Healing is seen as an interaction between the healer and the healed, i.e., the physician and the patient. There are times, however, when the healing does take place, but the lines between the healer and the healed are blurred.
I, too, had such an experience. This goes back to the time when I was a resident doctor. The Government decided that all residents must complete a 3-month stint at their District Hospital. As a result of this, I would often find myself bereft of all the gadgetry and fast responsiveness that my home hospital would afford me in a more slowed-down and borderline lackadaisical setting.
On one such uncomfortably humid May morning ,walked in two people who accepted convention would call the patient and the patient attendant. Our patient was a middle-aged lady dressed in a pink salwar, almost rebellious in its brightness, with makeup that seemed to be done in an earnest yet unprofessional manner. Our attendant was dressed in a simple white shirt and black pants, bespectacled, and carrying a bag.
The attendant signalled to me as he guided the patient to my OPD room and said, “Sir, the patient is blind.” I helped our patient to a chair, and she sat down looking rather pensive and explained to me how her asthma had been acting up and she was finding it difficult to breathe.
I detected a hint of a Bengali accent. Thanks to a few proselytising Bengali friends from the old days, I picked up a few words here and there and decided to use that as a gateway to get our patient to be more relaxed and open up. What followed was my poorly pronounced ‘ki holo?’, ‘ami jaani, and ‘kakhana theke?’. The attendant spoke in a mix of Kannada and English, elaborating on every statement that our patient made. We spoke briefly about the weather and Kolkata, a city I had only visited once, and gradually developed a rapport.
After a brief history, I could not help but be intrigued by the picture that was before me.
I couldn’t help but ask, “So has the blindness been since birth, or did it happen later?”
“It happened 10 years ago; almost all of a sudden one night, I just could not see anything “, she said in a tone that suggested she had told the same story at least a few times before but wouldn’t mind going through it again once more.
“I flew her down to NIMHANS, Bangalore, that very night, and they diagnosed a stroke causing cortical blindness and said that nothing much could be done.” The attendant replied, whom I then assumed to be the husband.
A cortical stroke is essentially when that part of the brain gets affected that regulates sight. It is a rare occurrence, especially at a younger age.
“Since then, I have learned to read and write in Braille; I am a PhD in English Literature, you see,”, our patient said in a tone that seemed to break a familiar sadness, one that had been practised several times before.
“Oh yes, what do you like to read?” I said, as I was more than ready to move the conversation in a different direction.
“Oh, I love Shakespeare and Shaw “, she said.
“So what would you say was Gloucester’s real blindness in King Lear?” , I asked, almost poking
“Of course, the fact that he could not see through Edmund!”.
By around this time, the atmosphere felt more informal and conversational, and the attendant started to speak more. I had in front of me a blind, asthmatic, well-read lady with a seeming two states type of story.
Gradually, they told me the story of how they came to meet. He was a young software engineer who had moved to Pune for education, and she was an English graduate in Kolkata. The two met on an online matrimonial site, right when these startups were quite literally just starting up.
“The first few years of our marriage were just the best! Everything was just perfect! But then the blindness happened,” he said as he showed me a picture in his wallet of the two of them from way back in the day. I thought to myself, what if they knew what was coming their way when that picture was taken?
By around this point in the conversation, I realised that the labels of physician, patient, and attendee had melted, and what was happening was that three people, the human beings, were talking. As physicians, we often see pain, death, and trauma that obviously get to us vicariously. Now add to that this was during residency, which is an extremely stressful and “toxic” time when a lot of young physicians tend to slip into depression. I, too, at this point in my life, felt burdened by a lot of these pains. As is the nature of such maladies, they raise their heads almost every day. It was as if the pain that I had carried had met the pain that our dear lady and man had carried, realised how small it was, and decided not to raise its head that day.
Trying to get back to the presenting complaint “When did the breathlessness start “, I asked
“Since the pregnancy.” She replied.
“So how many children do you have?” I asked in return.
“None…the one that I had passed away in about 8 months”, in a tone that seemed to suggest that the pain was still being processed but would never quite be processed.
My pocket-sized pain had zipped itself into a bag and decided not to show itself for a week by now.
“You know, doctor, he takes such good care of me! He wakes up at 5 every morning and cleans the house and dresses me!” Our lady said it again, breaking the overcast sadness with a ray of redemption.
“A beautiful lady should always be dressed well!” added our man.
“I can’t see what kind of crazy make-up this man puts on me! Tell me, doctor, do I look good today?” She asked me in a tone that had almost forgotten all the traumatic events that we had spoken of.
The pocket-sized pain that I spoke of earlier was haranguing on my insides, and all I could muster was a poignant “Khoob bhalo!”.
The innocence of her question seemed to be a rebellion against the tragedies that she had seen. Her voice and expression had a genuine inquisitiveness and desire to hold onto what was good in life. Our beloved couple seemed to celebrate each other despite the hand that life had dealt them. They seemed to rebel against each tragedy that they had thus faced and still have a zest for life that only comes out in a genuine, humane conversation.
Asthma is what brought her to me, but by now I didn’t know who was healing whom. Asthma is a condition in which the airways narrow and the patient feels breathless. But the catch is that it is reversible, oftentimes with medication, and the breathlessness improves and almost normalises. Perhaps that is how sadness and pain are inflicted on our lives. There are events and times that make it hard for the light to get in, render us breathless, or make it too dark.
“Asthma is more about control and less about cure” , I often tell my patients. Perhaps such is life—a series of breaths between bouts of breathlessness.
I adjusted some of our patient’s medications, and hopefully the air will reach her lungs better and the light will reach my life a bit better now.
Dr. Suyash Jha