Fiction: Rishikesh

K S Subramaniam

K. S. Subramanian

Outside the hospital in the sprawling island city quite a few families looked either crest-fallen or shaken to the core. They were with sick or desperately ailing persons, who were clearly in the evening of their lives. The kin knew and could see that their geriatric kin had only a few evenings to see, possibly before the dark. They had seen years go by in all their tumult once, sometimes in happiness but never foresaw the uncertainty looming before them.

The reception staff was busy with the phone lines, mostly with their mobiles, but the talk was invariably shrill or pointless. Their medical specialists kept hammering on a single query that had no answer.

“Have the oxygen trucks come? Where are they right now? At the least we need two trucks for our immediate need. There are 30 patients gasping for breath, at the edge of the precipice. There are many others too in varying stages. “

The staff, who were used to tension-laden work for years, had not bargained for a day when a virus, lethal if ignored and manageable when shown alacrity, would swoop down like an invisible genie to take its harvest of deaths, primarily of those above 50 and surprisingly below it too. When it struck first the health staff like any other citizen did not know what it was until dripping well researched information produced an outline and nearly foolproof safety net from it. It took many months for them to comprehend its profile before they could recover those ailing from it. It was a grueling taxing work on shifts, stress eating away at the tissues and fatigue nagging the heart.

In that hospital the health staff took pride in pulling from the brink hundreds of ailing people who were oscillating between thin hope and certain end before the bell of recovery clanged. The staff had no time for accolades. Nor did they expect any or remembered them because the pandemic kept them on toes. Later they were vaccinated when the vaccines showed up on the horizon bringing the breeze of hope to chase away cobwebs of melancholy. They vaccinated many including those who were treated there. Yes, they didn’t bargain for another wave with mutants that could cast another spell of insufferable gloom or despondency.

It was back to square one with all the palpitated running for equipment, oxygen cylinders and the works. The hospital, generally known for its spotless hygiene, floors and ICUs, was inevitably caught in a puzzle, looking like a scrabbled chess board.

Rishikesh, young with ready humor and commitment, had become a qualified, licensed doctor five years ago. He had been a duty doctor in the hospital since then. When the pandemic struck he spent most of his time in the hospital attending to the patients at all times. His nurses asked him to take a few hours break as he too had a three year old son to look after and he obliged them by going home. He was in protective suit until he decided to leave for home hell bent on ensuring that he did not turn out to be a carrier. Protection mattered as much as a life. And he was back soon.

They all knew that scores of patients to be treated at a time meant that medical staff had to be on the job. And they made light of the situation with a mild joke or two as one of the nurses greeted him back with a cheery “these patients seem to be dearer than your wife. You can’t stay away?”

Rishikesh always was skeptical of tall claims or sweeping observations as reality was far more complex. From working among the patients he knew that some with co-morbidities were on the brink and others with a slender chance of survival. What they needed was liquid oxygen to replenish the blood flow in the lungs instantly or else would die. The hospital fortunately did have an oxygen plant that was giving the piped supply for years but that was designed to serve contingencies in the past. Now the situation was beyond the realm of contingencies.

He told his trusted nurse. “Sister! I don’t believe all this nonsense about the fact we should have anticipated or prepared well in advance. None can plan to the letter T or foresee emergencies and their associated needs. If that were so we should have had oxygen plants all over and in every hospital. Or we could even question why the need to have oxygen plants in all hospitals was never attended to? Were not we alive to it before? Or we were too mindful of the financial stakes in the business? The need is now and the essence of the hour is to have more oxygen trucks and possibly install one or more plants here urgently. “

She, Isabella, was in her thirties, having learnt composure from her profession and rationale from years of working among the ill and dying. She smiled, slightly shaking her head.

“Doctor! Agreed, In principle. It’s all easy and foolish to pass the buck as others do who are either opinionated no-gooders or lost in self importance. But have you forgotten the immense ordeal we went through two days ago when we had to manually revive a 65 year old patient with asthma and high blood sugar and failed? We had three more instances last week. All were dead. It left us mentally drained, sick. “

She went to attend another patient who was gasping for breath, trying to ease his heaving chest when Rishikesh joined her. The patient said testily in a weak tone which was almost a murmur. “Doctor! I wish I pass away without any more of this pain. “

“Sir! Please bear with us for a while. We have sent SOS and oxygen tanks will come anytime now, “ said Rishikesh. It was more in hope than any assurance. It sickened him to trot something which would be a lie if none turned up as promised.

Another young nurse, who joined the staff hardly a year back, came running. She was flustered for a while before getting her voice.

“Just now the admin got info that a tanker is five minutes away. The reception staff told me that more will be expected by evening. “

Rishikesh turned to the senior nurse and smiled. “Mine was not a far fetched hope, was it?”

