My Experience at GT Hospital Many Years Ago

12Aug09

Much has been said about Indian Public Health Care after the recent swine flu break out. Although I haven’t yet contracted the disease, or met someone who has, and therefore haven’t had to go to a government hospital for testing, I can safely say that my experiences with public hospitals have never been negative.

When I was 19 years old, and a volunteer with Akanksha, one of the kids at the NGO fell down from the Jungle Gym and broke his arm.  Fortunately, GT Hospital was right next door so I took a crying squirming Vijay there. And we walked. From the Xaviers Boys School to GT Hospital, boy with a broken arm strapped with a wooden ruler and a gauge bandage. Scared girl with college reference books and the Akanksha teaching manual in her arms.

At GT Hospital, we were directed to the emergency ward which is right at the entrance of the hospital. The babu at the reception (nothing but an old wooden table, one of those tattered register books and a creaking steel rusty chair) took one look at a now apoplectic fussy little boy, stood up, and told me ‘lokar aaha.’ (Translates to hurry up in Marathi.)  We bypassed all the patients, I saw a sympathetic nurse wearing a white frock trying to comfort a baby in her arms as the mother lay passed out on a gurney. The babu took us inside to where student doctors were sitting with a couple senior doctors and asked us to sit in front of a doctor who was shouting orders on the phone. The description of this entire activity probably seems long but whole thing didn’t take more than a minute. The doctor hung up the phone immediately and asked me ‘What’s the problem?’ And I died. Of shock. Because I was ready to face the worst, but here was a young doctor, who looked capable to me, and who spoke fluent English. ‘Vijay broke his arm while playing. I administered first aid to keep the limb in place.’

Doctor: ‘Okay, let me see.’

And then with the gentlest of hands, he checked for the broken bone, all the while soothing Vijay, cracking jokes, asking pertinent questions.

Once he was done, he asked the waiting babu to take us into an interior room, and as I got up, he said ‘Good job with the first aid.’

Imagine that. I was in a government hospital, in a room with 50 other patients who were carrying all kinds of germs, the walls looked yellow and squalid, and here was a doctor who probably operated on barely 30 minutes of sleep who was congratulating me on my Guide skills.

Inside, another babu took off the bandage from Vijay’s arm, albeit sort of roughly, but I have seen rougher treatment in a private hospital so I will refrain from comment. The doctor came in and started feeling the arm and the position of the fracture. He then proceeded to move the bone back into place, all the while, telling me succinctly what was going on. Also, till now, no one mentioned any payment or having to fill out a form.

As Vijay screamed with pain, I was asked to hold him, while the doctor (Rahul) pushed the bone into place. Once he was satisfied, he asked us to go and get X-Rays before the arm could be placed in a cast.

Once again, another babu showed us the way. There was no back talk, no insistence to talk in a language I did not understand. Once we reached Radiology, we were asked to wait our turn while an elderly lady was helped in by one of the aiyyahs. As we sat there, I saw two police constables walk in with a frail old man on a stretcher. I saw the frustration in their eyes as the babu in attendance shook his head while gently lifting up the old man and carrying him to the X-Ray booth. I was expecting snarky words, impatience. But what I saw took me by forceful surprise. I doubt I would have seen the same compassion at Breach Candy hospital for a homeless old beggar.

Time for the X-Ray. The nurse asked me to step out of the area while Vijay was X-Rayed. I was given a receipt for the X-Ray and asked to pay Rs. 20 for the entire thing. Soon after, we were sent back to the doctor’s examination room, the plaster was cast, and it was all over in a flurry of efficient activity.

This experience made me respect our public health care a lot more. A Government hospital is an ecosystem of different castes, languages and classes. And yet, you have to give their employees their dues for doing the best they can under pressured circumstances, and with meager salaries. The Ortho – Surgeon, Rahul who looked after Vijay is now a close friend and I found out later he was a student of KEM hospital who decided to work part time at GT. Rahul started out with a salary of Rs. 500 per month, and this was back in 1995. When I asked him why did he continue on such a low pay scale, I found his response strangely echoed in all the student doctors around him:

‘Public or private, who cares. I haven’t spent most of my life studying medicine just to join a cushy private hospital and not really do anything for people. I have taken an oath: I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.’

‘Besides,’ he continues, with a sly wink, ‘I am only 29. I have years ahead to actually make any money.’

Dr. Rahul Amte is now an ortho – consultant at Jaslok Hospital. Every Monday and Saturday afternoons, he looks at various factures and bone related ailments, and sometimes, he can be seen walking down the corridors at GT Hospital, texting an old volunteer at Akanksha, asking her how Vijay is.

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