Photo above: A patient and doctor on Male Ward No. 2 at the Tata Motor’s Hospital where I spent a week recovering from malaria. Jharkhand, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2009
A few days ago I was discharged from hospital after spending a week undergoing treatment for malaria contracted while working in eastern India. It is not always easy being away from home when you’re ill. Indeed, those seven days stuck in a hospital bed might have provided me an excuse to wallow in my misfortune and get exasperated with the frustrations of living in India. While there were of course moments when I just wanted to be home, the spontaneous acts of kindness displayed by those who cared for me while I was sick provided me ample comfort and confirmed why I have such affection for this country.
For a week prior to the malaria, I’d been photographing a story on the provision of basic services including water and sanitation in the east Indian states of West Bengal and Jharkhand. I could never have imagined that my own personal experience would provide such a stark confirmation of the pressing need to invest in essential public infrastructure like drainage.
So it was, while in Jamshedpur on entering my hotel room at the end of a particularly long day, that I was struck by the first wave of nausea. Within seconds I was overcome with a shivering that found me clambering beneath the bed sheets in a futile attempt to warm myself up.
I had experienced these symptoms almost a year earlier while in Delhi and my initial fear was that this was another case of the dreaded dengue that had once left me so drained of energy. Eager not to repeat this distinctly unpleasant experience, I relayed my symptoms to the local UNICEF staff with whom I had been working. It was agreed that I immediately admit myself to Jamshedpur’s Tata Motors Hospital.
Two UNICEF doctors were dispatched to my side and escorted me the hour’s drive to the hospital. This was the beginning of an apparently boundless personal interest in my well-being among people I had never met before. After admitting me to the hospital, the same two doctors returned on separate occasions the following day, each of them with a friend, one of whom presented me with a small foil-wrapped rose. Yet another of their colleagues arrived on the third day, again accompanied by a friend.
I was grateful for these acts of kindness but it was the medical staff at the Tata Motors Hospital who displayed a generosity of spirit that went way beyond the call of duty. As a relatively young foreigner on a ward full of local elderly men I was clearly something of a novelty for the nurses, most of whom were troubled by my being struck down with an illness while traveling so far away from home. I was showered with questions regarding my family, my marital status and what had brought me to India. One nurse announced that I was the first foreigner with whom she had ever spoken and several insisted on bringing to my bedside colleagues whose responsibilities lay well beyond the confines of Male Ward Number Two.
The elderly Nurse Paul was one of those hailing from a separate wing of the hospital. It was on presenting herself to me that she immediately announced she was Roman Catholic and would therefor be praying for me. I expressed my appreciation which prompted her to ask if I too was Roman Catholic. Dressed in a white nurses uniform, complete with a hat and looking herself not unlike a nun, it seemed churlish to disappoint her. Besides, I was sure that divulging my atheism to Nurse Paul would have unduly burdened her with an obligation to introduce me to Jesus and other figures from the bible. This process would have inevitably taken a long time and I was certain that working in a hospital shouldered her with responsibilities far more urgent than my salvation.
Nurse Paul was just the beginning of a long line of concerned parties among the nursing staff. There was the chatty and decidedly healthy-looking Anglo-Indian Nicola from Kolkata who comforted me with the revelation that she too had recently recovered from malaria. And it was while taking my blood-pressure that one of the Malayali nurses lamented the Indian postal service that, for the loss of an invitation letter from Ireland, would have seen her working on the distant ward of a hospital in Dublin. She told me that she was one of three sisters brought up by a single mother who was proud that her daughters had each achieved the independent means of a career in nursing.
On one occasion I woke up from an afternoon snooze to a find a group of giggling student nurses standing at the bottom of my bed. Chaperoned by one of the senior nursing staff, these young women who were all still in their teens seemed to be struck by a self-conscious and nervous anxiety that obliged me to take the lead in conversation. And so it went on… for seven days I wasn’t able to feel lonely or sorry for myself such was the concern for my welfare among those looking after me.
Amid this kindness, my mind kept returning to an encounter with a doctor in West Bengal’s Purbamedinipur district who had introduced himself to me just a few days earlier. Unfortunately he disappeared before I could take his portrait but he left behind a note which in hindsight seems particularly prophetic for it is highly likely that I contracted malaria while photographing in the mosquito-ridden district in which he worked. His words read:
“From Dr Ramesh Chandra Bera. Highly pleased to see and meet you. Moto: Health is wealth and How to keep fit 100yrs of life. Remember 26.10.2009, 9-45am”
Dr Ramesh Chandra Bera’s prophetic words.
West Bengal, India 2009