It is almost 7.00 pm when I enter the hospital. Appa (father) is in hospital once again (the third time in as many months) and I am hurrying to relieve my eldest brother who has done the “day shift”; I will be doing the “night shift”. The huge lobby is packed with people and the place actually looks and sounds like a railway station sans luggage. There is a group of about 30-40 people waiting to meet a patient and from their looks and body language, I presume that this is a happy occassion—probably the birth of a baby. The harassed security guards are having a tough time turning away the rush of visitors as visiting hours are long over.
One of the security guards, who by now recognises me from my numerous visits to the hospital, mutters to me in an exasperated undertone, “Visitors!” I smile sympathetically at him, while recalling a conversation I had many years ago about hospitals and visitors.
“Madam, I want to leave early today.”
I look up from my work to see my department peon, Purushottam, standing at my desk.
“I have to go to the hospital, madam, ” he continues.
“Is everything all right?” I ask.
“I am fine. My cousin’s father-in-law’s sister’s husband has been admitted to the hospital and I have to go there.”
“Purushottam, the patient is not even related to you. Why do you want to go to the hospital? If it is that important, you could visit him once he has been discharged.”
Purushottam is shocked. “It doesn’t matter that the patient is not a close relative. He is from our biradari (clan), and everybody from our biradari will visit the hospital. If I don’t go, it will not be taken well. And anyway, I will also visit him after he is discharged.”
I change my tactic. “Won’t the patient need rest? He is hospitalised, after all, and with your entire biradari visiting, he’ll end up getting tired.”
“Oh I may not actually see him per se; I don’t even need to. I will meet his son or wife and give my best wishes for a speedy recovery. What is important is to show solidarity and support at this time.”
This incident happened over 15 years back and I have lost count of the number of times Purushottam left early from work or came late to work to “show solidarity and support” to some member of his biradari who was hospitalised, was just out of hospital and at home, was about to be hospitalised, needed blood, etc. And when Purushottam got transferred to another department and was replaced first by Ratna, then Achala and now Sunetra, the requests for hospital visits continue from them.
I must admit that at 15 years back, though I gave permission to Purushottam to leave early, I didn’t really understand nor appreciate the “obsession” over hospital visits. But these last 3 months have been an eye-opener in many ways, including the support and solidarity shown by family and friends. Though the last 3 months have been a stressful period with Appa in and out of hospital—a period that I never thought that my family would have to face—it has also been a period of unlearning many things and learning new ones, shedding prejudices and revising opinions about many more. All this happened through conversations and encounters in the hospital with people I would never have interacted or met otherwise—and people that I will probably never meet again. These conversations and encounters have been funny, tragic, poignant, insensitive even—each one reaffirming the myriad hues of life in a place most of us dread to be in.
Appa is in a restless, drug-induced sleep and I am keeping a watchful eye over him and pray that the other bed in the room, which is vacant, continues to remains so. It is pretty obvious that the prayer/communications lines are not working as I soon hear the unmistakable sounds of a patient being brought in. The patient and his accompanying family members are quite loud and voluble and take their time settling in. The nurse keeps shushing them, but to no avail. I can’t see who it is as the curtains have been drawn around our side of the room.
I hear footsteps approaching and suddenly, without any warning, the curtains are yanked back to reveal a middle-aged woman with a look of undisguised curiosity on her face.
“Hello ji ! We are your neighbours in the next bed,” she states.
I am too taken aback by this sudden intrusion and introduction to reply properly and just acknowledge her with an answering nod and a smile.
“He’s not well?” she continues, nodding towards Appa.
No, he is here on a vacation and picked this hospital for a rest cure. I resist giving this answer and instead reply only with a “Yes”.
“What happened? the woman asks. “Old age?”
I am about to retort angrily that old age is not an illness, when she continues. “My brother. He is so young. Just been married 2 days. Has to get kidney stone removed. So tragic. He has been admitted in the next bed.”
