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“Sia. You have had that gleam in your eyes…. a joy …You found that one thing that made you more complete, like I do when I tie the ghungroos and dance! Today I can’t bear to look at the sadness in you.”
Our Muse of the Month series this year focus on stories that pass the Bechdel test, and are written on inspiration from a new prompt every month. This month, the prompt was “Paint The Sky, Make It Yours”. The story should pass the Bechdel Test, that is, it should have at least two well crafted, named women characters (we differ here slightly from the classic Bechdel test, in that we require these characters to be named),
The second winner of our September 2018 Muse of the Month contest is Ujwala Shenoy Karmarkar.
As the trolley carrying six-month old Ronit for his open-heart surgery was wheeled into the operation theatre, his mother started sobbing. Not that Ronit heard or saw any of it. His premedication had kicked in and he was drowsy. At the door of the operating theatre, in surgical scrubs, stood Sia, her expression calm and reassuring, posture confident. She nodded at the distraught mother, pausing for an extra few seconds to make eye contact and convey her empathy.
Entering the operating theatre, she checked that the warmer was blowing pleasantly on the operating table in an otherwise chilly room. The perfusionist and anaesthesia teams were in readiness. A sleepy Ronit was transferred to the operating table, to begin the process of inducing anaesthesia.
Sia reflected that it was a mercy that Ronit was sleeping. The array of instruments, the anaesthesia monitors, the shiny perfusion machine with its tubings extending like a mechanical octopus, combined with the masked personnel in monochrome scrubs made the operating room appear eerily like the control room of an alien spacecraft. Scary for an adult, but for a six-month old? Terrifying!
Sia knew Ronit’s medical history almost as well as his mother. Breathless after feeding or even crying, Ronit had not been diagnosed until he was three months old. Born with a ‘hole in the heart’, (a lay-man term for ventricular septal defect), the diagnosis had meant that he would need surgery. But, he could not have been operated until now; his repeated infections and failure to put on weight being a major hurdle.
Ronit’s heart was a ticking time bomb. The hole in his heart was so large that the blood with oxygen mixed with deoxygenated blood and consequently, his body was receiving less oxygen. Not only that, the older he got, he would get more breathless and the chances of the condition becoming irreversible and thus inoperable, became higher.
This was the best chance that Ronit had of getting better. Sia reflected that it was this sense of purpose, this confidence of being able to make a change, the hope of a good outcome in skilled hands and the realisation that she could make a contribution in a life-changing event were what she loved about her work.
Sia had always dreamed of specialising in cardiac surgery and later, in pediatric cardiac surgery as cardiac surgery for children was called. Now, at twenty-eight, and a qualified surgeon, she was waiting to be accepted in the residency programme for superspecialising in cardiac surgery. Her scores in the entrance tests were so good that the interview after two days was a mere formality.
Her six-month stint in this team of pediatric cardiac surgery had only consolidated her decision. As part of the surgical team, albeit the lowest rung, Sia was in charge of the drudge work for the big guns. But it was drudge work that she loved, and a stepping stone for the speciality of her choice.
Every spare minute of the past six months had been spent studying. Sacrificing fun-time, late nights, missed meals… all worth it. She could not recall the last holiday that she had taken……well, the last ‘holiday’ was a three-day break for her honey-moon, and that was eighteen months ago…That, combined with the three-day jamboree of the Big, Fat, Indian wedding that her parents and in-laws had orchestrated was, perhaps, the biggest break she had taken, albeit, reluctantly.
By this time, next week, she could have been working in this team! Not any more, though! Her eyes filled with tears and she turned away and blinked rapidly!
“Sia! You need to wash up!” The chief anaesthesiologist, Dr. Jyotsna, called out. Ronit was under General anaesthesia and the central venous and arterial lines were in place. Ronit’s chest was being prepped. She needed to wash up.
Sia flipped up the optical loop that she had slung around her neck, a binocular like device attached to her spectacles that would magnify what she saw over three times. Worn by all cardiac surgeons in this operation, it would help the task of suturing with delicate threads that were thinner than a strand of hair. Tightening her loop at the back of her head, she held up her thumbs to adjust her focus. Drat! her vision was blurry. Realising that she had lost her battle with her tears, she walked out briskly, pulled down her surgical mask and brushed away her tears.
Little Ronit did not deserve this, she thought. He deserved her full concentration. Giving herself a minute, Sia breathed deeply, made herself calm down. Then she washed up. Donning the gown and gloves, she focused on the surgery. The next hour and a half was spent in opening Ronit’s chest. His heart, the size of a large lemon, had to be linked to a bypass machine in order to empty it. Sia gave herself over to this delicate task, her movements and those of the senior assistants like a well rehearsed orchestra, playing to a piece of music that only they could hear.
