Wenlock’s Own


The ambience outside the hospital was noisy with people waiting to get in and out,  with an utter disregard to the watchman.  Tender-coconut sellers were hammering their hack knives to the thirsty visitors and bunching some for the patients inside. Being the government hospital at the time, Wenlock was both held in reverence and repulsion. On one hand it was the only refuge for emergency patients and poor people who could not afford luxurious health care. On the other, it had gained notoriety for the lack of infrastructure and poor service. Nonetheless, it was a stately building, not easily missed, and given its fine legacy of service it stood like an anchor in the minds and eyes of the Mangalorean downtown. 

Hearing of a close friend involved in a motor-bike accident I had rushed to Wenlock. I heard he had hit a curb trying to negotiate an overtaking city bus.  No one had visited him yet as the news of his accident did not percolate until early morning.  As I forced myself into the collapsible gate through the noisy crowd, and into the emergency wards the spirit was much more somber.  Patients were jammed against one another, so close, that one patient’s moans reverberated across the ward, and perhaps made their recovery that much more torturous. 

‘How are you today? Sister,’ I asked an approaching nurse politely.

She must have been in her mid fifties, bi-spectacled and lean.

The nurse first stared at me and then walked away in total ignorance.  As I scanned across the ward I realized that everyone’s eyes were planted on me as if something mean was about to happen.  I could feel the balloon of silence about to be pricked. The first thing that came to my mind was that my friend must be in a dire situation.

When I turned around the nurse appeared again from my rear vision and thundered again ‘Don’t you see?.?’ ‘What do you think? This is some sort of hotel that you could enter and exit at will?  I’ve been pacing up and down these miserable wards all night, cleaning these alcoholics, and you ask, how I am?  What do you know about hospital life?’ she scolded.

I hoped she was not addressing me because her squint eyes were pointed elsewhere.  But the veracity of words came in my direction and I knew I was cooked.
‘Yes. I am talking to you’ She approached me like a lean, mean, feisty fighting machine.

Who was this lady? And why was she doing this? I held my nerves because I thought I would complain about her on the next doctor’s visit. Yet something told me that I was not the only target. I heard later that prior to this incident she had scolded the guard for turning up late, then lashed at her colleague about the speed of her service, and had just terrorized a hapless patient brooding in body ache.

""…I wondered how many strangers she must have saved beside my friend — who from the accounts of other patients ….""

I wanted to disappear from her sight but the scarcity of screen partitions and visual privacy did not help. As I was agonizing over how to face this mean woman the only respite was the hope of my friend shifting to a more comfortable nursing home given his affluent background.  Until then I knew it would be a long day and even longer night.

I located my friend who was fixed with every medical machine you can imagine. While I gestured to him not to greet me for the sake of avoiding the hurt on his face, he gave me a kind of sign to show the common hatred he shared for her. His expressions conveyed not to mess with that nurse in any circumstance. 

I settled down next to him on the visitors stool and examined his wounds and by then she appeared again.
‘Is he your friend?’ She asked.
I didn’t understand why she was picking on me. But I did well to conceal my annoyance.
‘Yes, sister.’ I agreed meekly.
‘Then what took you so long?’ She said. ‘Hhh friends’ She added a snigger.
 ‘Tell your friend not to drink and drive, no more. Understand? It’s ok if he loses his life. But don’t expect others’ lives to be sacrificed on his behalf’ She said. 

At this time I was in no mood to engage her because frankly she was beyond my logic. 

As I unpacked the fruits and drink I had brought for my friend and as I was about to recline she zipped in again.  This time with cotton swabs and a glucose machine. Then she pricked the needle into my friend’s veins like she was treating a six hundred pound Ox. My friend winced in pain but her eyes showed no remorse. You could say she was almost getting a sadistic pleasure out of all of it.

‘Your friend would have been dead by now?you know?he was bleeding profusely all night’ She said without looking at me.  ‘You think this is fun for us? We have our families too you see’ She charged as she checked his pulse.

Her one-way conversation was getting way over me by now and I did not believe her story about saving my friends life. If at all, I thought she would be responsible for his death the way she was proceeding.  

When she left, I pulled my seat closer to the window and relieved the back of my head on the window ledge. The decade old ceiling fan was rattling as I brooded in my seat about the verbal barrage that I had just received. In the corner of my eye I could see several other visitors chuckling and watching me. Something told me they too had experienced the same but this was little consolation. Clearly this nurse was no Florence Nightingale. She was a hate figure and she made no qualms about it.

It would be fair to say I cringed upon her next appearance. I could not see the nurses’ station and so I was startled every time she came.  This time she brought a white blanket and covered my friend. Then she turned around and pointed her fingers to me saying ‘Now, listen carefully.  When he wakes up ask him to take three tablets, exactly at 3PM’ and before I was able to ask which ones, she tightened the pallu of her white sari and disappeared. I fumbled with the medicine tray and made my own assumption. It was easier than asking her even if it meant I was giving the wrong ones.

I gestured my friend to nap and I tried to catch a wink as well. Although sleeping in the humidity, among the stench of formalin and in the company of houseflies was not a treat. Add to that the terror-lady visiting me in the middle of a dream did not feel entertaining. I decided to walk to the far end of the corridor to catch a smoke, realizing on the way that there was only one other nurse in the ward. It was baffling not to see service personnel in concert with the number of patients and I doubted whether they existed at all. I walked to a payphone nearby and notified my friend’s family about the poor treatment.

My grievances must have been overheard by someone else because that stranger hit up on a prolonged conversation with me. Soon we rattled about the service, the state of affairs in the health care industry, the governmental negligence??among others. Then we continued to blame the mayor, the municipality, the corporation, the state and even the national government for the ill-health of hospitals. It must have been quite a while to get rid of all these impurities out of my system, because when I got back to the ward, the nurse was standing at the foot of my friend’s bed. I felt a heart palpitation, and it was not a romantic one!

‘Did you give him the tablets? Its 3PM’ She screamed.

As I looked at my watch and summoned my mouth to apologize, she pelted the long capsules into my friend’s throat, almost choking him out of his wits.

‘This is what you wealthy people do. All you do is complain. Look at these poor people. Who will take care of them? ‘She thundered as if she overheard my previous conversation.

Then she whisked past me and like a mother parrot continued her tablet-popping exercise into other patients who waited for their turn with their mouths wide open holding both admiration and fear.

The next day my friend’s family came in to shift him to a better nursing home.  As I looked around the wards I wondered how many patients had that privilege of moving to a better care. Yet, in the midst of all this, among all my procrastination, I gathered a remote confidence that for the exception of one individual, there was hope. She may not have been a conventional Florence Nightingale but she held the lamp as bright as anyone else. If birds were metaphors, she was the zippy lark of the morning and the authoritarian owl of the night. Perhaps her terrorizing even might have worked like a catharsis to all.  I wondered how many strangers she must have saved beside my friend — who from the accounts of other patients — had watched on him all night against bleeding to a sure death.  Yet, she did not expect any perks from anyone. To swim upstream in a system that was easier to flow downstream, I wondered whether she would be recognized for her service at all. Whether her brash attitude was too adulterated to win service awards which are more of a product of lobbying and reputation.  Perhaps she was nothing more than another milestone in the guidepost of the patients’ lives.

As I helped my friend on his stretcher, I clenched a hundred rupee note and with a change in heart I extended my hand to the nurse. She didn’t take it. She didn’t shake it. She gave a blank stare at me, nodded her head, and off she went again to the next bed screaming ‘?Manisha. Who in the world asked you to get out of your bed. Don’t you understand when I tell you once?.’

Author: Newton DSouza- USA