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It was her mother’s lack of drive and ambition that was responsible for the limited canvas of her life, she had decided early on.
The Muse of the Month is a monthly writing contest organised by Women’s Web, bringing you original fiction inspired by women.
Shalini Mullick is one of the winners of the August 2020 Muse of the Month.
“Protected Code Blue”
The speaker was booming.
The donning area was just down the corridor, a few minutes’ run. Why did it seem like a marathon? And these trees outside the corridor? They didn’t have any windows in this part of the hospital…
She woke up with a start.
It would have been a nightmare if it hadn’t been a dream. She wouldn’t have reached the gasping patient, at the end of that interminable corridor.
It was just past midnight. She knew she should try and get back to sleep, but her thoughts kept going back to that day in the hospital.
They had managed to resuscitate the patient; but only just.
She had tested positive for the coronavirus a few days later, and was now isolating at home.
All those years of her training as a critical care physician, and the many certifications she had earned were important to her; but not as much as the satisfaction that the work brought her. She loved her work. Flashing lights, sirens coming closer, the fast pace of the emergency unit were what she thrived on.
Intensivists like her had been at the forefront of the Covid-19 pandemic and it had been a challenge she had never anticipated. Even as she worked hard to give her patients their best chance at survival, the fear of bringing home the virus had weighed on her mind.
By the time she returned home, the children would usually be asleep. Peeping into their room as she went upstairs to the attic, she would have just enough energy to finish dinner. She would be exhausted; the 12 hour shift felt like the 30 hour shifts she had put in during her residency. The numbing pain she felt at trying to give her best in the overwhelmed health system in one of the world’s most developed countries, would overshadow her aching legs, and she would drift off to sleep almost immediately.
This isolation was different though….
Those days, it wasn’t dreams but the constant buzzing of the messages on her phone that would wake her up in the middle of the night. Even when she was home, she was completely clued into the happenings she had left behind a few hours ago. The saturation levels, respiratory rates and test reports.would stream in; and a part of her would be completely awake and alert, following up on the patients who she hoped would survive through the night.
Urgency and stress were familiar companions in her professional life, but the rewards of saving a life, of seeing family members come close to a loved one they had almost lost had always more than compensated for them. The pandemic had made those feelings distant, even unfamiliar. Maybe all that stress and trauma buried deep within her was now surfacing and causing these dreams?
Without fatigue as its foundation, or the anticipation of a busy work day, she knew sleep would be elusive. She checked her oxygen saturation and reached for her phone. The usual messages from colleagues, some asking after her health, others with news about the hospital. A message from Amma, reminding her to take care of herself; to eat well; and a contact number for a lady who supplied authentic Kerala food.
Mini smiled. Only Amma, sitting far away in Kerala, could have found someone like this for her in New York!
“I dreamt about stew, Amma! I could even smell the freshly ground pepper!” she had mentioned, when they last spoke.
“I didn’t know you could smell in your dreams!” They had both laughed
It wasn’t just the hospital; Kerala was trending in her dreams… The trees, food, meandering estuaries; everything would come together, as if in a kaleidoscope, and wake her up from sleep ever so often.
It had been years since she had been there.
What would she do in the sleepy remote village, in the backwaters of Kerala? All her childhood, she had impatiently waited to escape that sedate and dull life that would never satisfy her.
Bright, meritorious and ambitious, she had always wanted to follow in her parents footsteps. Securing a good rank in the medical entrance examination, she chose to study in Delhi.
Her father, having completed his specialization in brain surgery; had been on the threshold of an exciting new career in the United Kingdom, when he met with a fatal road accident. Mini had been just 4 years old. Along with the prospects of immigration, her mother’s plans of further education and specializing had been shelved. Compelled by circumstances, her mother had joined the state health service, and made a new life for both them in her ancestral family home.
Mini could never quite figure out how her mother had managed to live in the same little hamlet all her life.
Whenever she tagged along with her mother to the small health centre she would see its thatched roof and decrepit furniture and wonder why her mother had never looked for better opportunities. Vaccinating babies; treating simple ailments with limited resources, even teaching them; hitching up her saree to wade through water to check on a new mother; she never complained about it. How could she be content with so little?
“Amma, why do you work in villages? Don’t you want to work in hospitals with big buildings and new machines everywhere? Don’t you think life in the city would be more comfortable?”
When the uncles from Dubai visited, when they went to the shiny new hospitals in Kochi for her grandfather’s surgery or when she heard of cousins studying combinations of arts and sciences in school in Canada while she struggled with the pedagogic teaching of the solitary school in their village. That was when these questions would find their way out of the depths of her mind to her lips.
That kind of life was what her mother should have strived for; she had always thought. It was her mother’s lack of drive and ambition that was responsible for the limited canvas of her life, she had decided early on.
