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Doctor Diaries: 'We don't just operate on a patient, but on an entire family without anaesthesia!' says Dr. Pankaj Desai

M3 India Newsdesk Mar 08, 2020

In this Doctor Diaries entry, we feature Dr. Pankaj Desai's story where he recounts an old incident from his residency days as a PG student of obstetrics and gynecology; a true story that imbibed a value of humanity in him.

I remember as a resident doctor doing post-graduation in obstetrics and gynecology there was this lady, a senior consultant of ours who was always angry. We all used to be terrified of her and many would run helter-skelter on seeing her. 

Once, while I was doing some post-operative routine work in the wards I heard a big commotion near the operation theatre door. She was shouting at the top of her voice. Inquisitively, I went closer to find an old man standing in front of her trembling, with folded hands as if pleading for mercy. She was yelling at him. It seems, she on coming out of the operation theatre after finishing a difficult surgery saw something unsavoury. 

There were beedi (thin Indian cigarette filled with tobacco flakes and wrapped in a tendu leaf tied with a string at one end) stubs littered all around, near the door of the operation theater. I did not even need a minute to understand what must have happened.

The man must have been smoking those and had thrown the stubs there. The lady must have seen the litter and the flare-up followed. She didn’t leave until the old man literally in tears, collected all the beedi stubs and threw them in the dustbin. Tidiness restored – all was well – the lady left with a gleam of victory in her eyes.

We had nearly forgotten the episode when in the evening after all teaching sessions were over and all had left, I went back to the postoperative ward to complete the remaining work. There I saw that old man sitting or rather squatting on the floor, near a young female patient who was seemingly operated. He was holding her hand as the patient so the patient doesn't move her hand and dislocate the needle of the running saline drip.

He had a totally stoic face. He was looking out of the window staring vacantly at the dark sky. I quickly pulled up a stool for him so that he could sit a little more comfortably. He looked up at me and as he sat on the stool and he just sighed. He spoke nothing. 

“Have you had something to eat?“ I asked. He didn’t reply. Wasn’t the answer obvious? Tea and biscuits were arranged. But he seemed to be too scared to take it. He was so clearly hungry. I sensed the fear that was doing rounds in him again.

His silence spoke loudly while he did not utter a single word. He was too afraid to eat in the hospital ward. He was also too frightened to leave the hand of the patient as he was strictly instructed not to move. Having reassured him I arranged a peaceful corner for him outside the ward with some privacy and got on with my work.

After about half an hour or so, while deeply engrossed in my work, I felt as if someone was staring at me. I looked up to find that old man. He was peering at me through the window. As I looked up, he smiled gently and as in Indian tradition, folded his hands as if to say 'Thank You' and went back to the patient. I left him in his space. 

After a couple of days, I could see the man in the hospital compounds now visibly relaxed but still very silent sitting in the corner waiting for the gates to open and the visiting hours to commence. I walked up to him and just placed my hand on his shoulder making it as comforting as possible.

I asked, “How is your patient”

He replied, “She is much better now”

“Who is she?” I asked

He said, “She is my only child, Sir. She had torn her uterus (ruptured uterus – a very serious life-threatening condition). We were transferred from the primary health center to the referral hospital and from there, we came here. She was operated here and is now saved, Sir”. 

The entire picture was now so clear: This man’s only child, his daughter was on the death-bed that day. She was being operated on. He was facing a real possibility of having her be wheeled out of the operation theatre dead. He must have been in unimaginable, indescribable stress. In that stress, he must have smoked one beedi after the other.

Little did this simple man realise, that he was in a hospital and therefore was not supposed to smoke or make the place dirty! Did it matter? Do such rules matter at a critical time? No, they don’t! He smoked away in sheer agony - at the prospect of losing his only child. We the doctors on emerging from the operation theatre did not care to tell him what the situation was. Instead, we shouted at him, because after all, he had made the hospital dirty! He had smoked in the hospital!

I have never forgotten this incident in my life. I know that as doctors when we operate on a patient we are not operating on one human being but on the entire family that is waiting outside. The agony is – the patient is anaesthetised so he/she doesn’t feel the pain. But the family is not under anaesthesia. They are conscious and can feel pain – lest we forget! Would a gentle word have been out of place? 

I am convinced: “A good doctor doesn’t necessarily mean a good human being. But a good human being necessarily means a good doctor. Let us be good human beings, the good doctor will automatically follow!”

Doctor Diaries is M3 India's new blog section where we encourage our doctor members to share stories and anecdotes from their professional lives that may have made a deep personal impact. If you have a story to tell, write down your story and the lessons it left you with and share with us on email at editor@m3india.in. We will give it the audience that it deserves. Read more about Doctor Diaries here.

This article was originally published on November 29, 2018.

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