Arvind Bhatnagar calls Raksha the waiting room for his terminally ill patients, where they wait their turn to go to a painless other world.
It is a sparsely furnished office, small and tightly packed with a Godrej cupboard, two sofas, two plastic chairs and a computer on a table. On the wall hangs a calendar with the picture of Kamaraj on it, and a laminated Shirdi Baba on the partition on the other side of which is a small wash basin. Waiting for Aravind Bhatnagar, one wonders if there is a subliminal message here: Nothing matters in the end.
What do you ask a man who spends all his time with the terminally ill? I am still pondering the uncomfortable question when he enters the room. Dressed, in a full sleeve shirt, dark trousers and polished shoes, Bhatnagar exudes positivity. He has worked in the hospice since the time it was started in 2001. It was also around that time that he lost his wife to cancer.
Before that, Bhatnagar was in the Army where he saw action in the Punjab sector during the 1971 war. He says he is grateful for the war because he met his wife who was a nurse, at the Military Hospital in Jalandhar! He also served in Nagaland where he took part in counter insurgency campaigns.
Then, the Shah of Iran requisitioned for 3,000 doctors to be sent to Iran in exchange for oil. Bhatnagar was one of them and it was 21 years before he came back. “The Army training and discipline of both the mind and body helped me survive in Iran,”he says. May be it is the same discipline that helps him deal with death with equanimity. “It is not about me. My patients are the heroes. Each one has taught me something. In the last 12 years I have witnessed nearly 3,000 people leaving this world. Most of them have motivated me; they have left me in awe of the human spirit.
Raksha is not somewhere people come to languish and die. They get a glimpse of heaven here as they wait for their turn to go there.” Bhatnagar and his staff do everything in their power to make the patient comfortable. Their every wish is fulfilled. And what are these wishes? Sometimes, it is just a cup of tea at a favourite shop and a drive up and down a favourite street. That was all one bed-ridden lady wanted. Bhatnagar took her for that drive, bought her that cup of tea. That was her last outing. Many times, the wishes have nothing to do with themselves. A faculty of an engineering college insisted on being taken to the hall where a practical exam was to be conducted. He was carried in a chair from machine to machine so that he could personally check if they were in order for his students.
“One man arranged everything for his son’s marriage, down to the last detail. His last wish was to personally invite his mother and a friend in Pollachi. We took him there, and soon after that he died. But the marriage went off as planned and we all attended it.” Once a wedding was performed in Raksha as the bride’s father was in no condition to be moved!
People also want to shield their families from the trauma of having to watch them die. “Some of them muster up enough will to stay alive till the family and friends have left. Sometimes, they insist on being taken elsewhere, away from everyone.
One man demanded he be taken for an X-ray when none was required. He died in the Radiology department before it could be taken. He chose to breathe his last at a place where he knew no visitors were allowed.”
Surely, there were difficult moments? Bhatnagar thinks for a while and says, “May be some. When we cannot help them with the pain anymore. Or, when family disputes make patient and the families so unforgiving. There is nothing we can do to change that. Human nature is strange. ” But he says the years he has spent at the hospice has been a huge learning curve. He never ceases to be amazed at how the patients sense their end is near.
“They almost always know, even if they seem okay to us. Most try and tie up the loose ends and say their goodbyes. That is why we never postpone anything they want us to do.”
As we prepare to leave, a nurse enters and asks the doctor for morphine. He takes it out from the cupboard and hands it over. A patient is in his last stages, not much time left, he explains. “We only think of the art of living. We should also learn something about the art of dying.”