Her boss Dr. Raghunathan or RG as he was called, entered and took over. She stepped in again after the heart defect was repaired, the heart was off-bypass, that is no longer connected to the machine and beating strongly. Her job was to assist in closing the chest.
“Well! Sia!” boomed RG, in a rare moment of avuncular levity. “Your last case with us as slave labour! Looking forward to you joining our team, my dear!”
Choking back the lump in her throat, Sia said nothing.
She ducked out as Ronit was being shifted to Intensive Care.
Her phone had been vibrating in her pocket for the past hour. Five missed calls and all from Didi! That seemed rather frantic. She quickly dialled the number, rather anxious. Baba, their father, was diabetic and had been having some problems with his heart for the past month or so.
Didi immediately picked up.
“Sia! Where are you? Still in the hospital?” she asked.
“Ya…just washed out of the surgery, Didi. Is everything okay? Baba?? Little Amaira?”
“Ya. They are all good. I am waiting for you in the hospital cafeteria. I want to talk to you….Sia, can you come?”
“Yes, of course!”
Once Ronit was settled, she spoke to her team member, and hurried to the cafeteria. Didi was sitting at a corner table, her back to the wall.
“Here, I got you parathas….mooli….your favourite!” Didi said.
Sia quickly dug in. Her time off was limited. And medical residency taught you to eat whenever you had a chance.
“You look tired, Sia.” Said Didi thoughtfully. “But a happy tired….you have a sort of satisfied look about you.”
“Mmm” mumbled Sia, through a mouthful of food.
And then suddenly, her predicament, her hopelessness, her entire future loomed over her in a flash. The calls, messages, arguments, back-and-forth pleas….basically the stress of the past week just took their toll. And right there, in the cafeteria with God-knows-who watching, she burst into tears.
“Oh God!” said Didi, sounding angry now. “This is worse than I thought. They have gotten through to you!!”
Sia, scrubbing away at her face with a tissue, looked up, bewildered.
“Sia. Tell me. Have Ma and even Baba, been calling and texting you since…..a week? Mmmm…when were the scores for the entrance test out….a week, right? That’s when you called me, all excited….saying you were a shoo-in for the cardiac surgery seat…isn’t it?”
Sia nodded. “Hmmm.”
“And after a while…your mom-in-law called? Who else have they recruited? Our dad? Nikhil’s grandma?”
“Didi? How do you know this?”
“Sia! They have been blackmailing you to give up this cardiac surgery seat? Right?”
“Ma and mummyji…Nikhil’s mom feel that my biological clock is ticking away. If I start this residency programme … it may be another four-five years of hard work and …..they feel I should have a baby soon. His grandma is also ill. So…”
“Sia…Sia….Look at me.. What do YOU think? What do YOU want?” said Didi forcefully.
Her usually gentle Didi never ever spoke like this. Sia looked up, surprised. And finally saw what she had missed seeing until now. Didi had been crying. She looked miserable. There was a wild despair in her eyes that Sia had never seen…well…never except when she had looked at her own face in the mirror for the past week.
“Don’t do it, Sia. Don’t sacrifice your dreams. We have only one life…” Didi took a deep breath. “Sia. Five years ago, when I got married, I had a career in dance….Ma, Baba, Dadi all pressured me to get married. I had made it a condition of accepting the proposal…that I would continue.. Stage shows, dance school…I loved all that…remember?”
Sia said, “Jiju did agree, right?”
Didi nodded. “Ya…He did. For a while, I did continue. Although it was frowned upon by his extended family. Then I fell pregnant. Don’t get me wrong. I do love Amaira. But I thought I would continue. Now when I talk about going back to dance, it is difficult… Who will look after the baby? What will people say? No-one in our family is a dancer…..stage performance is out of question.. What will your daughter say when she sees you dance? In front of strangers!”
“Didi. I didn’t know this.” Said Sia quietly.
“And who do you think has joined hands with them in this? …Ma and Baba” said Didi sadly.
Sia was quiet.
Sia was crying again.
“I know how hard you have worked for this, Sia. Don’t give up. Talk to Nikhil. I know he is busy, and is probably clueless about what is happening behind the scenes here. If he loves you, and I think he does…he will understand.” Didi said. “Because once they take away your dream and you let them….You become diminished….”
Fifteen minutes later, Sia walked into the ICU.
The first face she saw was Jhanavi, the little three year old who would be operated the next day. She had a colouring book and was furiously painting.
Her mother said, “Look. Dr.Sia. She is painting the sky green. And the grass is purple….I keep teling her…Colors are fixed. They can’t be changed.”
Sia smiled at the little girl. “No. Jhanavi. It is your choice. Your scene. Choose your colors. Paint the sky. Make it yours.”
Ujwala Shenoy Karmarkar wins a Rs 250 Amazon voucher, as well as a chance to be picked one among the top winners at the end of 2018. Congratulations!
Image source: YouTube
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