Being in a hospital reminds you of the realities of life. Of its very fragility, of the democracy of injury & illness. And how expensive & classist its care is. That’s a lot to face and it’s not even time for the appointment yet. I check my papers and sit down to collect all my impressions.
Across the corridor from me, a lady sits with one foot on the floor and one resting on her seat in the classic pose of the people we call ‘bai’s in Mumbai – house helps. Her synthetic saree, hair neatly tied into a bun, and black beads-mangalsutra confirm what I read of her social station from her body language. It’s incongruous to see her in this airconditioned space seated instead of cleaning the floor.
Especially since next to her sits a middle-aged couple dressed in what I call NRI-on-desi-vacay chic. Well-cut hair, tastefully muted colours and pristine white sneakers (that’s the dead giveaway because nobody who resides in Mumbai has those beyond an hour of exiting the shop). Everyone falls sick. Some worry about their health; others also worry about the bills. I wait token in hand, trying to curb my panic at the crowd milling around the billing counter.
Breathing exercises calm me. They also bring me to the reality that I’m staring at a wall punctuated by toilet signs. Two very young men carry an infant into the men’s toilet. The baby’s pants are almost down to its knees and its huge diaper is visible. The man is carrying the baby awkwardly, around its waist, face out but leaning against his chest because the baby is too big to fit in his arms. I wonder whether men’s toilets have baby changing stations. Perhaps a hospital would? Maybe that’s why there are two of them going – one to hold the baby, one to figure things out.
Older people stumble about, betrayed by technology as much as by their own bodies. Grab a token, share your patient ID, okay give your doctor’s name sir, full name madam, scan the QR code, no you don’t need a different app, fine pay by cash but I don’t have change, you can’t see the doctor till you pay, I’ll give you an appointment later, fine please sit down, NEXT!
Yesterday I came across this guide for caregivers of people with Dementia. I saved it and shared it on my Instagram Stories as a way to keep a record for my own reference. I have loved ones who are getting older. Even without a medical diagnosis, these suggestions seem valuable to live by with mutual love, respect and peace. That’s what goes missing in most situations of the care of seniors.
A friend thanked me for sharing this guide & I remembered that her mother had been diagnosed with Dementia. We talked about how close Dementia is to Alzheimer’s, another condition that fills many of my generation with dread. Like our grandparents once feared hospitals & operations, my parents’ generation with their greater health knowledge fears losing the ability to remember basic things. As my Instagram story accumulates viewers today, I remember how many others traverse the same worries as I do. I have a quick DM check-in with a friend who is caregiving the last stages of an Alzheimer-affected parent.
The Miracle & I bonded over it being okay to discuss our parents’ health instead of cool things like pop culture and careers. She is embarrassingly grateful that I understand her need for family time. I tell her it’s a relief to know other people who prioritise this. I know you won’t shame me, I tell her, the way my past friends, colleagues and partners have. With her, I don’t have to prove my coolness with late nights or my independence by socializing minus my parents.
I run into some people I know on Twitter. And as my mind races to construct a plausible story of why I’m here, I see them do the same. This same encounter would yield different reactions outside a movie theatre (“What are you here to watch? Did you enjoy it? I saw it last week!”) or a market (what we’re each buying & the most exciting possibilities we can predict from the other’s purchases) or even a stationery shop (“So what else is new?”). Same people, same relationship, different context, different script. I realise how many of our social interactions are pre-scripted by where and when we meet. Everything relating to health suddenly becomes the opposite of social. Rigid, frozen, artificial.
Chemist shops, doctors’ waiting rooms, diagnostic clinic corridors, hospital billing counters – awkward places to run into people. How much concern is okay to show? How much would feel like intrusive curiosity? I once encountered a neighbour when I was exploring a new doctor. Her worried questions made me feel both annoyed and guilty for being annoyed. I lied and said I had the wrong address. The same day, I ran into a professional acquaintance. His friendly “What are you doing here?” met my defensive, “The same thing as you”. He said that he was there for a business meeting. I groaned and said, “Same.” I fled, exhausted from the obstacle course to my appointment.
