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Vellore, Tamil Nadu, India
I'm a frood who knows where his towel is.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Helplessly yours

Date: 07/03/2011

“Kavalai padadhinga, sari agidum.”

I stumbled over these newly-learned words with obvious difficulty. I doubt I inspired an iota of confidence in the patients I said this to despite the flashy stethoscope slung over my shoulders to assure them that I am a denizen of the medical world. Shobana, a lovely nutritionist at CMC, had taught me a few useful Tamil phrases despite the hectic pace of the community health screening we was working in. I could now say “Sapttangala” (Have you had breakfast?) and “Unga pirachanai yenna” (What is your problem?). “Kavalai padadhinga, sari agidum” roughly translates as follows: I’m sorry to hear that. Everything will get better.

The problem was that I didn’t believe things would get better at all.

"Nalla irukkingala" (How are you?). I was trying to figure out how this gentleman hurt his feet. Shobana (pink sari) is translating for him. She's "nalla" (very good).

We had advertised the camp (the common Indian term for a community health screening) on Saturday and were expecting about 600 people to show up. The turn out was still unbelievable-- 155! Kartik, Shobana, and I were talking to the patients and listening to their complaints. We checked their blood pressure, looked for anemia induced pallor of their eyes, and dispensed acetaminophen, anti-histamines, mutlivitamins, and calcium as we saw appropriate. I even prescribed antibiotic creams to a couple of people, notably to someone who probably had a mild case of Hansen’s disease (leprosy) and had some infected wounds on his feet.

Kartik talked to the eutherian sabre tooth tiger's share of the patient load (sorry, inside joke).

Kartik, Dr. Rama’s son and the chief medical officer of the event, handled the majority of these patients on his own. I think I may have seen about 20-30 with Shobana helping me out with the translations. Dr. Bala also made me practice doing blood draws so I did about 25 of those, oftentimes with people crowding around me to witness the grotesque spectacle of blood spurting into my vacutainers. Some of the children stood so close to me that their little heads got in the way of my hands as I tied the tourniquet and changed containers.
Drawing blood from a particularly hard case. Third time was the charm.

We only had a few minutes with each patient and it was very frustrating for me not to be able to properly investigate the aches and pains that the patients brought to me. Moreover, as Kartik pointed out to me, it wouldn’t do them much good. He insisted that many of them, like a gentleman, who sported a white beard that matched his white kurta and seemed to be showing signs of Parkinson’s disease, wouldn’t be able to afford the treatment. For similar reasons, we found ourselves unable to do very much for a gentleman who came to us with blurry vision and jaundice. When we listened to his heart, through his disheveled red checked shirt which was only buttoned in two spots, we heard a pretty clear mitral valve regurgitation. The edema (swelling) in his feet, probably due to his heart condition, was so gigantic that Kartik initially thought he had Elephantiasis (a condition aptly named because your legs and arms can swell to a freakish degree and resemble the limbs of Elephants). We just had to let them go, knowing what fate held in store for them.

One of my motivations for getting into medicine was that I didn’t want to stand around helplessly when someone was sick. And yet, I was forced to watch indignantly as the gentlemen with Parkinson’s shuffled away from me: “Damn it! I knew how to treat him! Why the hell can’t I or someone else treat him?” This happened again and again and if there was a lab test for cynicism, a blood sample from me at the end of the camp would show trace bits of it today. Change is needed...and fast. It’s up to our generation of physicians and economists to facilitate it. I’d rail more, but I’m exhausted and I don’t want to devolve into melodrama.

Hopefully, one day, I’ll be able to say “Kavalai padadhinga, sari agidum” and believe it.

Suresh, phlebotomist par excellence, did at least 100 blood draws today and came to my rescue at least twice.

In less depressing news, it rained in Vellore today which gave us all a respite from the heat. I was walking to the canteen for some Uttapam when I kicked a frog accidentally. As I watched it complete its parabolic trajectory, a thought made me feel sick. Rains meant frogs and frogs meant snakes. Oh dear!

By “Oh dear”, I really mean “OMG, I don’t want to be eaten by a gigantic Krait that chooses to creep into my room or snare me while I am galloping back for a second slice of truffle cake at the college store! I much preferred the hot vellore sun which nearly solved Indian agriculture’s irrigation issues by inducing torrents of sweat from my body to this stupid monsoon that brings me monstrous serpents.”

As Tintin would say: “Great snakes!!!”


  1. Hopefully our generation would be able to make sure that doctors don't have to let sick people go, fully aware of the fate that awaits them.

    It would also add more conviction to the statement,“Kavalai padadhinga, sari agidum”.

  2. This is my favorite post so far! I love that you're so passionate about public health. And please try to steer clear of those snakes :)

  3. Bhaiya: Thanks a bunch! Fight apathy!

    Liz: Aye Aye, sir! (with respect to snakes)