The practice of medicine is like a social barometer, giving one not only inklings but also insights into the whole spectrum of human behaviours. Just as we diagnose disease from symptoms (what the patient complains of) and signs (what the doctor finds on examination of the patient), similarly there are telltale signs in individual narratives that give us clues to the state of society. Unlike other professions which gain a narrower perspective, for example law which sees the seamier sides of humanity dealing as it does with disputes, conflicts and crimes; or teaching which addresses a specific target audience viz. students, medicine allows one to span all occupations and age-groups from (before too!) birth through childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age until the very last moments of life.
It is true that as doctors we too deal with suffering and pain, and are at the receiving end of crimes when we have to treat the victims. But the upside is that we are able to intervene directly and actively in the relief of such suffering, cure many a time, and console always. And that’s what is the source of courage, inspiration and perseverance in the pursuit of the art of medicine. The greatest reward is of the intangible rather than pecuniary kind, which makes it all the more precious and meaningful as it provides, at the same time, great joy. And this happens all the time: only a couple of days ago in the supermarket I was approached by an elderly gentleman who reminded me that I had treated him several years earlier for a back problem, and that he was keeping well. He gave me a warm smile of gratitude – so many years down the line! – and wished me…well.
Such moments make one’s day, as the saying goes.
But we are also witness on many occasions where patients and their close ones are the actors in the unfolding medical dramas that are played out live as it were. A few months ago I was looking after an octogenarian lady who had been brought to the clinic by her children because of pain in the back. She could hardly speak, but did so softly when she answered my questions. She had had a minor fall and though her pain was not severe it made her prefer to lie down on the side, in which position she was more comfortable. As I entered the room one Sunday morning I saw her son caressing her cheek very tenderly, and spontaneously I said to him, ‘vous la gatez bien!’ ‘Oui, docteur,’ he replied, ‘vous voyez comment je la caresse, c’est notre maman après tout, elle est si douce’ (‘You really dote on her! – Yes doctor, see how I am caressing her, she is our mother after all, she is so sweet’).
And he went on to ask me whether I would be discharging her home soon because it was her 90th birthday on the Tuesday, and the children and grandchildren wanted to make it a very special day for her. She did go home the next day, and they had a very nice, pious and sweet celebration for her.
Many such episodes have marked my career to date, and as they are remembered long years afterwards, mostly in solitary moments, they bring a warm glow to my heart as I reflect that in some corners of this world there is still hope for humanity. Though for how long more I cannot say…
There was also, many summers ago, that nonagenarian who was approaching his centenary, and whose son used to bring him for problems with circulation in his feet. Gradually his condition came under control, and some time after he had stopped seeing me the son called and invited me for the celebration of his 100th birthday. I kicked myself for having forgotten to attend, especially as I was free on that day – but only then realized that with age I too had begun to suffer lapses of memory. So from that day onwards I started to note down my appointments for such occasions – but also for the more mundane matters, such as a list of things to buy for the house. I had till then been reluctant to do so and preferred to depend on my memory… which meant that I had to run errands more frequently than I should have!
One of my most memorable cases was a 70-plus year old lady upon whom I had operated for a fracture of the hip when I was posted at PMOC, Candos. Her 40-year old bachelor son, with whom she stayed, was at the hospital daily much before visiting time to see her, and implored me to send her home at the earliest so that he could take care of her as he was used to doing daily. At one point he almost cried, saying he was missing looking after her!
Another person I know makes it a point to drop in at her mother’s place every morning before she goes to her shop which is in the same locality. She spends a good half hour there, making sure mum has got everything she needs and that she is comfortable. At 86 you don’t need a lot of things! But you do need plenty of TLC – tender loving care, and in fact whenever old ladies used to be admitted when I was in the UK, the prescription always ended with ‘TLC’! Mum lives alone but is well surrounded in the same yard by other relatives, and is still mobile and fairly independent. However, the lady who comes to spend the night there was to be absent over a weekend, and the daughter brought her over to ‘gater’ her even more.
Having lost my mother when I was ten years old (she would have been 91 had she been around), I am always touched and a little sad for myself when I come across such examples of deep care and love that I have described briefly. I feel I have missed a great opportunity to give at least a little back to her for the gift of life from my mother. The people I have alluded to above are definitely not the kind who would opt for old people’s home for their parents, bless them, and I think I would not have had the heart for this kind of arrangement either if my mother had lived.
For those who are blessed to still have their parent(s), the one thing I would say is: feel blessed and lucky, and give much TLC to them, for they deserve it. They have always given without asking anything in return, and children should feel grateful to be able to have them around and to serve them with love.
As the Taittriya Upanishad says: ‘Matru devo bhavah, pitru devo bhavah…’: ‘Mother, father are god…’ Aum.