It’s awkward with friends as well as with celebrities. Living as I do in an area rife with Bollywood names & hopefuls alike, it’s pretty common to spot a TV actor in the car next to yours in traffic. A character actor in the queue at a supermarket (he smiled when I held open the door and said, “Please, you first”). Nobody thinks it’s special to spot a director smoking at the cigarette shop on the corner. And everyone knows the trio at the coffee shop dropping names & dialogues with gusto. Still, it’s different when you spot their name on the appointment calendar. Worse, what if they’re seated next to you waiting for a blood test?
Should I look suitably impressed as is the Andheri etiquette for someone not in ‘the industry’? It might make such a person feel bad to be ignored, to think they aren’t recognised in public. But they might also not appreciate being noticed when obviously not at their best. Should my face convey respectful sympathy since I have a one-way positive relationship with their art? Do the people we admire, deserve greater consideration and deeper compassion for their pains? And finally, it’s always awkward to think about blood, urine and shit in a group with other people. When will it be time for my appointment??!
Waiting rooms are a bouquet of all the ways humans express anxiety. The man standing impatiently and tapping on his iPhone. The overly decked-up woman fussing with her rebonded hair. The senior citizen belching both defiantly and absently. The teenager looking uncharacteristically diffident as they ease off uncomfortable, fashionable footwear. The child slithering out of an adult’s lap, turning its face to every adult in the vicinity. All the people who engage with the child, grateful for the distraction. And the ones who studiously ignore the drama and stare at the wall. That one person who changes their mind midway and looks for water to drink then finds it, takes a sip and smiles nervously.
I briefly feel superior as I notice my own breathing pace evenly. It’s further established by a look at my neat file with everything I need well, in place. One of my doctors once told me,
“You’re very articulate and also very calm in conversation. But most people who come to me have a lot of fear. They don’t remember what to ask or tell me what I need to know. So I must look at them and put them at ease instead of staring at my computer screen or notes.”
I cling to the compliment embedded in his words. Being tidy about your emotions doesn’t usually win accolades. I ponder everything I experience. That puts emotions like fear, worry and anxiety on par with relief, belonging and comfort in terms of emotional energy. My emotion engine is parallel processing the cost on other aspects of my world – including misbehaviour or frenzy. I feel exposed and bruised most of the time. But when I see that most people feel weak when they’re vulnerable, I feel strong. Just as vulnerable and strong for navigating it without losing my sense of self.
Mingled with mental caricatures of other people in the waiting room are my memories of healthcare. Worrying for someone other than myself. Epilepsy. Pain turned to cynicism. Thyroid. Struggling with needing help, asking for help. Diabetes. Coming to terms with my own mortality. Cancer. Documenting my health as an age milestone. COVID.
I am just getting used to the absence of COVID fear dogging every step outside of the home. But in a medical setting, it hits me all over again. We survived. We’re alive. The danger still looms too close. We still don’t know the true impact of the pandemic on our health. Yet, we walk around like it never happened. As if life glides a straight path and any derailments, U-turns or abrupt stops are abnormal. Just like that, my smug self-satisfaction vaporises. But now, it’s time for my appointment.
If you’re not in India:
My Stats tell me that I have visitors from the USA and Canada so here are some additional explanations. In India, an appointment is most commonly assumed to be a medical appointment. We don’t usually refer to other engagements as ‘appointments’.
Doctors prescribe medication by brand & dosage in addition to diagnosing. Chemist shops are where these medications are purchased. They are supposed to be run by certified pharmacists but often are not. Western medicine (called allopathy in India) is the most expensive of healthcare alternatives. Allopathy is seen as cold, uncaring and unreassuring. It is also inaccessible to most people due to barriers of language and price. In addition, the government controls, and industry checks & balances on drugs and healthcare practitioners is not as stringent as in Western countries.
On the other hand, there are existing structures of what the West calls ‘alternative medicine’ in India – ayurveda and homoeopathy to name just two. These have the advantage of being more accessible to most people because their practitioners tend to charge less and be more friendly and reassuring with patients. Unfortunately, they are not organised, there are no proper checks or balances here either. And finally, Big Pharma has the deep pockets to shut down these industries. As a result, these practices have failed to evolve beyond local, shabby set-ups and superstition.
Thus, we are a country of over a billion people in diverse geographic locations ranging from hilly terrain to deserts to tropical coasts. We live with all the corresponding illnesses and injuries, in addition to lifestyle diseases in the uppermost social class. Some of us have the resources to pay for treatment but low access to reliable, safe, sustained healthcare. And this is just the topmost social class among us all.