In the not-too-distant past, nothing and nobody could make me walk through gates of the Post-Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research. With its serpentine queues at different counters, critically ill patients stretched on cold, metallic trolleys in the Emergency, and harried droves swarming every inch of space in the OPD, the PGI intimidated me even from a distance.
That distance melted the day we had to rush my husband to the Emergency. PGI was an unchartered territory, but could be denied no more. It was our only hope. Fear, apprehension, or intimidation had no place in a time and space that changed so drastically for us within hours. Running away was not an option.
Huddled in a group, we saw rows of trolleys carrying patients in urgent need of help. Young resident doctors scurried through the maze, administering assistance. All through the night, pitched voices called out the names of patients, and the relatives responded with matching alacrity. Doctors worked tirelessly, dispatching some to other destinations, and taking in their stride patients who lost the fight in the course of the night. It was surreal to watch the spectacle unfold in an indeterminate zone of life and death.
The morning brought some sanity. We were in for the long haul, at the right place. Doctors got down to the job. I can’t remember how often and to how many I narrated the sequence of events that actually brought us to PGI.
As ‘residents’ took copious notes and prepared case, we plunged into scans, tests and long queues. For 75 days, PGI was to be our home, and a common bond developed naturally between the kin of other patients and us. We shared hope and fear, also offering comfort. Even the guards would ask, “How is your patient doing?” A month on, they enquired, “When are you going home?” It made me wonder if others had been more fortunate than us.
But the PGI opened itself to us in unexpected ways. No two days were ever the same. The nurse who smiled through the monotony of her routine one day, could scowl and growl the next. Another covered up her own lack of commitment by thundering, “Yours is not the only patient in this ward!”
The era of Florence Nightingales may long have ended but we rejoiced any kind word or thoughtful gesture that fell into our laps.
Doctors gave us reassurance when we hit rock bottom; but they spun no empty dreams. The resident staff was equally dedicated with backpacks, accented English, and passion for work, standing out even in crowds. PGI runs on the strength of its residents in ICUs, Emergency, and wards. And the most hard-working of the residents were all non-Punjabis. Being a Punjabi myself, I should know what I am saying.
One group that defied description was the PGI’s army of sweepers, attendants, and technicians. They reported at six in the morning. A jacket casually thrown across the shoulders, smart jeans and smarter shoes would not give away the identity of the man till he changed into uniform and picked up his tools. The ladies were equally sharp.
On a cold winter morning, they made huddled around a heater in the duty room, exchanged notes, and warmed up for the shift that ended at 2pm. Punctuated by tea breaks and breathers, they sailed through. I saw how well they played hide and seek with whoever chased them for work. There were debates about how full is “full” for a urine bag to be emptied or a suction container to be cleaned. Every new team brought new surprises. They dreamed big and deserved to chase their dreams, but outside the PGI, in the real world, with some honest work. Within the PGI, they offered a perfect foil to the residents.
Another tribe leaving its footprints in the wards is of the freelance attendants hired by families to take care of patients. Money, by the hour, played a big part in the arrangement; but the attendant, by the sheer amount of time spent as a caregiver, becomes a part of the family who learn to pamper him/her. For the attendant, money and time mean everything; for the family, the patient is the most important factor. We saw attendants move on from patient to patient with ease and without regret. Hardly ever did any look back. They are the realists who embrace this profession to make a quick buck, not to forge relationships. For PGI, they may be persona non grata; for families, they are an essential part of the set-up.
Many of these home truths are learnt on the job, through trial and error. Families sleeping under the trees on a cold winter night taught us fortitude. Birds on those trees bursting into song at sunset were a lesson in the mosaic of joy and sorrow, music and mourning. The same lesson was absorbed in the corridors when the dead were wheeled out and the sick wheeled in. If miracles happened, we did not see them. A sense of resigned calm settled on the faces surrounding us but when the end came, we were neither resigned, nor calm. We questioned our loss. But there were no answers. PGI gave us time to walk away, only just. That night the “death bed” must have been cleaned for another patient.
PGI does not intimidate me anymore. I keep going back to the 75 days to relive the roller-coaster ride. All through, PGI stood silently, watching the human play, closing one door but opening many others, because another cycle must run its course. Do I want to walk through its gates again? Not yet.
The SAS Nagar-based writer retired as a professor of English at GNDU, Amritsar. Her late husband, Dr Harsharan Singh, was also a professor of English at GNDU.