She sighs rather dramatically and says, “Your father is really old, isn’t he? What to do. You better pray for a peaceful and quick end. I will also pray for you.”
This was arguably the strangest and most insensitive conversation I have had in a hospital setting. On second thoughts, it may also be the strangest and insensitive conversation I have had outside of a hospital setting. In sharp contrast was an encounter in the same hospital, in the same room, just a week later.
It was a very worrying time with regard to Appa’s health. During this period, his room-mate was a young man who had been admitted for malaria. His family must have watched Appa’s doctors and nurses coming and going as well as our tense faces. Apart from exchanging acknowledging smiles, the two families did not really speak with one another.
The day Appa’s room-mate got discharged, his mother came up to me, took both my hands into hers and pressed it gently. Then she hugged me and left.
No words were needed to convey her best wishes for the Appa’s recovery. She left me with hope and a renewed strength to cope.
Some of the encounters and conversations revolved around food. Hospital food. The hospital provides food for all the patients, with no outside food is allowed into the hospital premises. A canteen caters to the family members and visitors to the hospital. The food for the patients is pretty good with meal plans drawn by the dietitians. However, there is one big hitch—only vegetarian food is served, leading to some very unhappy patients. Some of the encounters bordered on the comic for me, but must have been quite tragic for the patients concerned.
I was at the nursing station looking at Appa’s latest test results, when a patient stormed out of his room and started arguing with the head nurse to either discharge him or allow him some non-vegetarian food. And he was very very serious about this !
Another time, I overheard a patient complain to the catering staff about the temperature of oats porridge served for breakfast. She preferred them cold and with yoghurt, thank you very much, and not hot and with milk. She was actually contemplating putting in a complaint to the hospital’s managing director.
One of Appa’s room mates, a middle-aged Bengali, threw a mini tantrum for not being served fish with his meal. He argued with the nurse that fish was vegetarian and he had never eaten a meal without fish ! It took his octogenarian mother to calm him down and get him to eat his meals. Sans fish, of course.
Then there was Mrs. Pereira who had undergone a tracheostomy and was, therefore, on a liquid diet fed to her through a feeding tube. One day, as I was strolling in the common area outside the ward, I saw her seated in a wheelchair and facing the wall. Her daughter was sitting on a chair next to her and requesting her to stop sulking. I walked up to say hello (and of course find out the reason for her sulk) as I normally did whenever I saw Mrs. Pereira. Her daughter said that her mother was sulking because the soup, which she was fed through the tube, was cold and not piping hot as she preferred it. And Mrs. Pereira was going to sit and sulk till she received an apology from the hospital. So there !
I could probably write a book or a series of articles on my encounters and conversations in the hospital. But that is not my intention, nor is it my intention to romanticise a place that most of us prefer not to think about. I certainly dread, hate, dislike, abhor… hospitals. At least I used to. Not that I like hospitals now, but at least I understand the place and accept it as a part of life itself. The last 3 months have seen to that.
It is about 4.30 am. Appa has had a very restless night and the night nurse decides to give him an early sponge bath and a light massage so that he can sleep for at least some time. Since I am shooed out of the room, I take my book and walk out of the ward into the common sitting area. There is no one there in the dimly lit hall and I settle myself on one of the chairs with my book—an Asterix comic. As I am reading it and chuckling to myself, I hear footsteps. I look up to see a young man, probably in his late teens or early 20s, emerging from one of the wards. Even in the dim light I can make out that he has been crying. I avert my eyes and get back to my book.
The steps come nearer and the man asks me, if he could sit in the chair next to me. I nod and try to get back to the antics of Asterix and Obelix, while covertly trying to observe him from the corner of eyes. The young man then asks me if he could read the Asterix comic with me. I surprise myself by nodding yes (I hate to read books or newspapers with others) and together we read and chuckled together till the last line has been read. The young man got up and said, “Thank you. Thank you for sharing that book. I needed it. Thank you very much.” And he walked away.
The young man didn’t wait to hear my thanks. I needed it too.