While the entire medical fraternity is trying to draw the nation’s attention to the Kolkata incident I would like to focus closer home. Not because I am not outraged by what happened there but because it would be akin to flogging a dead horse.
So I will skip the incident in SNR Medical College and recount what happened in my alma mater PGIMS Rohtak instead. A final year post graduate student in Paediatrics department succumbed to the pressure of medical education and committed suicide. The media projected the professor as an unreasonable meanie, stating that among other atrocities, she didn’t grant him leave to attend his sister’s wedding. This was the final straw that broke the ‘already overburdened’ camel’s back. My intent is neither to fix responsibility nor condone the conditions. I am just using this opportunity to give an insiders glimpse into the making of a doctor. So while my colleagues are trying to tell society that it is difficult being a doctor….. I want to emphasise that becoming one isn’t easy either.
Most people know that it entails cramming thick tomes through the night. But that is a very small part of the training. Overcrowded, understaffed hospitals result in overworked residents who often work thirty six hours shifts. Despite such impossibly gruelling duties only the best is expected from them. Bosses are unforgiving. It is continuously reiterated that since human life is at stake, mistakes can’t be made. Long duty hours means not getting time to prepare for exams or write thesis. Along with this stress comes the humiliation of never quite making it to the high standards set by teachers. It isn’t surprising then, that suicide crosses the mind of many students. It crossed mine too. I survived because I didn’t have the courage to die…..or perhaps, because, I had the courage to live.
My own boss was a hard task master, never relenting in her quest for perfection. If we ever dared complain about the long hours or the excessive workload, she would say that she was preparing us for society which wouldn’t be any easier. Not getting leave was a recurring theme. My friend couldn’t get leave for her own marriage so scheduled her wedding on one Sunday and reception on the next. I had labour pains induced so that I could deliver in time to use my week long winter vacations for some postpartum rest. Something as basic and imperative as maternity leave was not available to postgraduate students till recently. It is just one of those things, along with regular meals and a good night’s sleep, that doctors prescribe to others but can’t afford themselves. Once when I was visibly upset over a cancelled trip due to an emergency duty, she sternly said,” Get used to the idea of ruined plans, you have chosen this vocation.” Briefly put, she thought I was a slacker ( mild understatement ) and I felt that she was a sadist! ( mild overstatement)
Almost a decade after I had left the institute and was in private practice, my boss dropped in one day. Impeccably dressed as always, she said she was passing and thought of checking in on me. She was disturbed by the vandalism and arson in the hospital of one of her ex-students. After the death of a patient the relatives had gone on a rampage damaging property. My boss was appalled that neither the administration nor her non medico neighbours and friends had helped her. Looking concerned she told me that I should relocate if I couldn’t count ten people who would rush to my rescue. After some thought she added, “ Take pictures, make videos. Leave the premises but make sure that someone else documents the incident. If ever something like this happens be sure to collect proof. It will help you get justice.”
It’s a well known fact that only doctors support doctors in such a crisis. Gharaunda, my hometown, had a negligible medical fraternity at that time. I secretly wondered if she had visited because she found me in a similar, potentially dangerous situation. This rushed lesson on self-survival when the patient dies, was it a part of the ‘continued medical education’ she continuously recommended?
As teachers resign en masse in West Bengal, and doctors all over the country join the strike in an effort to make their work place safer, I wonder what my boss would say had she been alive today. In these difficult times would she discourage us to treat the gravely sick and risk the aftermath of a death? Would she tell us to forgo empathy and sympathy and save ourselves first ? Would she advise us to not try anything heroic, lest we end up a martyr. Probably not. No doctor would like to recommend shunning the core values of this profession. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to save lives at the risk of losing your own.
Two decades later, her parting words still resonate in my mind. A tad remorseful for not having equipped us to deal with the ‘next of kin’ anger and violence, getting into her car, she had wistfully said, “And I mistakenly thought, I had taught you people everything……… ”
( published in my column in the Tribune on 22/6/19).