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The red and white wall

Dr. Ananthapriya
Sunday, March 8, 2020

The sun was rising over the Indian Ocean, the water shimmering, the colours of the sky looking like a painted mural. Wow! thought Piyush, what a perfect shot! The coconut trees forming a flawless W, like they were saying “welcome to the world”. “Come on” said his roommate, “hurry up!” He had to tear himself away from the scene.

His campus was on the seafront on the east coast, one of the most prestigious medical institutions in the country. He was a third-year medical student. He hurried on towards the hospital, to his very first clinical rotation. It was surgery and he had to face Professor Varavara Rao AKA “the Riddler” (he posed unanswerable questions and was generally evil).

As he entered the building he subconsciously took in the surroundings; the building was more than a hundred years old. It was a colonial era administrative building repurposed to house a Medical College and Hospital after independence. Some restoration was done but it still looked impressive and a bit overwhelming. The walls of the lobby were painted a pale-yellow and had lime green skirting. There was a huge brass pot with indoor plants under the dome at the entrance. The multiple sign boards in various languages- Surgery, Medicine, Out-patient, lifts made for a very busy vibe. Unlike in movies and television, there was no slickness to the place. It could have been a museum for all one cared. The only thing hospital-like was the all-pervading smell of antiseptic. Piyush followed the signs as he made his way into the post-op wards, all the time framing shots with his mind’s camera. A sign that said “blood drawing here” with a picture of a nurse holding an IV needle made him chuckle, because it was right next to a poster for malaria awareness, menacing mosquitoes and all!

A small crowd of twenty-somethings had started to gather in the post-op ward, all of them in awe of the scenes of suffering, healing and indifference playing out on the various beds of the general ward. As Piyush walked towards them, a man suddenly materialised like a genie.

He was five-foot eight, slightly built and reminded people of their favourite uncle. His voice was deceptively strong as he boomed “So ladies and gentlemen, welcome to your first surgical rotation. This is the post-op ward although not all patients are post-op. So today I will give you a brief introduction to pre-op assessment after which each of you will be split into groups of three. So, each group will take on one patient, perform a thorough assessment and get back to me in an hour. I can pick any one person from the group to present the case and any one from the rest of the class to answer my questions. So, all of you need to be prepared. So, I suppose I don’t have to remind you, my questions aren’t easy. You named me the Riddler after all, so get ready to be riddled.” Piyush counted ‘so’ six times in as many lines of his speech

They all found their partners and scurried off to the allotted beds. Piyush surreptitiously whipped put his mobile camera and took a perfectly framed picture of a toothy skeleton of a man with a bandage over his neck as he tried to sit up in bed. He hurriedly stuffed the camera back in his backpack as one of the assistant professors walked around. Over the next hour, medical histories were taken, thorough and not so thorough examinations were done, and possible plans of care formulated in loud voices.

A sudden hush descended on the ward as soon as The Riddler walked in, exactly an hour later. He sat at the nurses’ station and all the students assembled around him. He pointed to our man Piyush and said, “Hey you in the blue checked shirt- go!” As Piyush looked askance he sarcastically bowed sayin, “if you please your Royal Highness, can you start presenting your case?” Piyush fumbled at his notes and started off- “the patient is a thirty-year-old male with lower abdominal pain…” From the corner of his eye, he noticed a nurse trying to draw blood from a patient and botching it up badly. The patient winced and the syringe flew off spilling blood all over the place. As he watched the drops on the wall slowly trickle down, Piyush started sweating, his breath came in gasps and he could feel his heart throb. He thought he was having a heart attack! Before he could react, he felt his legs give and the next thing he remembered was lying in a hospital bed! He could hear an angel in white whispering, “you have had a concussion. Just rest up for a few hours”. He had apparently fainted and taken a hit on his head. He felt a painful bump at the back of his memory kept flashing back to the colours red and white, “red, red blood all over, trickling down the white tiled wall…”

He was discharged after 72 hours of observation. His parents came to visit and sat in his room. His father looked at him with anxious, concerned eyes while his mother lectured to him about the importance of breakfast and the consequences of missing it (apparently his fall and the concussion were a direct result of not having breakfast). His head still hurt, and he could barely listen to what she was saying. “please go”, was all he said before falling asleep.

