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“Are you okay?” she began, her searching eyes backing up her cautious tone. “Was this your first …?” She paused and did not continue with the keyword here – death.
The first winner of our April 2020 Muse of the Month contest is Manisha Sahoo.
“Exactly. They only see one side of it, get emotional and then violent. They don’t see the amount of effort spent by the same person they beat up in trying to save whom they lost.”
If it had been any other day or hour, I would have participated in the conversation. I would have participated regardless of what the topic was, whether it was about a funny quip made by someone or the grim news of a doctor being attacked. The Nurses’ Station was one of my favourite places to take a break at.
It stood in the corner where the corridor took a turn and led to double doors beyond which lay the entire Intensive Care section of the hospital. The Station was not far from the regular wards either, or the Residents’ Room.
One of the Sisters noticed me walk by them and started to address me, but I slowly shook my head. She took one look at me – shoulders hunched, hands stiff by my side, palms spread out as though frozen in a moment – and she nodded.
“Did something happen?” another Sister hissed out. They were trying to whisper for my sake, but with my mind enveloped in a silence which eerily represented the kind that came before a storm, their voices sounded louder.
Their answer came when an exhausted Brother trudged up to the Station, removed his mask and sighed. “That was brutal.”
My shift, in a way, began almost two hours before I clocked it in at the hospital. Three months in and I had made a ritual out of getting ready, making sure I carried all that I needed. You must know the old axiom about rains coming in the day you forgot an umbrella? That had manifested for real once, effectively setting into motion a habit I developed over time. I did not hate rains; I’d rather it not soak me before my reporting time. Hence, I needed to be well-prepared.
With a breakfast of milk-soaked cereals coursing down my food pipe, I was ready to tackle the morning shift head on. Thirty minutes on the bus, another five for the walk from the bus stop to the hospital, and with how many ever minutes it took to deposit my bag in the Residents’ Room and energize myself with a cup of water, I still had fifteen minutes on my hands before the handover happened.
I walked around the wards, greeting the patients, talking an extra minute or two with a couple of them. I spent the rest of the time at the Nurses’ Station. It was not long before two others joined me there.
“… beat up. Awful, isn’t it?” one of them was saying quite emphatically.
My ears perked up. “What is? Who got beat up?”
The speaker, Tariq, clutched at his chest and winced. “You scared the daylights out of me!”
“In that case, you ought to be sequestered permanently into night shift. I’ll tell them on your behalf,” I replied without missing a beat.
The one accompanying him, Parth, sniggered. He straightened his expression when Tariq jabbed him in the ribs.
Before I could press them for details, one by one, Residents from the previous shift streamed into the little corner, looking drained, cracking every joint they could and murmuring amongst themselves. Behind them followed fresher looking faces – not entirely energetic, but not exhausted like the others either. The latter lot were part of the morning shift about to begin, and the three of us lined up with them.
Patient-by-patient run-through, including and not limited to any new investigations done on them or any complaints they had or if medications were changed, took an hour. While others dispersed, a couple of us went to the ICUs to observe the Consultants at work.
After that, the routine was the same. We had our cases to check on. Two of mine, one middle-aged and another older than him, referred to me as ‘Sister’ the entire time I was following up on their condition. Someone corrected with a “She’s a doctor”, but all that did was make them snigger at the possibility of addressing a woman as a ‘Doctor’.
When I was done with the middle-aged one, gritting my teeth each time he chose his own moniker for me, he asked with a snort of breath, “When will the doctor come and check again?”
“Tell you what. If you need a doctor right away between now and six o’clock, I’ll be back to check on you.”
Before he could attach words to the brewing grumble in his throat, I passed the dosage sheet to the Sister looking after him and moved on to the next patient.
Half past three, all drained out, I slumped over the table in the Residents’ Room, a cup of coffee perched in its steaming glory in front of my eyes. Tariq and Parth had filled me up on what they had been discussing before the handover. News reports of continued attack on doctors had wrapped the cafeteria in a murmur of rage during lunch hour. The emotion had been palpable in the room even without anyone expressing it. But when they all came down and back into their duties, no visible trace of it remained on their faces or in their manners. I too had smiled, as I always did, when talking with the patients under my charge.
I sighed loud and long as I picked up the cup and took a careful sip out of it.
“Uff, so ready to call it a day,” I murmured. I sat up and gulped down the remaining coffee. Stretching my back, I let out a groan and jumped to my feet. I strolled out, feeling a sense of déjà vu, as I entered the ICU.
The doctor doing the rounds gave a quick smile as I reached her side and listened to her read the reports to a Brother, who was leaning over the file, his eyebrows scrunched in concentration. He expressed questions every now and then. Diana’s eyes darted to her wristwatch before she nodded to his last query and handed him back the file. She turned to me with a beaming smile. “What brings you here?”
“Oh, I just got done with the rounds. I figured if I lingered a second longer in rest mode, I would snooze the whole night away right here.”
Diana chuckled as she pulled her arms back and stretched them out. “Honestly, I blame the weather for exhausting me so. I mean –”
Her words were cut short when a machine attached to one of the unconscious patients began to give off an erratic beeping.
