Saturday, May 12, 2007

Æsculapius Between Mercury and the Graces!



This fiction feature might appear a bit incongruous in an overtly political magazine. But the story is steeped in socio-politics; besides it might relieve the tedium of reading through politics alone…

The ambience seemed to measure up to cousin Sudhir’s satisfaction. He tends to compare everything as it appears in his adopted homeland. The young bright receptionist in her shiny blue uniform sari warmly welcomed us with a smile and bade us sit.

The ornate exteriors, the gleaming marble and glass counters, the crisp blue uniforms purposely bustling about, the enquires and answers in hushed tones and the subdued awe of the patients and their attendants - all reminded cousin Sudhir the way they are back home. Sudhir seemed happy to see that things were changing in the land of his birth.

‘The doctor will see you now’, said the blue uniform with a pretty smile. There were however two young medics in the room when we entered - a female, gorgeous enough to put Aishwarya Rai out of business and a male who was no threat to Shah Rukh Khan.

The tiny room was painted and wainscoted in pastel shades. There was a small table in the room and four chairs, two on each side of it. An examination table with its stand for the ubiquitous B.P. apparatus alongside one wall completed the furniture. There were the usual pads of prescription slips on the table.

The lady welcomed us with a smile and requested us to be seated. The medics’ job seemed to be preliminary and only to take the patient’s history, which obviously included his paying capacity. As she jotted down details of Sudhir’s illness, the non-Khan mumbled, what I heard to be ‘otoringology’ or some such technical term. We wondered whether it was a code between the two or whether he was trying to impress us with medical jargon. Aishwarya Rai smiled, peeled off a large sheet on which she ticked off several items and handed it to Sudhir explaining the tests he should undergo before he met with a ‘Senior Consultant’. The appointment would be at 4.15 that afternoon and if he hurried Sudhir would be able to finish all the tests and have the reports for collection before then. Ah! Before proceeding to the various labs would he please visit the cash counter to put in a deposit? She signed off with another of her dazzling smiles. 

The blue sari behind the cash counter smiled and suggested a deposit of Rs 10000/- I wondered whether she added a zero by mistake but the figure did not disconcert Sudhir, as it was just about 225 dollars in his currency. I wondered whether the hospital would tot up all the smiles too in its final bill.

We trotted to the lab in the basement where the technician was all efficiency and collected a pint (or so it seemed to me) of blood using a syringe peeled from its sterile wrapping before us. The lab in the second floor X-rayed Sudhir’s innards and another in the third recorded murmurs of his heart to find out whether it was up to any mischief.

At this stage it is necessary to explain the reason for cousin Sudhir’s odyssey into the hallowed precincts of the five-star hospital. Used to the near zero temperatures and hazy sunshine of his adopted homeland he came down with sniffles a week into his stay in the old tropical homeland.

It appeared to me the folks at home were making a lot of unnecessary fuss about what was just a common cold. I was instructed to obtain leave of absence from work and despatched to accompany him to the newly opened corporate hospital in the city. 

I sensed, old grandma who was behind all the fuss, has another hidden agenda in sending me along with Sudhir. She usually fixes marriages at birth and is all for consanguineous marriages. She wants me to marry Sudhir or at any rate impress him enough to marry me.

Grandma is one among those captive audience to all the bamboozling advertisements that punctuate the sitcoms and soap operas she regularly watches on the telly. She therefore not only remembered the name of the hospital but also reeled off its services. 

We reported at the chamber of the 'Senior Consultant' referred to by the young medic in the morning, at precisely 4.15 P.M. armed with a sheaf of reports - it appeared to me - about every functioning part of Sudhir’s body. A plaque on his door gave his name followed by a string of impressive degrees and said that he was a Senior Consultant in Otorhinolaryngology and to make it intelligible in English, Ear, Nose and Throat diseases. ‘Otoringology … whatever’ mentioned by the young medic in the morning was demystified.

Another crisp uniform and bright smile bade us sit, as ‘Sir’ was busy with another patient. By and by we were ushered into the sanctum where the Senior Consultant presided over along with an eager beaver assistant. The Senior Consultant was in his middle thirties - as  are all the current crop of Senior Consultants - with impressive degrees and a smugness brought about by acquiring all those impressive degrees at that age.

