Long years have passed, but I still remember Potla. This was 1978. The place was the Tuberculosis ward of King George’s Medical College, Lucknow, where I was a 2nd year medical student, newly graduated to the wards and clinical work.
Potla means bundle. Potla had been born at home, his mother told me. Maybe the midwife who delivered him took one look at the little baby wrapped in rags and named him Potla. Maybe it was a sibling, who out of derision for this miserable scrap of humanity transferred this epithet on the unsuspecting infant.
Potla was bedridden. He was a bright eyed 10 year old , optimistically addressed as Raja, which means king, by his doting mother, thus creating endless confusion at mealtimes, or whenever patients’ names were called by the Nurse for tests , injections , trip to the specialist’s office, or whatever that goes on in hospitals. But the mother was persistent, and the hospital authorities unrelenting in their desire for exactitude, so confusion would prevail all day.
But there was no confusion in my mind at all. I was very sure that something is terribly wrong. Otherwise why Potla should be confined to bed? Why should he not be playing or at school like other children? Why was he given painful injections every day? Why wasn’t he allowed to get up or walk? Why, even his meals had to be swallowed in the supine position. Every now and then he would wriggle or squirm or try to raise his head and get a scolding form the nurses. Everything was unfair.
To my mind, the most unfair thing was that Polta was a ‘middle patient’. This was a long ward with 2 rows of beds, and windows at the far end. Potla was somewhere in the middle, which made it impossible for him to look out of the window, more so because he was not allowed to sit up. One day I put my head close to his on the pillow and tried to see the view from the window. Much as I craned my neck, all I could see was a tiny patch of the blue sky. That’s all. No trees, no birds, no children. Nothing. This seemed to me the last straw, the ultimate in despair and hopelessness, and I longed to do something for Potla, and failed miserably in all my attempts.
In the eyes of us lowly med students, Professors were gods. That morning, the Professor & Head of the dept came striding into the ward in an immaculate white jacket, gleaming in its importance, with a long line of harried looking residents and nurses trailing after him. They stood around Potla’s bed for the case presentations and discussion, which took a long while, as Potla was a complicated case of TB. He had Pott’s disease, ie TB of the spine. This weakens and degenerates the vertebra, and dead necrotic tissue leads to pressure on the spinal cord and even paralysis. This is why he was confined to his bed.
“You, girl!” The Prof boomed at me, while I trembled. “What is the most important thing you need to do for this boy, apart from medication. What special care is needed? ”
Everyone looked at me expectantly. I was shivering in my shoes. All eyes were on me and my mind went blank. I racked my brains but nothing came to my mind.
“Come on,” said the Prof impatiently. “Think, girl! Think that you are in charge on the ward. What will you do for the patient? What does he need the most?”
“The view from the window”, I blurted.
There was a stunned silence. I thought the earth would swallow me alive. Then there was a shout of laughter, led by the prof himself.
“These ssstupid ssstudents’, hissed the Chief Resident in angry tones. “ They seem to be born with water- on- the- brain. The patient needs an orthopaedic brace to minimise movement”. The prof was more relenting and went on to talk of psychological impact of positive thoughts and surroundings and the importance of sunshine in patients’ lives.
There the matter ended. Next morning, a patient was discharged, and Potla was given a bed by the window. I was overjoyed. So was Potla. We would watch the kites flying, a myriad of colours and designs, and bet on the winners, and the Chief would glower and growl as he would walk past.
Potla spent a full year in the ward. His mother came to recognise me. After 3 months, I moved to Paediatrics. I would visit Potla occasionally and check on his progress. Then a day came when he was allowed to take a few steps. I saw him totter on his feet and reel backward like a drunkard the first few times he tried to walk. His recovery was quick, and within a few weeks he was discharged.
That morning, I was studying in my room in the students hostel, when potla came to say goodbye. I was bleary eyed with lack of sleep. Potla hugged me tight. His mother touched my feet reverently and I was moved to tears. They were going back to the village that very day by bus, Potla told me jubilantly, and talked of his friends and school and how he planned to fly kites all day long.
I looked up at the sky, dappled with colours, the dazzling sunshine and drifting clouds making shimmering patterns. I thought to myself, this is the legacy, the inheritance of a TB patient who has recovered. No longer a patch, but a vast expanse of blue. And a wide horizon where he can soar like a kite and reach for the stars, and live life again, fully.
-Written by Dr. Shelly Batra, President, OpASHA