Friday, July 03, 2009

The twilight zone

At the cancer ward at the general hospital at Kochi several patients are fighting an uphill battle against death

Photo: Rani Baby with her mother

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 2 a.m. head nurse E. Sujatha was going on her rounds at the Ernakulam General Hospital. Suddenly, she heard the sound of clapping from a bed. When she came near she saw that it was Xavier, 68. Since he had a tube pushed through a hole in his throat to enable him to breathe, he could not talk properly.

“I discovered that he was gasping for breath,” says Sujatha. So she put him on oxygen, and called a doctor, who gave an injection. Sujatha awoke the wife, Teresa, who was sleeping on a nearby chair and told her the situation was grave. Xavier asked for some tea.

Sujatha went to the nurses’ rest room, made the tea on a heater, and gave it to him. “As he sipped it, he looked very happy,” she says. Then Xavier gestured to Teresa. When she came close, he embraced her. At that moment he died. “I can never forget Xavier and the beautiful way he passed away,” says Sujatha.

In the cancer ward there are 60 beds, but because there are far more patients, several are sleeping on the floor. According to Dr. K.A. Rosy, civil surgeon, the most common ailment among women is breast cancer. For men it is lung cancer.

Unfortunately, most of the patients come to the hospital only when they reach a terminal condition. Rosy remembers the case of a 28-year old woman, Jeena (name changed), who was in the early stages of breast cancer. “I told her she needed to have surgery to remove a breast,” she says.

But Jeena stayed with her husband in Dubai. She knew that if she did have the surgery, she would not be allowed to go back because she would fail the medical test. So she opted for homeo treatment and prayers.

After many months Jeena met Rosy but investigations revealed that the cancer had spread all over the body. “She was crying,” says Rosy. “She begged me to do the surgery, but it was too late.” A few weeks later, Jeena was dead.

Since most of the patients are poor, they try cheaper alternatives like homeopathy or ayurveda, when the cancer is in the initial stages. But when the disease spreads and the patient is on the verge of collapse, the desperate family rushes the victim to the general hospital, but it is beyond cure. “As a result, the mortality rate is very high,” says Rosy.

And the person who is afflicted is usually the bread-winner. “Their families are destroyed,” says Sujatha. She remembers a middle-aged man who died recently. The wife was looking after the husband for the past eight months.

“She was unable to work and there was no money in the house,” she says. “The children had to stop studying. When the man died, the family was mentally and physically shattered.”

The only good news is that the treatment is free, except for minor expenses. Since the state government provides a limited supply of medicines the cancer ward is dependent on sponsors.

The Ernakulam Karayogam gives medicines worth Rs 30,000 monthly, the Jeevan Raksha Charitable Trust gives Rs 12,000, the Sneha Charitable Trust Rs 10,000, and the St. Mary’s Orthodox church provides between Rs 10,000 and Rs 20,000.

“There are also a host of individuals who give donations ranging from Rs 1,000 to Rs 20,000,” says Rosy. “Thanks to them we are pulling along.”

On a Monday afternoon there is a power cut, but thanks to monsoon rains it is not hot. On one bed, Rani Baby, 43, is gasping for breath and her upper body is heaving with the effort. She has the still, staring eyes of someone who is on the verge of death.

“She is suffering from cancer of the uterus and now her brain has been affected,” says Sujatha. Rani’s mother sits beside her and holds her hands.

On another bed lies Mary, 54, who is suffering from throat cancer. Her husband, Francis, an unemployed mason, is sitting nearby.

The story was the same: unable to afford the initial treatment of Rs 75,000 at a private hospital, the couple opted for homeo medicines. The cancer spread rapidly, and Mary was brought to the general hospital, where the prognosis was grim.

For the doctors and the nurses each bed has a tragic tale to tell, but they carry on with a steadfast attitude.

“In the beginning it was painful to watch,” says Sujatha. “But thanks to meditation I have developed an inner peace and try to give as much of solace to the patients as possible.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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