This was an article i wrote to The Hindu almost 7 years ago.., when i was in my third year of Medicine.. Just reposting it here to kindle old memories.!
“Scarlett O’ Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.” Thus starts one of the greatest works of American Fiction – Gone With The Wind.
The woman I would proceed to describe belongs to the same category of female protagonists- not beautiful but striking and captivating. I first saw her in the Government hospital for Tuberculosis and Chest Diseases.
She was a patient and our surreal relation lasted only for fifteen days. We had just completed our third semester and TB Hospital was our first posting in the fourth semester. . Standing at the entrance of the TB ward, you could see the woman if you peer through the glass doors. I couldn’t take my eyes off her the first I saw her- laughing and teasing the staff nurses. I concluded that she was only a relative of one of the patients who took a sick pleasure of lounging on the hospital beds.
Later it became clear that she was a patient. .
The next day i saw her and dropped the stethoscope hanging from my hand. She was clutching a crutch and heavily limping towards her bed. “A crutch! Of all things humanly able to enter my mind, this was too much!” I thought. . A cripple. But she seemed unaffected with this debilitating handicap of hers. Her face never lost that cheer and smile that seemed to pervade the ward with warm radiance.
After recovering from this shock, I slowly walked back and entered the ward with an air of diminished importance and shaken feelings. She seemed to enjoy an uncanny power of clairvoyance, looking up just as I neared her. Her demeanour changed to slight apprehensive respect and she merely looked at my hands as I picked up her case sheet and turned over to the first page, rubbing the coarse paper between my fingers with the pretensions of a seasoned doctor reviewing an old case.
I read her name and that she was only twenty-one and was from Orissa. I saw her now as I had never seen her earlier. She had big black eyes and the skin under them was darkened considerably, both by the application of kajal and her illness. Her cheeks were drawn in and I could not differentiate whether it was anatomical or deliberate.The prominence of her cheek bones stood out as did the haughtiness of her aquiline nose reminding me of a departed leader of our country. Her face was coloured in what was initially pink but had been darkened to brown by the Indian sun. She looked at me innocently. I saw the jet black hair of hers, heavily oiled and regularly combed rest placidly on her shoulders. I carefully looked at her belongings. A book lay on the bed next to the pillow with a bookmark sticking out. Hardbound and faded, it was however majestic. I read the name on the spine in faltering Hindi – the holy bible. I turned to the next page and again a bolt of lightning jolted me. Written in dull blue ink on the header of the page were the words HIV+ive.
That was too much for the day, I thought. I dropped the case sheet on her bed and left the room searching for my friend. I told him about the woman, her disease and the bible. One of our other classmates, who was also listening aptly christened her -“Our Lady of the Wards” comparing her with the Virgin Mary and her several names in different convents. My friend smiled and looked at me. Of course, his casualness was understandable as we see scores of AIDS patients in our medicine wards. The only thing of what he said that really reached my ears was the fact that she did not look like an HIV+ve patient. AIDS patients are known to be normal for several years and for decades if on retroviral drugs and then suddenly go on a downhill course, with a variety of complaints and ailments the most common being TB.
She became an ideal for me. Everyday for the next ten days I would go and stand near the entrance of the female ward and look at her immersed in her work. She would be the same angel of smiles always. The nurses adored her and the post graduates seemed to be in a similar position as I was. She would give me a lot of hope and fortitude for myself. I would often look at her smiling and laughing and appreciate her courage in wake of such an illness. I reflected on my own problems which became inconsequential when compared to hers and my worries and cares seemed almost a felony. She did seem to exhibit the passion of fighting against the virus that was craftily destroying her immune system. I never could dare to talk to her again.
A few days before the postings ended, I went to the room as usual. I saw her sticking her tongue out in caprice against the nurses and throw a subtle tantrum against the intern. They were also enthralled by her to take any offence but I did walk up to the head nurse and asked her why the woman was acting strange. She stopped her work and told me that her relatives wanted to take her home. The woman was not pleased with it . The authorities, it seems sided with the relatives. My heart sank and it showed on my face. In a rare moment of frankness, the nurse said that she would miss the woman as well.
Our Lady of the Wards was leaving. I looked at the woman and saw her looking at me. We exchanged smiles and I bid adieu to her. I walked out and a few minutes later saw my friend come running towards me yelling “Our Lady of the Wards is being sent home!”
I smiled back. He gave me a strange look and then mentioned that a patient with hydropneumothorax had been admitted. He seemed very interested and said that we could examine him on the morrow. I shook my head and replied “I am not coming any more. I have learnt enough”.