The senior nurse, who had known Rishikesh for a few years and valued his sense of commitment, nodded with a smile. “At least we have kept our promise to these patients who were gasping for breath. Hopefully they will breathe easy.”

They could hear the patter of feet below when the tanker turned up at the gate.

 ………………….

It was 11 pm when Rishikesh returned to his flat three km from the hospital in his Maruti 800 which he liked as it was charmingly petite, productive and easy to handle. It was a just a six hour bonanza of rest before he would rush early morning. The hospital health staff worked on three shifts and numbered around 25 besides paramedics and drivers.

His parents had comfortably settled in Lucknow for years and the reports he got from them alternated between optimism about the virus control mechanism getting back on track with expedient steps or inevitable glitches on the way. He told his father “Dad! It is a monumental operation in a huge country on a mass scale. There are always marginal errors. Nowhere would the infra be equipped to meet a pandemic like this.”

His wife, Latha, gave a sleepy grin when he walked in. “Do you have to rush early morning? All are there on the table. For God’s sake don’t leave without having something in your stream in the morning.” She had reasons to say so. Often he would have a shower, give her a brief hug before rushing out. She knew the scare and never switched on television except when her son wanted to watch animation. A three year old kid would see fun and life only in the caricatures without understanding what it was all about.

“Don’t worry. I will help myself. Why don’t you go to sleep? I will leave all vessels in the sink before hitting the sack.” He felt the pangs in his heart that he had to wake her up at that hour but her face never lost the brightness of the day. She was a pharmacist too but at present content to run the home. There would always come a day when both could deign to spend maximum hours in medical service when their son would have found his feet.

 Latha knew from day one that he was a dream as a hubby and hated to add to her burdens. But her mind was not on what he would do or when he would hit the sack. Also it never so happened because he was attuned to his mobile for half an hour or more before catching sleep.

“Tell me, how is it all in the hospital or the city today? Anything major? You know I never watch TV.”

“Latha! It was all in a blur, so to say. First thankfully four oxygen tankers came one behind the other before 7 pm and it took a few minutes to install and connect them to the piped supply. We have no scares in that front as more are expected tomorrow. The hospital is going out of its way to ensure and secure its load of patients and send them safe and healthy home. “ He shook his head in pain when recalling a particular incident. She could fathom something was brewing and nestling in his mind.

She threw her arm around his shoulder. “Go on…what’s it?” He paused a while from eating and looked up at her. Then he spoke in clipped tone, measuring his memories.

“He was really badly off. Rohith Sawanth was his name. About 65 he had been a bank employee for three decades and a compulsive smoker. He got friendly with me over a week and not a day passed when he did not berate and bemoan his addiction to cigarettes. He also got his blood sugar from his father who had passed away in his fifties when he was in his teens. He had to take over the family, his mother and a younger sister. He thanked the stars for having got the bank job despite a tough period of remaining jobless.”

“I remember you told me his oxygen level was terribly low and he was on the edge of life. You also said he might not see the night through.”

Rishi nodded. “Yeah! So did I feel. Myself, Isabella and another nurse almost decided on manual resuscitation though we were skeptical. We brought ourselves to do it for an hour or so when he struck us as normal. He smiled at us and asked in a tone which we had to strain our ears to hear. “Please don’t tell my wife or son waiting outside about my condition right now. For God’s sake, please.” Yesterday when I came out I gave her reassurance without going further. But, Latha, he was put on oxygen later that night. When I went back today morning he was in passable condition, his intake was good and had a revived color in his face.”

“Rishi! Did you tell his wife about it? She must be feeling relieved. I can imagine though he is not out of the woods yet. “

“He will recover,” said Rishikesh. “His addiction to smoking had left his lung weak and inept but he had kicked the ghastly habit two years back. He got emotional and profusely and unabashedly thanked us all. Isabella kept cautioning him that he was not yet away from the edge. You will find it interesting to hear what he said to me. “Aapko meri umar lag jaaye….”

Latha snuggled close to his face, smiled and squeezed his shoulder. “That’s a normal blessing from him. All is well, right?”

There were some medicine strips on the table in the bedroom which Rishikesh usually took before he hit the bed.

 ………….

They were busy as usual in the wards of the double storied structure that it was with huge halls and rooms on the far end where equipment, ventilators in packs were lined up for use, apart from a compact canteen and rest room for nurses. The two floors, with beds spaced well for social distancing, had been converted into a Covid speciality. They didn’t, possibly couldn’t, take any other cases even if they were critical and used the one line rigmarole - “Only Covid care please…”

With the lion’s share of the attention and tension going with the virus they had no option. As of now the admin staff on the ground floor was getting a blizzard of calls about beds vacant or getting vacant. Yes, that was part of the commotion outside unobtrusively making its way into every health clinic near and far.