A week after that first day of surgical rotation. The same painted skies, the same ocean air, the same W of the coconut trees, less welcoming now to Piyush’s eyes… It was a Wednesday and they had to observe a surgery in the OT. After the tiresome business of changing into scrubs, cap, mask, booties and frantically stuffing the small pockets with watch, wallet and cell phone they were bundled into the theatre. It really was like a stage; the surgeon was painting the anaesthetised patient in the well. There were four strategically placed step-stools for students to watch. There were eight students in all trying to crane over the heads. The Riddler was supervising an exploratory laparotomy. He sat on a stool and said to Piyush, “Hey concussion boy- get on to the step- stool”. Piyush felt trapped as he climbed on and watched the orange betadine dry on the patient’s abdomen. The third-year resident who was performing the surgery picked up the scalpel and made a long midline incision. Piyush’s heart rate rose as the blood slowly started oozing out of the wound. As the scrub nurse reached out to clean, he stared horrified at the red stain forming on the swab. He had to throw up! He ran out of the OT into the bathroom and vomited. He then walked out into the post-op ward, still in scrubs, picking up pace as he ran down the stairs, across the brass pot, out of the heavy wooden doors of the hospital not stopping ill he reached his room. He then sat down on his bed and sobbed.

He could not possibly continue… he skipped his surgery rotation for the next three mornings hanging around on the beach, clicking pictures of sundry things, things that only he found interesting.

On the third day, he showed up to a forensic science lecture. No one really attended lectures except for the forensic science one, which was always packed. The girls came because the lecturer looked like Antonio Banderas and the boys came because all the girls were there. In the middle of the lecture a peon walked into the class with a note. Antonio Banderas called out “Piyush Varma, Professor Varavara Rao wants you in his office now!”

“I am so dead!” he thought as he plodded on to reach the office. He had an absurd vision of the professor in a green suit holding a cane much like Jim Carey in his Riddler costume in Batman.

He was greeted with a “so, after recovering from concussion, I hear you are roaming on the beaches”. There was total silence for about twenty tense seconds. Then the Riddler’s expression softened. “So, I was in the principal’s office reading your record you know. You are a brilliant fellow by the looks of it. You topped your school, stood nineteenth in the entrance and missed a gold medal by three marks in pre-clinicals. So, what happened? You don’t like surgery, or you don’t like my face? No, No It is not a joke. Tell me if you don’t like my face. We can do something about it. You know, I could wear a mask or something.”

“It’s not your face”, Piyush blurted out; “it’s the blood”.

The Riddler spent the next thirty seconds to straightening out a steel paper clip with intense concentration. Once it was almost straightened out, he declared triumphantly- “So, you have haemophobia”, with all the seriousness of a judge handing out a guilty verdict. “I have come across many students with this problem, the sight of blood scares them. Some get used to it and others leave Medicine for good. Which one are you?”

Piyush stiffened- “how does this guy know what I am thinking? Can he also read mind?” He thought.

“Tell me something”, went on the professor, “why did you take up medicine? Do you have a passion for it?”

Piyush stammered “I, I, I don’t know. My mother –

The professor cut him short saying “I know all about your mother. She is among the leading cardio-thoracic surgeons in the country.”

“Oh Yeah!” thought Piyush, “she declares it every single day to me, dad, and everyone else who cares to listen”. “one of the few females in an all-male speciality” as she put it.

The Riddler had apparently cleared his entire calendar for the afternoon and decided to grill Piyush instead for entertainment. “Ok, so tell me what are you really interested in?” was his next poser.