“Code Blue,” yelled out the Sister closest to the patient, a lady who looked barely ten years older to me. It took less than a split second for the only Brother in the room to reach her side and begin the chest compressions while the others hurried along to get the equipments in order. The Sister looking after the patient had pulled the curtains around her bed in the meanwhile.
Diana had sprinted to the patient too, shooting off instructions to everyone, including me. I whipped out my phone, ran my eyes across the chart of Consultants’ numbers, and dialled the one I knew to be currently on duty.
“Code Blue, sir, in the ICU,” I said as soon as he picked up.
The patient showed no response to the first set of compressions. As the Brother seemed to be tiring out, I took over while Diana removed the oxygen mask and proceeded to intubate her. The Sister in-charge of the patient kept her eyes on the monitors and read out the vitals. There did not seem to be any improvement in the patient’s condition. The Consultant arrived and offered to take over the CPR. I nodded and pulled away. Between the three of us, we repeated the process until the machines declared an end result.
The Consultant’s knotted palms hovered over the patient’s chest for a whole second before he brought them down to his side. In a hollow voice, he declared the patient dead and recited the time of death. Shaken, unnerved, breathless, I did not dare look anyone in the eye. The others got busy clearing equipments, removing the injection lines, tubings, ECG leads, gloves… They reacted automatically, as though this were nothing but a routine. The Consultant and Diana did not seem affected either. I suddenly felt out of place. I swallowed a strange lump in my throat and left the periphery of the curtains without another word.
I walked out of the room, past the Nurses’ station, pausing only for that brief moment there, and into the Residents’ Room. Tariq and Parth were laughing about something, and tried to narrate the same to me, but their words filtered out around me.
Were the bones in our body supposed to feel like icicles stuck inside? Did our ears always carry sounds reminiscent of a heart monitor recording a zero heartbeat?
My professional knowledge told me a consistent ‘no’ as the answers to these inane questions. But I felt these things nonetheless.
It took me a while to register the voice, put a name to it, and further to notice a paper cup being held out to me. Diana settled beside me as I gulped down the water. As my senses slowly recollected some of their natural instincts, I realized we were alone in the room. And that I was sitting on the lower bunk of the beds, gripping the sheets far too tightly.
“Thanks,” I mumbled out.
“Are you okay?” she began, her searching eyes backing up her cautious tone. “Was this your first …?”
She paused and did not continue with the keyword here – death.
I did not reply right away, but I guess there was nothing in my demeanour that did not give it away. She took a moment before speaking again.
“I remember mine.” Diana shook her head. “Absolutely … soul crushing. I happened to be present for the surgery. Everything was going as it should… until it didn’t.”
I looked at her then. A ghost of a memory seemed to linger in her eyes before she blinked and turned to me, picking up a smile as she did so.
“I could console you saying it will get easier next time. But it just won’t. Our duty is to do all that we can to heal someone. We can be grateful when they do, and when they don’t, we’ll have to get our bearings together and do our duty. It will never get easier to face deaths. Only our ability to hide our feelings will. Because a death also requires appropriate response from a doctor, a send-off in paperwork, which might sound cold but is more a kind necessity.”
She stood up and beckoned with a nod. “Come now. You should know the next steps too. And” – she placed a hand on my shoulder and smiled again – “you responded well in there.”
My bones and my ears did not feel out of odds with the science anymore. There was a strong tugging within my chest which stayed on for the rest of the shift, for the rest of the day, and for the next few days as well.
I had a new understanding of the work that I did, an understanding I could never put into words.
Editor’s note: If she had survived the Holocaust, and lived to this day, Anne Frank would have been 91 years old, on the 12th of June, 2020. Would she have realized her dream of becoming a published writer? Maybe. Anne Frank: The Diary Of A Young Girl is one of the most riveting pieces of non-fiction literary work we have. What makes it so compelling is the fact that the writer was just an ordinary girl in her teens, writing about the ordinary things of everyday life in extraordinary circumstances and died at sixteen.
In July 1942, Anne’s family, along with some of their friends, went into hiding from the Nazi persecution of the Jews. They remained hidden in the Secret Annexe (as Anne calls their hiding place in a hidden area of her father’s office building). They were helped from the outside by loyal non-Jew friends, who kept them supplied with food, essentials and news. Sounds so much like the lockdown we’re in right? Except it was much worse – they were discovered in August 1944 and taken to a Nazi concentration camp.
Anne’s diary has its last entry on 1st August 1944. In the 2-odd years that they remained hidden, she wrote all her thoughts and experiences – the good, bad, and the ugly – in a diary that she received for her 13th birthday, from her father, Otto Frank. Miep Gies, the lady who was one of their helpers, found the diary along with other papers after their arrest, kept it safe, and handed it over to Otto, who returned after the war as the only survivor.
So much of what she writes is about hope for a better life ahead, “after all this is over”. Hope, to slightly misquote Emily Dickinson, is the thing with feathers living in every heart. Let’s look beyond this stressful time, shall we?
The cue is this quote by her: “I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.”
Manisha Sahoo wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
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Clumsy. Awkward. Straight-forward. A writer, in progress. A pencil sketch artist by hobby.
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