hope for the best. At 6pm, Thirumoorthi made his way to a subsidised private clinic in Little India by himself for help. Brows furrowed, he recalls, “Doctor say, no help. You go Alexandra hospital now.” Apparently, Thirumoorthi’s injury was too complicated for the general practitioner to treat; asking him to seek immediate medical attention from the hospital was the only thing to do.

Thirumoorthi immediately called his foreman and told him his GP’s recommendation. However, his foreman instructed him to return from the doctor’s and wait till the next day at 10am to be taken to West Point Hospital — the company’s nominated hospital. This was so as not to incur additional costs, says Thirumoorthi. By the time he got to West Point, about 31 hours had passed since the injury till he was given the help that he needed. Despite continued treatment through the months since, Thirumoorthi’s vision is still compromised. Unable to work, he is due to return to Chennai in two months’ time, where his wife and two young daughters await. They have been relying on Thirumoorthi’s father for financial support since he lost a means to an income.

The stoic-looking man finally cracks a smile when showing me a picture of his young daughters, and he speaks optimistically of ‘changing my eye’ and working on a farm back home. I, however, can’t help but feel rather apprehensive over the long-term effects of Thirumoorthi’s injury, and how it will affect his future livelihood. Although I cannot assert that getting this man more timely medical attention could have prevented his injury from being aggravated, I also can’t help but wonder: In the face of an obvious medical emergency such as Thirumoorthi’s, are tedious protocol and cost saving procedures more important than saving an eye? Could we have done better?