The Senior Consultant bade us sit and grimly inquired, ‘who’s the patient?’. The question seemed almost indecent. He could have glanced at the case sheet placed before him and deduced ‘who’s the patient by looking at the ‘Sex’ column in it. I wanted to quip about Senior Consultants’ literacy ability and their ability to distinguish between males and females but forbore to give tongue to it. Grandma would not approve of such irreverence from a bride-to-be, who, in our culture, was expected to be demure at all times. Smiles do not seem to percolate into the sanctums of Senior Consultants. Either these demigods do not dispense smiles at all or they reserve them only for ranking politicians and other well-heeled socialites who use the opulent hospitals for dodging court warrants.

He took the proffered sheaf of reports and glanced quickly through them. He either has had speed-reading training or already knew what was in them for he he skimmed through them with cursory glances. He called Sudhir to sit on a stool opposite his own chair and depressing his tongue with a plastic implement examined his mouth with a sort of Davy’s lamp strung around his head.

After he was satisfied that he had seen enough, he removed the headband, threw away the plastic implement and turning to his eager beaver assistant pronounced ‘Bilateral adenopathy with inflammatory fossa, deviated nasal septum, rhinorrhoea and inflamed sinuses’ (I must confess these technical terms were unintelligible to me when he pronounced them, but read them in the case sheet later) who dutifully started writing it down in a case sheet.

‘What does it mean Doc?’ asked Sudhir, in his American flavoured accent. He felt he had a right to know after all the prodding and poking to which he obediently allowed himself to be subjected. And in his adopted homeland ‘docs’ explained things to their patients. In fact patients often collected all information about their diseases from the Internet and confronted ‘docs’ only to authorize prescriptions, if you were to believe Alvin Toffler.

The Senior Consultant pursed his lips without answering for a moment matching it with a scorching look, for after all, in India demigods are not irreverently addressed 'doc', however welcome Sudhir's accent and dollars might be! Then he quickly recovered, for here apparently was a goose that laid golden dollars and did not mind having its pocket snicked if it was done with a pair of golden scissors.

He enquired Sudhir about his hearing. Sudhir replied with the breezy nonchalance and irreverence of one from the land of opportunities that he could hear a pin drop. The Senior Consultant did not take him on his word by dropping a pin but picked up a tuning fork and vibrating it against his palm placed it on various points of Sudhir’s forehead and behind his ears all the while asking him about his ability to hear its resonance.

Finally, although apparently satisfied with the results, the Senior Consultant said ‘We shall have an audiometry test done to make sure that there is nothing wrong with your hearing; and I would also suggest a brain scan; we should not leave anything to chance; should we?’ as if he invited Sudhir’s opinion as a part of his consultation.

Without waiting for a reply he ticked on another of those ready-made forms that made docs’ jobs in the hospital so much simpler and handed it to Sudhir asking him to return after collecting the reports on the morrow. Still there was no mention of a prescription for Sudhir’s sniffles. There was nothing but to thank him and leave for the day was far advanced by then.

As we were recounting the day’s events at home, one of our neighbours walked in. He has been our family physician before the days of glittering five star hospitals and saw all our cousins through childhood ailments. 

The good doctor listened to our tale of adventures in the new abode of medical wisdom, smiled and said ‘Son, common cold is relieved in a week with medicine and in seven days without it!’ He scribbled a name on a slip and handing it to Sudhir said, ‘take this to relieve your symptoms.’

Would you believe, an hour after taking the tablet the old ‘doc’ prescribed, Sudhir was as fresh as the boy in the VICKS advertisement - after his mom rubbed the ointment on his chest that is? 

This piece is based on real-life experiences of two different individuals in their transactions with 'Senior Consultants' in two different specialties. The Indian girl and her Indian-American cousin are, however, fictitious characters.

The following definitions of the words ‘Aesculapius’, ‘Mercury’, and ‘Graces’ used in the title are from the Wikipedia Encyclopaedia.

Aesculapius - son of Apollo; a hero and the Roman god of medicine and healing; his daughters were Hygeia and Panacea.

Mercury - In Roman mythology, Mercury (Latin: Mercurius) was a major god of trade, profit and commerce, the son of Maia Maiestas and Jupiter. His name is related to the Latin word merx ("merchandise"; compare merchant, commerce, etc.).

In Greek mythology, a Charis is one of several Charites (Greek: "Graces"), goddesses of charm, beauty, nature, human creativity and fertility. They ordinarily numbered three, from youngest to oldest: Aglaea ("Beauty"), Euphrosyne ("Mirth"), and Thalia ("Good Cheer"). In Roman mythology they were known as the Gratiae, the "Three Graces."

Should the physician, like every other member of society mind his own prosperity or consider healing as a divine profession for the welfare of the society?
An update, Aug 21, 2011Please see "One Word Can Save Your Life: No!" published in Newsweek, August 22-29, 2011 p. 34-38 (print version).