These feelings intensified once she began her medical studies. It was a relief to break free from her dull and stifling life. The clinics,workshops and her internship exposed her to new frontiers. Cutting edge treatments, advances in medical technology enthused her. They also made her feel resentful, almost embarrassed about the choices and compromises her mother had made in her life and her career.
“Amma, you were one of the best students in your college. People who studied with you have become professors, famous doctors, even written books. Why did you settle for so little?”
Appa had been a brain surgeon. He would never have wasted his life doing things which anyone could do. With his specialised training he would have worked in the best hospitals anywhere in the world.
Completing her graduation, she found her calling in critical care. It was the most dynamic, high energy and gratifying area of medicine that she had seen. It was also as far removed from the way her mother practised medicine as was possible.
Mini had realized her dream of being a doctor.
Now, she would be a doctor like appa.
Not a doctor like amma.
She left for America, to begin the first of many trainings in different cities and towns. With her commitment and zeal, she resolved to excel in her work. And she did.
She had trained in some of the best hospitals, cleared tough licensing exams, won coveted awards and took pride in these achievements.
An image on TV caught her attention. It was a woman dressed in the sarees like the kind her mother always wore; and she raised the volume. It was a story about the Kerala model of healthcare which was being appreciated at a United Nations convention. They were interviewing a senior official who was elaborating on Kerala’s success in managing the pandemic. She painstakingly described the well developed primary health care system of the state. Even the remotest of villages in the state had access to quality health care and high literacy rates. This equitable distribution of empowering resources had been important in containing the Nipah virus outbreak a few years previously also. With coronavirus, too, the government had been able to implement measures successfully because of this strong foundation of health care. It was the sustained efforts of many doctors who had chosen to work for years in the small villages, some of which were reachable only by boats; that had shown these results.
Doctors, like her mother, Mini realised suddenly.
These were things that she had not only heard all her life, but had seen and experienced too. Why were they resonating with her now, in a distant land?
Was there more of her mother in her than she thought?
She found herself recalling the replies that mother would patiently give.
“Many times, we need to accept that things will not happen as we wanted them to. That doesn’t mean we are accepting defeat. We make the best choices that we can.”
Mini had decided not to accept the position as an attending because it would leave her with less time for the twins, who had just started school. They needed her attention; and she hadn’t thought of it as a compromise at all.
“If things don’t work out, keep going. Life will find a plan for you, but you must accept the plan, and make the best of it.”
Her training hadn’t followed the path she had envisioned. One of her programs had run out of funding, and she had lost out on an important certification. She had had to join a course that was ranked much lower. But she had aced it.
“It was very difficult to restart a life; but I had to believe in myself.”
Mini had failed an important exam. Her first exam in critical care had also been her first major failure. Emerging from self doubt had been very difficult. She had even contemplated changing her specialisation. But she had soldiered on, and had bounced back.
“Whatever you do, do with sincerity and honesty.”
Wasn’t that what had earned her gratitude and good will of her patients? She loved it when they sent her an occasional note, or brought in freshly baked goodies when they came for a routine visit.
“It is our duty to care for our patients; to do our best by them.”
She knew she had to sign up for all the first responder duties she could; after all, her patients needed her.
Was her life as different from her mother’s as she imagined it to be?
Staying back in the village had meant that Mini would get the love and nurturing of her extended family; instead of growing up in a far away land with a single parent. That was the choice her mother had made, for both of them. She had faced difficult circumstances which would have affected her confidence and morale; but she had kept going and made the best of whatever life offered her. The regard and respect that the villagers had for her were a result of the commitment she showed to her work
The values that Mini stood for in her work; the sense of duty, taking pride in her work, giving her best to each patient… Hadn’t she imbibed all of these from the mother whom she derided all these years?
Had she chosen to specialize in an area unlike her mother; work thousands of miles away; only to become exactly what she was running away from?
A doctor like Amma.
It had taken her all these years; and a pandemic to finally understand this.
When she could, she needed to make a trip home.
To all that she had become, even as she tried to escape from it.
Editor’s note: Marilyn Monroe was born Norma Jean Baker, and had an abusive childhood. She also went through sexual abuse at the hands of many people she trusted growing up and as a teenager. After many ups and downs, she got into the entertainment and modelling industry, and finally as an actor doing bit roles.
Despite all her struggles, however, once she got her first hit, she ruled the box office for almost a decade. Her tenacity in getting what she wanted to do in life is legendary. Unfortunately, the world lost her to suicide at a very young age, on 4th August 1962.
One thing about Marilyn that is not so well known is that she was a voracious reader of serious literature, and had a way with words too – dashing the popular myth about her and ‘dumb blondes’. An intriguing woman, indeed!
The cue is this quote by her: “For a long time I was scared I’d find out I was like my mother.”
Shalini Mullick wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
Image source: a still from the film 22 Female Kottayam
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