As a sixteen-year-old, I once spent five days in the general ward of a govt. hospital. Every evening I walked in to packed rooms and insufficient beds. The floors were covered with mattresses, and the flotsam and jetsam of society moaned their last days out. In front of my eyes, several who were wheeled in, were carried out on bent shoulders.
One night, among great hubbub, a mother and brother brought a man in. Tall, gaunt, moustachioed and bald, his yellow sickly skin stood out in the sea of patients. He sat on the floor, barely able to open his eyes. His brother begged aloud for an oxygen cylinder. But he didn’t know who to beg to. The doctors (mostly young interns) were missing. The rumour, that the patient had either blood cancer or AIDS, prevented anyone from even stepping near them. I watched from afar, as the expressionless mother cradled the patient through the night. Finally, I was getting ready to leave in the morning when he left minutes before me, for the mortuary.
The doctors were very young, overwhelmed and besieged. They were also either inured to mortal suffering or hadn’t developed any coping mechanism to screen it out and go about their work. Uncharitably, almost all of us took the first view. When the young doctor Maurya walked in, his spectacles askew, he inspired dislike. A colleague of his, with tight curls and a bounce in his step, told me to my face that my patient was DOA, and I was wasting my time. Only upbringing and youth prevented me from teaching him then and there, how to break such news to relatives.
Needless to say, I developed a mortal dread of hospitals of any sort, even clinics and dispensaries. I am loath to take medicine unless I am at death’s door.
So, two years ago, I suddenly had a persistent illness and it was time to knock on hospitals. I started with the super specialty near my home. The doctors there hadn’t the foggiest. Two weeks later, their placebo hadn’t worked and my condition had worsened. They referred me to another city hospital. In a room practically taken over by Bangladeshi men and their multiple wives, I sat out the doctor’s time. When I entered, he was five deep in patients. However, his voice hadn’t risen and neither was he hurrying along. He quickly looked at me, wrote out my diagnosis (which was correct in fact, as it turned out), and sent me for confirmation to a senior colleague.
Several phone calls and mismatched schedules later, I landed in a fancy clinic. After what seemed like ages, I got my shot to meet with who was in the medical world, a celebrity. The neat, calm man seconded the diagnosis and sent me away with a course of steroids. Nothing happened. A month later, now almost frantic with despair, I managed to land another appointment. He had been out on medical conferences and was finally back in Bangalore. I nearly broke down in his office – I’d been away from work for over 3 months. He heard me quietly, as he wrote the prescription, and then motioned his nurse to see me out. A week later, I reported at a different clinic of his. After another interminable wait, I finally saw him to say the treatment was successful.
Last year, I read the signs of an onset. The triggers, stress, lack of sleep, dehydration, and outside food, are literally the scourge of modern professional life. I hastily visited another hospital and its famous doctor. The gentleman made the most of the time I was there and then sent me back without any medication. I needed to reset my life and rewire my brain. I’d be ok.
That one illness saw me through the entire spectrum of doctors. It also introduced me to another class of patients, the affluent. They came brandishing their insurance papers and smart phones. Their old parents or expectant spouses were tucked in the side. They came too for stuff that was cosmeceutical and for accidents suffered while rafting or rock climbing. No one could honk in the posh waiting rooms. They couldn’t spring out of their seats and punch the reception staff for lost time. Since we were all not mens sana in corpore sano, we waited like good little sheep, shorn of entitlement.
Earlier, owing to memorable portrayals on film, doctors were esteemed. They were kindly and knowledgeable, even if on screen, their patients needed *dua* and not *dava*. They were educated and cultured in middle class India. People listened to them. Doctor aunties in saris and cat-eyed glasses, had the supernatural power of calming down a fully hysterical Indian woman (whether patient herself or accompanying one).
With the onset of the 90s, the social contract between patient and doctor seemed to have broken down. The doctors you consulted, weren’t authority figures and your dad’s friends. They were your older brother’s batchmates! In bigger towns or metros, they were made-for-TV celebrities and operated out of hallowed hospitals. They had time for the very rich, not the people for whom their intervention would have meant a life saved.
It’s not difficult to then not like doctors much. A few years ago, students in a UP medical college were beaten up by a politician’s goons. Every day one hears of doctors being roughed up or abused or mobbed by irate relatives. The medical profession, acute mismanagement of hospitals, the entire care-giving infrastructure in fact, needs to be fixed quietly. But it’s smack-dab in the eye of a storm of bad PR.
I maintained my distance with doctors until I came onto social media. The medium is rife with them and it’s here that you are introduced to their world. To a person, the doctors I have met and befriended, are warm, non-judgmental and very well read. A little obstinate god bless them, but invested in doing the best they can to lessen human suffering. One of the nicest fellows led a medical rescue expedition, made up entirely of volunteers, to Nepal after the earthquake. Several devote time and money to charitable and social causes. Many heal poor patients free of cost and contribute their time analysing and/ or writing about nation building and ancient texts.
Then why does a chasm exit between their public and private personae and perception thereof?
I didn’t know how much a doctor had to slog to be where they reach, at any point of their degree. Starting with an MBBS, an MS/ MD, and a super specialisation, a doctor is anywhere between 30-35 when he has the confidence to set up his practice. In between, there are at least 3-4 competitive exams to pass, a paucity of seats, indifferent instructors and peanut-stipends. There’s a lack of awareness of the slog that lies ahead, when one starts the journey. Over 15 hours of daily studying a moderately creaky syllabus, limits socialising beyond the fraternity.
Then there are the distinct tracks. A life chosen to work for the govt. becomes, as my friend Dr. Nikhil put it, a means to fetch votes through implementation and mindless admin work. A life chosen to work for the private sector, results in being treated as a service provider, on par with human interfaces in, say, hospitality. Consequently, patient behavior is on par with a returned plate of food or tantrums at the airport.
But why do people become doctors? Is it to save lives and heal human beings? Do those who have their parents’ medical empires to run, have the same motivation as those who don’t? The Hindu insistence on the cautious, parentally controlled life, limits respectable careers to medicine, engineering, accountancy or legal. We forcibly put our brightest kids in silos of rote learning. All over the Indian medical world, owing to miserable infrastructure, doctors innovate on the fly to save lives. But we neither reward nor recognise those. It’s as if we’re afraid that they will bring that free-thinking spirit to the real world. While our politicians and civil servants loot the nation, we punish the medical fraternity with no institutional support and malignant PR to boot.
Yes, there are good and bad apples everywhere. Both IT and non-IT corporate India have their Machiavellis. So does the medical profession. But before you go ballistic on doctors, glance at their lives. They mean the world to a healed patient, they maintain impartiality in treatment regardless of age, gender and income. In short, your neighbourhood doctor may still be among the best role models for your child, when they come to visit and you call them friend.
By – @TheSignOfFive