Isabella and Rishikesh moved from one bed to the other monitoring the flow of oxygen into every patient, the charts, their intake, mindset etc. (The last mattered a lot, as Rishikesh would aver especially in medical emergencies. If you whine you won’t get better. If you are calm, hopeful there was always a chance. God always helps those who help themselves. ) There were other nurses who were going about their work on the two floors on their shift routine.

“Doctor! We have been doing our rounds for the past five hours. I will have a quick grab at tea and return. “

“Please Isabella…” He moved further to talk to Rohith Sawant who greeted him with a toothy smile. Sawant’s wife was there till then and left for home to bring some food for them in the evening. Oxygen supply was going into Sawant’s lung stream and revival was perceptible.

“Sawantji…you must be feeling better now. Now is the time to put some muscle and strength into your mind as well”

He smiled and stretched out his hand to touch Rishikesh’s fingers. He spoke, putting less stress on his vocal chords. “If I were to lose hope or whine I would be doing great disservice to all of you. Yes…I do feel better and strongly hope I will be out of the hospital in a week. Doctor! I have shared some of my personal life too with you though as a community doctors have to keep away from personal attachments. I have a lone request ….the moment you feel I am better and can be discharged please do so. In this situation I have no right to occupy this bed longer than necessary.”

Rishikesh patted his wrist. “Sawantji…I appreciate this….to be frank, there is quite a clamor for beds outside that we may have to pack you off once you are safe.” Sawant grinned. Rishikesh went around the long line up of beds, spoke to each patient and checked the equipment and the chart. Isabella returned.

“Time for my turn…” he told her.

She grimaced and joked. “To get into this bed doctor? God forbid….”

 …………

It may be tiresome to hear the cliché, the jarring addendum that life is uncertain. Better to keep away the thought like the peeled skin of a potato.

It was grueling that day with the health staff spending hours in the two wards, be it on shifts or as a doctor working for nearly 10 plus hours. Rishikesh got into his car after sipping a full bottle of Kinley but with the weather being rough and hot his throat was dry when he reached home. He took another swig to moisten his throat. He felt a dull, nagging pain in his chest, a sudden blurring of vision though it was temporary and remained in his car for five minutes. He felt better or at least could move out. He stood on the ground, felt his feet becoming either numb or painful and the right side of his body heavy, inert but managed to drag himself to the door of his flat. He was glad to find Latha instantly answer the bell.

He staggered a bit before stepping in and Latha steadied him with alarm- struck eyes saying “Rishi! What’s wrong? You look haggard. God! I will get those medicines right away. Did you take any while at work?” A flurry of questions to which he was in no position to give elaborate replies except to mumble “Latha….I did take tablets but it looks like……a stroke….”

She took him to bed where their son was sound asleep. He stretched himself with irregular heavy breathing before her fingers flew over the black phone and Isabella took the call. “Oh No…we are coming right away. Latha, please try to ease his chest a bit …..see he takes his medicines now. “

They reached there in no time - Isabella, a heart specialist colleague of Rishikesh and two other nurses spent quite sometime to revive him with Latha stuck on the chair, wide eyed and shocked. The doctor, who was of the same age as Rishikesh, was worried at the condition of his friend, who appeared still and to be slipping into the zone of no hope. They spent an hour but nothing seemed to bring the thread of life back from the abyss.

He sat back, exhausted and emotionally stricken. It was as if something unthinkable and unforgivable had happened. “No…it’s not just right….,” he mumbled. Isabella, who scoffed at the call of the circumstances to reveal the truth to the bereaved, was angry all over, untypical of her. She quietly went close to Latha, pressed her head to her chest patting her. There was an unearthly silence for a few minutes before the wail accompanied by sobs broke it in the room.

With moist eyes normally the composed phlegmatic Isabella turned to the doctor.

“How is it life is so mercilessly uncertain and cruel doctor? Especially to us? Why?” It was almost a hysterical, angry shout, face contorted with inexpressible pain. It was a shout that came up when words had nothing to contribute.

The doctor was either benumbed or felt it too trite as the grimness of the situation enveloped them. He could hear the weak crackle of a crow in the distance.

 ………END……………

 

Bio: K. S. Subramanian, India has published two volumes of poetry titled Ragpickers and Treading on Gnarled Sand through the Writers Workshop, Kolkata, India. His poem “Dreams” won the cash award in Asian Age, a daily published from New Delhi. He has been featured in museindia.com, run by Central Institute of Indian Languages, Hyderabad, His poems and short stories have also appeared in magazines, anthologies and web sites run at home and abroad. Writing is a passion though he feels he should have done much, much more than was possible. He is a retired Senior Asst. editor from The Hindu.


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