I have tried narrating an experiences that has left a permanent scar in my mind. This is a growing social problem as we progress on the path of modernization.
Prof Pankaj Chaturvedi, Tata Memorial Centre, Mumbai
As I stepped in the ward, I witnessed a commotion and frantic activity. A man on the bed number 5 was convulsing with his whole body shaking violently and froth coming out from his mouth. His shrill cry made it clear that he was in agony. He kept calling out to someone named Shiny. I saw a young lady on a wheel chair rushing to his bedside. She was trying her best but was unable to calm him. She shouted out to everyone around her for help. A frail and elderly woman jumped out of her bed number 10 and limped holding the rails of the iron beds towards bed number 5. While the two ladies were struggling to control him there was blood coming out from the mouth of the convulsing man. It was obvious that additional help was needed, but the absence of a medical officer or nurse was conspicuous. I ran to the bed number 5 to assist them. When the convulsing man saw me, he asked multiple times if Shiny is coming. Perplexed, I looked at others for the guidance. The young lady on the wheel chair asked me to reply by saying that we have informed Shiny and she is on her way. Without applying my mind, I repeated the same as guided by her. Even though bed number 5 calmed down a bit, his frothing, bleeding and convulsions did not improve much. I introduced myself as a doctor who was visiting the old age home as a volunteer. The lady on the wheel chair was carrying a loaded syringe and sought my assistance. I held his hands tightly and assisted her in giving that injection. I noticed that his pulse was becoming feeble and breathing was also slowing down. The man needed monitoring and proper medical attention. I was annoyed because there was no medical or nursing help available in the ward. A few seconds later, I saw a nurse rushing towards us pulling the oxygen cylinder trolley. We put him on oxygen, wiped the bloody froth from his face and held his body tightly. He was calming down and his intermittent calls for Shiny became feeble.
The nurse looked at me and pleaded to help her with another emergency. Both of us ran towards the bathroom of the dormitory where an old man was lying on the wet floor with his head lying in a pool of blood. The man was identified as bed number 12 and he was seen banging his head against the wall of the bathroom till he fell unconscious. The only other person in the bathroom was another old man who was too weak to stop him or even call out loudly. We put him on a stretcher and in the absence of an elevator carried him down the stairs to into the ambulance. I noticed that he was still clutching a cell phone in his hand. I asked the nurse to take the cell phone from his hand and call his family urgently. The nurse looked at me with gloomy eyes and gave the cell phone to me. His breathing was becoming shallow and I told the ambulance driver to rush him to the nearby government hospital. As the ambulance drove off, I checked the phone. What baffled me was that he had been calling someone named Prince and Rani for the last several days without an answer, including multiple unanswered calls to them the same morning. I called up Prince from my phone and I was surprised to get an answer after few rings. Prince happened to be the son of bed number 12 and he lives in Oman working in a multinational company. His actual name is something else but his father fondly called him as Prince. The son claimed that he was too busy and did not get time to answer his dad’s calls! When I told him about the condition of his father, he said that he was on the way to US and he would tell his sister to visit his father. The nurse told me that Rani is his daughter who is manager in a bank and stays few hours from the shelter. She got her father admitted 6 months back and never visited him after that. A few seconds later, Rani called up. Her real name was Megha and her father called her Rani (Princess). She was in a meeting with auditors and promised to visit her father by late evening.
I went back to the ward to check out the condition of the bed number 5. I was also curious about the girl on the wheelchair who was carrying an injection and helped bed number 5. She had a very tragic story to tell. Some years back, with an aim to be a nurse and go abroad, she was pursuing BSc nursing. While she was in the 3rd year, her jilted lover in the college pushed her from the college terrace. She suffered from severe spinal cord injury leading to permanent paralysis of both legs. Her mother was a home maker and father a daily wage labor. There was no way her family could take care of her. The senior nursing staff of the college took care of her. While in the hospital, fully paralyzed and bedridden, she keenly observed nurses taking care of other patients. She continued reading her text books and journals. With a zeal to survive and get back to normal life, she worked with the physiotherapists for her recovery. Despite the paralysis of both legs, she volunteered to work in the old age home for a meagre salary that was sent to her poor parents. She is the darling of all the elderly and sick patients in the ward. She has no bitterness about her disabilities. She said, my friend did not push me to death, but pushed me into a noble mission to lead a purposeful life. She told me about bed number 5 in detail. He was the sole earning member of the family and he worked in a private company that posted him 4000 kilometres from his city. Visiting home involved 7 days of excruciating travel by train. He could visit his house once in three years that too for a couple of days. He had a very loving wife and a daughter named Shiny with whom he was very attached. For him, living without his daughter was not possible. He missed his family so much that he came home without an official leave and refused to return to work. This led to financial crisis at home and his wife did not approve of his decision. He tried taking up small jobs but the earning was not enough. This led to frequent quarrels with his wife. Few months later, he was diagnosed with a severe form of epilepsy that worsened their relationship further. When he started getting frequent seizures, his wife admitted him to the hospice. While bed number 5 waited for Shiny every day, his wife and Shiny blocked his phone number and there was no way he could communicate with them.
I started looking around at other elderly people in the ward. This was the scene of an old age home cum hospice in Kerala where I was visiting to get a first-hand experience of such a facility. This place is being run with philanthropic support. With little funds in hand, it is having an acute shortage of staff, supplies and space. It used to receive some financial support from the international donors but it stopped abruptly due to change in the government rules for receiving foreign funding. They do not have the money to pay for a medical officer. It is a home for terminally ill, old and destitute. It is being run with the help of the volunteers and nurses who are driven by passion rather than the salary. Such shelter homes are the final destinations for those who are abandoned by the very people whom they loved the most. These kind of stories are common to most old age homes. While modernization is inevitable, I am not sure if it is a sign of civilization.
At this point, the old woman on the bed number 10 tapped on my arm and asked if I want to have tea. To avoid disappointing her, I agreed. She slowly limped to the kitchenette and retuned with a flask and cups. She was a high school teacher in Dubai where she stayed alone. She took that job to give good education to her two daughters. After 5 years of being abroad, she returned home and joined a leading political party. She worked for the party day and night while taking good care of the family. She proudly told me that both her daughters have a PhD and are well settled with one in US and another in Germany. She fondly showed me the pictures of her grandkids whom she has never met. Her hope to see them some day was dwindling but still alive. Unfortunately, owing to negligence for her own health, she developed gangrene in her leg due to uncontrolled diabetes that necessitated emergency amputation. Her husband died of cancer few months later that exhausted all their savings. Financially broken and with no social support, she volunteered to work in the shelter while being an inmate herself. When I enquired if she is in touch with her daughters, she smiling answered that she now has a more loving family! Despite her best efforts, she could not hide her tears. What she missed most was sitting on the grass which was difficult due to the absence of an elevator and she being on the first floor.
While I was having the last sip of my tea, the nurse walked up to me and told me that the bed number 12 had died on the way to the hospital. My heart just sank. A doting father died while waiting for his Prince and Princess. Another man lay unconscious hoping that he will be able to see his Shiny someday. The old woman could gauge my thought process and interrupted it with the offer of another cup. She said, these incidents don’t bother her anymore and what makes her happy is a cup of hot tea.
Acknowledgement – I would like to sincerely thank “Mar Thoma Episcopal Jubilee Mandiram, Kottarakara, Kerala” for allowing me to be part of their noble mission.