Decorations Do Not a Hero Make

A great nation never forgets to honour its heroes,” said Sukarno, our first president and one of the founding fathers of the modern Indonesian state. Bali has, perhaps, been the foremost in honouring her heroes. It was here on this isle that the ancient myth of Sutasoma was preserved for posterity. This is the same myth that gave us our national motto of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity/Appearing as Many, but Essentially One).
From ancient myth to present-day reality. Here is a story of a contemporary hero, a man who lived in Java, but loved Bali dearly.

I agree with what you said, Pak. Medical science does not fully endorse the view, but yes, the mind exists outside the brain and controls it. So there must be another faculty controlling the mind.” I still remember those words spoken to me by a tall, well-built stranger.

1998: He was attending our public event. His language was simple, but his knowledge betrayed him. “You must be a doctor, Pak.” I said.

He paused for a brief moment: “Kebetulan saja,” a very common Indonesian phrase, meaning “coincidentally,” implying, “nothing great.”

He was a doctor.

“With a specialization in…” He giggled shyly. “Actually I know something about the human brain.”

The man was a neurosurgeon. That is the top in the hierarchy of conventional medical science. Later I discovered from one of his juniors that he belonged to the first generation of Indonesian neurosurgeons.

I remember commenting: “He must be well known,” implicitly meaning he must be well-to-do.

“The man is a bit eccentric. He prefers to work in the government hospitals. He just moved to Jakarta after spending most of his life in the remote areas.”

That was uncommon for a neurosurgeon. Another doctor friend of mine, working in a small town in Java, told me once, “It is so difficult to have an ENT specialist here. With no specialization, I must still take care of the tuberculosis unit, for lack of specialists.”

Dr Bambang Setiawan belonged to an altogether different genre of doctors. My second meeting with him, a couple of weeks later, confirmed my initial conclusion about him – out of this world. When I mentioned this to him, he laughed. He had a peculiar way of laughing, uniquely Setiawan. Like the neurotransmitters of his science, they were short, but intertwined, interconnected.

The man drove an old sedan, and would commute between Jakarta and Bandung, where his family lived. “You don’t get tired?” I asked him once.

“The body does need a rest,” he answered, “I try to rest between surgeries. That is important for me. I must be fully alert before entering the operating theatre.”

He often talked about when things went wrong. “When brain-death occurs, the patient is actually dead. Other organs begin to shut down one by one. Though some energy is still left to cause body reflexes. At that point, if the patient is given life support, his lungs and heart may show some activity. It is like pumping air into a balloon.

“Sadly, such clinically dead patients are often put under intensive care, and even treated with expensive intravenous infusions.” The reason? You guessed it.

It did not take me long to have firsthand experience of what he said. My sister was admitted to a private hospital for cirrhosis, under the care of a renowned internist. Dr Setiawan came, saw her and confided in me: “Medically speaking, nothing much that can be done. She may not survive longer than a couple of weeks.” He was right.

One afternoon, my brother-in-law called to inform me that my sister was being moved to the intensive care unit. I rushed to the hospital, saw her and felt that she was gone.

I immediately called Dr Setiawan, who came within an hour. It was around four in the afternoon – almost three hours after my sister was admitted to the ICU – and Dr Setiawan confirmed: “Her brain is dead.”

Why infuse a dead body with packs of albumin? It took us more than eight hours to get hold of the professor under whose “expert care” my sister had been, and two stern lines from Dr Setiawan over the phone line: “Professor, I am a neurosurgeon. And I know that brain death has already occurred” – to have the meaningless life support removed.

During those 12 hours in the ICU, my sister had been dead for at least eight of them, yet she helped enrich the doctors and the hospital with additional tens of millions of rupiah.

Corrupt practitioners are placed in “high places” where they dance to the tune of their masters. Dr Setiawan and I shared same frustrations and concerns over the fate of this nation. We discussed these things in private, and in public. Some of our recorded discussions were later published in book form.

What saddened him the most was the mental state of our people “up there”: “They are not sincere, not ready to serve. They like to be served.”

His frustrations, however, became his strength. On October 28, 2006, the spirited doctor – together with several of his friends – formed ForADokSi-BIP (Forum Pengajar, Dokter dan Psikolog bagi Ibu Pertiwi), the Forum of Educators, Doctors and Psychologists for Motherland.

ForADokSi consists of true sons and daughters of the soil, scattered all over the nation, ever toiling for Motherland. They go unnoticed and undecorated. However, they are too busy to be bothered by that.

This year, ForADokSi was to celebrate its 3rd anniversary at the National Defence Institute (Lemhanas), on October 29. Dr Setiawan was to talk on the need to transform our education system, so as to ensure a fear-free and more courageous generation. Alas, three weeks before the celebration, the man who had helped many live a normal post-stroke life had a fatal stroke.

Dozens of specialists attending to him – including his doctor wife – were amazed that he could stay alive in spite of a damaged brain stem. Interestingly, that had been the subject of his special interest.

October 29, 2009: More than 800 teachers, doctors, psychologists, and students gathered at Lemhanas. Dr Setiawan’s absence was being felt. Five minutes after the seminar commenced, we got the news that Dr Setiawan had left us. All of sudden, the feeling of his physical absence was replaced by that of his spiritual presence.

Dr Setiawan: An unsung hero, but he left singing and teaching us how to sing; undecorated, but decorations do no make a hero anyway. You are not with us physically, but you shall remain our inspiration. The torch of selfless service that you have left us with shall now be carried by our youth. You shall remain the light of many, many Little Torches, young Torch Bearers and adult Torch Guardians. A Fellowship of Light – that is your legacy. I salute you, Doctor.

The writer is a spiritual activist and author of more than 130 books, several in English (, His organization runs Holistic Health/Meditation Centers, a National Plus/Interfaith School, a Charitable Clinic and a Public Reading Room in Bali. For more information, call Aryana or Debbie at 0361 7801595, 8477490.

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Anand Krishna

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