Piyush started off hesitantly,” a number of things…” after stammering over a couple of sentences, he heard himself talk non-stop- “I love photography and computer graphics and electronic dance music. I am very interested in forms, shapes and patterns; how they interact with the surrounding space giving rise to harmony, finding connections between words and pictures, so they tell a story together. I find talking to people and figuring out how they fit into this harmony very interesting”. He surprised himself by blabbering non-stop for fifteen minutes revealing it all.

Professor Rao had to put an end to this vocal diahhroea. “Ok son, so what do you want to be if not a doctor?”

Piyush took a few deep breaths and replied “Anything else! I have always wanted to be an event manager or a photojournalist, or a talk show host or a game -designer. Anything but a doctor.”

“Hmm… “said the professor, “So, I will give you a week’s time to make a decision. You have two choices. One-leave medicine and join a computer, photography, talk show host college or course or whatever it is called. Two- go to a counsellor to help you with your phobia and stay in this college. Use your one week wisely, roam the beaches, take crab pictures, do whatever you want to do and sort this out by the end of the week” With that he waved his hand in dismissal and once again shifted his attention to assaulting another paper clip into submission.

Piyush trudged slowly out of the office. Over the next few days he took the professors advice and roamed around the small picturesque town, clicking random pictures and talking to strangers. He played out different scenarios in his mind as he walked. All of them ended the same way- the look of disappointment in his parents’ eyes, the icy rejection in his mother’s demeanour and the inevitable lecture. “Wasting your potential. Squandering away opportunity. You’ll never amount to anything if you don’t have a medical or engineering degree. We are relying on you in our old age”.

“Why me”? He had asked once, when his mother had told him what was expected of him. His sister, one year older to him, pretty much did what she wanted to without having to excel in school. She took dance and music lessons, went to baking classes participated in every extra-curricular activity in school. He on the other hand was pushed to be academic, his training for Medical college entrance starting in eighth standard (the competition is tough- as his mother always said).

He never quite understood the answer to the “why me”. According to his mother, his sister was a girl. She would get married, probably to a boy settled in the west (The famous NRI - Non-resident-Indian) and needed the skills to make it in the USA. “It’s difficult getting into a Medical residency in the US” was his mother’s argument. Their mother also believed ardently that his sister was intellectually inferior and incapable of the rigors of a professional degree. She was grooming her to be an NRI bride. Piyush on the other hand was the great light, who would outshine all other offspring in his mother’s social circle. His mother was the only daughter among four siblings and eleven first cousins. According to her, no one had any expectations of her except to get married and be a good wife and mother. She was brilliant and got a scholarship to study medicine. She loved rubbing it into their faces in family gatherings that she was among the highest taxpayers in the country, in the elite company of industrialists and movie stars. To her, Piyush was an extension of her revenge.

“I want to quit”. Piyush said this aloud a couple of times to see how this would sound and how his parents would react. He played out various scenarios, picturing his father, his understanding eyes, and his what-can-I-do shrug, his feeble interjections during his wife’s tirades. He decided to imagine continuing in Medicine. Drawing blood, cutting open an abdomen, patching up a stab wound… and they all ended the same way. He walked and walked and clicked and clicked with his high-end Nikon camera.

But no matter how many different scenarios took, it ended the same way- With him passing out or puking or running away into the ocean. He reminisced about how the camera became his. It was a reward for being the school topper in his twelfth boards. His mother wasn’t happy with his choice. She wanted to gift him a Mac notebook, but for once his father had prevailed. Probably because his mother was preoccupied with a medical negligence case at that time and didn’t want more conflict.

The next morning, he left his room without any of his accessories. No wallet, no phone, no camera… He made a straight line as he walked from the hostel to the ocean front. As he reached the edge, he continued walking into the oncoming waves, their stinging iciness making him more determined. He walked on, thinking of his sister, her mangled, bloody body, barely recognisable when it was recovered from the crash site. He was going to be with her now. Their secrets safe. Safe from that disappointed look. The water was now slowly seeping into his lungs and he started clawing the surface. He really was going to die!!

