Meet My Colleague, Death

Invisibles

Meet My Colleague, Death

Illustration: Mudit Ganguly

G

racy Kunnath is not looking forward to her shift.

She is sitting in a corner of the nurses’ station at Mumbai’s JJ Hospital where Malayalam rings loud. A band of young nurses from the south of India are having a snack before the night begins. The room is large and sparsely furnished but packed to its capacity. It’s 11 pm and the nurses who have wrapped up their late-night shifts have either hurried out or are sprawled out on crowded sofas. The ones walking in for their shifts are stalling for water-cooler conversations and a quick bite before changing into their all-white uniforms – an austere kurta-pyjama set.

Food is strewn across every surface that isn’t occupied by a tired body. Cups of tea, reheated in the crowded food warmer, are being passed around along with samosas, homemade rolls, and cake, the leftovers from a child’s birthday party.

Gracy has been allocated to the general ward today, more specifically, to a section populated by AIDS patients. The hospital used to have a separate section for them, she tells me. But a furore over the segregation, a decade ago, means that they are now a part of the general ward’s population.

She grimaces, as she informs me about her shift. Is it her distaste for the disease, I ask. She replies with a vehement shake of the head. It is death that leaves a bad taste in her mouth and death is common in that section. Is it even worse than the casualty ward, a walk-through that reeks of blood, wounded flesh, and antiseptic liquid, I wonder.

“There death is fast, here it is slow,” she says, fastening the buckle on her shoe.

Gracy, who has been a nurse for six years, hasn’t been in the system long enough to acquire the brisk casualness that most health workers have cultivated, when it comes to the subject of death.

The night shifts are the most difficult for Gracy. When the corridors finally fall silent, the footsteps of death somehow ring louder, as do the wails of grief. A devout Christian, who still breathes the name of Jesus before plunging a syringe into a vein, Gracy has learned not to look in the eyes of those who are passing. It is in the eyes that death pools up, and looking into the face of a corpse is still an unnerving experience for her. In truly debilitating conditions, she mutters a prayer with every step. Some deaths are tranquil, like silent offerings in a calm night; others are prolonged, racked with pain. And yet others are abrupt endings to a story, like a full stop wholly out of place. Those ones are the hardest.

Sunita has seen many deaths and relayed the news more times than she cares to remember. “You stop once you cross a hundred,” she says, chuckling at her own joke.

Five years ago, when Gracy was just starting out, a young man jumped to his death from the hospital terrace. He was being treated for a heart condition, and under Gracy’s dedicated care, was getting better. It was a long month to recovery, but then came a bump – he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. It is a treatable and a rather common disease but the man had had enough. No one noticed when he left his bed in the crowded ward and made his way upstairs.

His body, or what was left of it, became an object of great curiosity in the corridors of the hospital and then the morgue. It became fodder for conversation in the nurses’ room for several days. But Gracy was silent. The death had shaken her, and for weeks, the face of her patient haunted her.

Now, Gracy stands up and pats her uniform down determinedly. She has unpacked her tiffin, put it in the common refrigerator, and is ready for the long shift ahead. Her face looks older and wearier than her thirty years. She takes a deep breath and walks toward the silent corridor, ablaze under white LED lights. Her shift has begun and she has no idea what the night will bring.

***

The nurse has been the muse of many pop culture tropes. On top of the list is the Mallu Chechi, she of the accented Hindi and parochial ways. The brusque, aging Christian matron with an overbearing voice and bosom still populates Hindi films. All of these characters overlook the fact that the nurse is often the last person standing between death and a human being.

Mass urbanisation has alienated us from death. We rarely see death up close and personal. People from rural areas, farmers for instance, are more familiar with it. They’ve seen it, smelled it, felt it under their fingernails. A dying cow is not the same as a person nearing death, but living off the land strengthens one’s understanding that all living things eventually die. We, who live in cities, don’t have this understanding. We maintain a healthy distance from the distaste of death.

But what does this constant presence of death do to quality of life? Bhutan, which won the title of the happiest country in the world, allegedly achieved that feat with its habit of contemplation of death. In Bhutanese culture, one is expected to think about death five times a day, the nurses in this room definitely top that number. Does it make them grateful for the breath they are drawing? There is no evidence of a contemplative dialogue about their dalliance with death. The drudgery of their work, their ceaseless rounds, unending shifts don’t allow for this luxury. Once the surgery is done, the doctor goes home. It is the nurse who stays and does the heavy lifting involved in patient care. It is the nurse who is left behind when the patient gives up in the middle of an especially hard night.

One of the older hands, Sunita, is a 55-year-old matron with 40 trainees working under her, including Gracy. Sunita looks like a woman who has acquired the emotional distance necessary to do her job. Once the younger nurses have left, she is still lounging around, to be called upon by her minions during an emergency. I sit and talk to her while I wait for Gracy.

Sunita has seen many deaths and relayed the news more times than she cares to remember. “You stop once you cross a hundred,” she says, chuckling at her own joke. But beneath the grin is a memory that hasn’t dislodged itself even after 30 years. Back in the 1980s, when Sunita first started her career, the pink maternity wards were abysmal spaces where two women and two newborns often shared a bed and the floors were taken over by heaving, screaming mothers-to-be.

The infant that Sunita tells me about now was born premature and diagnosed with neonatal sepsis, an infection that killed him within days. His mother followed him a few days later. Sunita has no memory of the mother but she gestures with her palm to show me how tiny the baby boy was. He never cried, barely grasping for breath. He remained silent during his last hours too.

“Dono ko bacha sakte the. Hospital ke karan hi infection ho gaya tha,” she says, as sadness flickers over her creased face for an instant, and then disappears to be replaced by the mask of casualness. Sunita turns her face away from me and goes back to flipping channels on the television screen mounted on the wall.

Outside, in the fluorescent white ward, hundreds of men and women are arming themselves with pills and potions, preparing for a death match with the Grim Reaper. Gracy Kunnath is among them. She may lose another battle tonight and trudge her weary soul back to her safe space in the station where she will bolster herself with a cup of sugary tea. Then she will rise to deliver the news of death.

Such is life.

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