When his eyes opened, he saw a familiar white angel hovering over him. Déjà vu! “Heaven or Hell or in-transit”? He thought.
He was dumb struck to catch his father gazing at him, teary eyed. “Dad!” he tried to scream but his throat was sore and hoarse. His gentle, generally stoic father came running to his side, hugging him, sobbing. What was happening?! His usually steady voice broke, as he sobbed, “you were rescued from the water by the lifeguard. You were on a ventilator for two days”. He continued holding Piyush as if he would disappear beneath the waves if he let go. “Of course,” thought Piyush “there had to be a lifeguard around, I can’t even do a decent job of dying!”

“Where’s Amma” Piyush asked. “Oh! She is raising hell in the hospital administrative wing demanding that everyone do their best for you”, he said with a ghost of a smile. Piyush found this funny and started chortling and then his father started laughing too.

When he recovered enough to speak in comprehensible sentences, Piyush told his father about his phobia for blood, his decision to quit medicine and pursue graphic design. He then appealed to his dad, “you have to help me dad! Please talk to Amma about this. I know you never speak up for yourself and I have never understood why!”.
Then his dad told him why. He had met his wife in medical college. He was a quiet, gentle soul, a perfect foil for her opinionated, forceful personality. They were drawn to each other and decided to make it permanent. Things were going great till he decided that he wanted a quieter life even if it meant less income, so he took up epidemiology and community medicine. That meant more academics and research, no emergencies, no stress ulcers and considerably less money. She pursued CT surgery and very successfully too. She never let him forget what he gave up and he never stopped feeling guilty.

As father and son quietly contemplated their future, the mother walked in. Her lips quavered as she hugged him. “Why Piyush.? Why did you decide your life wasn’t worth living? Did you even think of us, your parents? How would we continue with our lives losing two both our children? She asked.
Piyush whispered- “I didn’t want to disappoint you Amma”.

“You know, I never once worried about you”, she continued, “You were always obedient and made sensible choices. Your sister on the other hand was wilful and reckless. Ironically, her life was going exactly as planned till the accident and yours has been derailed.”

“You’re wrong Amma” he said and instantly bit his tongue. “What”? Asked his mother. “No” he replied, “it’s nothing Amma”.

Piyush could sense the still in his dad’s voice when he interjected- “say what you want to son”.

Piyush went on, “Amma, your daughter had other plans for her life. She had a boyfriend, he was a student of dramatics, they were planning to elope and audition for a movie in Chennai. The day she died she was drunk and high on weed. I know this because she called me half an hour before the accident”.

“And you didn’t think it was important to tell me?” asked his mother.

“It wouldn’t have mattered”. His dad said quietly.

“Amma I don’t want to be a doctor. I have haemophobia. I passed out twice during my surgical postings. I will never enter those wards ever again”.

His mother’s eyebrow arched up. “And waste two years of time and all the money”?

“The alternative is for him to succeed in his suicide attempt the next time” said his father. “We can’t force him”

After a lot of heated discussion among the three, it was finally decided that Piyush would switch to graphic design as a career. His mother was not pleased. She was bewildered that her son would choose something other than medicine and to hide her disappointment she excused herself- “I’ll go talk to them about discharging you”.
Just then his roommate burst in.” Hey Piyush, remember the picture of the coconut trees you sent to the National Geographic Photo contest? You won the second prize!
You are famous dude!”

His mother withdrew her hand from the doorknob. Turning sharply, she walked back to the bed. “what does that mean”? She asked. “Aunty” said the roommate “Piyush’s photograph will be published in the National Geographic magazine! There is a cash prize and an internship with a famous nature photographer.” As this sunk in, the disappointment in her eyes was slowly replaced by something resembling pride. Maybe he could still make it to the top tax bracket, she thought. She went out of the room after congratulating him with a peck on his cheek.

His father looked at the unspoken confusion on Piyush’s face, He said “Making your parents proud is important but not as important as taking pride in yourself”.
And that what was the last thing ever said on this subject.

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