Mani occupied bed No. 13 at the corner of the ward. The senior staff nurse, experienced as she was, called it the “alcoholic bed”. A picture of Gandhiji hung above it on the wall. The curtains could be drawn to ensure privacy as the bed was in the general ward. “Please don’t discharge me today,” Mani said.
We have many patients waiting for admission. The ward is full. Mani has already had abdominal paracentesis. He can go home and come back after two weeks,” the junior doctor said. “Please let me stay for two more days,” Mani pleaded. Dr. Jeya wondered why he made the request.
Mani had been a regular visitor to the ward for the past three years. He first came after heavy consumption of alcohol and developing gastritis. He was a bachelor, tall, fair, handsome and wealthy. He was warned of the evils of unlimited consumption of alcohol. Every time, he would listen to the health talk, promise to stop drinking and go back on his word. It took him only three months to come back with another attack of gastritis. Ironically, he was a graduate and held a responsible post in a private bus company.
Gradually, Dr. Jeya had the painful experience of watching Mani deteriorate. He continued to drink till his strength failed. He developed cirrhosis of the liver but refused to give up drinking, saying he drank to forget his worries. He lost weight, his body wasted and his abdomen distended with fluid till he could hardly breathe. He had reached a stage when all that could be done was to admit him for a day or two, remove some fluid from the abdomen to enable him to breathe and discharge him. He had already lost his job and all his money.
Few Indian women can boast of having all male members of their familes be teetotallers. Dr. Jeya was one of them. She had great respect for Gandhiji. As a little girl, she vividly remembered the class where the teacher taught students about the life of Gandhiji and his implicit obedience to his mother who had made him promise that he would not touch liquor when he went abroad to study law. As an enterprising youngster, Jeya’s father left his home and sailed across the ocean in search of wealth. He had made the same promise to his mother. Having seen patients die of alcoholism, the broken homes, helpless wives and the orphaned children reduced to rags, Dr. Jeya detested alcohol.
She always hung a picture of Gandhiji above the beds of patients admitted for alcoholism and its harmful effects.
A busy day’s schedule gives very little time for a doctor to spend a few extra minutes with a terminally-ill patient. However, Dr. Jeya always found time to come back late in the evening if she felt that a patient needed a listening ear. That night, she came back to see Mani.
“Why did you want to stay for two more days?” she asked him. His sister, who looked after him, bent down pretending to take something out from the locker near the bed. Dr. Jeya noticed that there were tears in her eyes.
“My younger brother is getting married tomorrow,” Mani said. “We have only one room in our house. I usually sleep in the hall. If I go home today, I will have to shift to the ‘thinnai’ [verandah] facing the road. The street boys pass by and make fun of me saying, ‘Vaitha paruda, vaitha paruda’ [look at his tummy], and I cannot bear it.” His sister added, “Tomorrow, the bride’s party will come. They will go away in a day or two. Please permit Mani to stay for two days. We have no place in the house to keep him.”
The next day, Mani was quite sick. When Dr. Jeya examined him, he said: “By this time, my brother will be married. Do you know, the girl is from a big family. Had I listened to you three years ago, I too would have settled down like him. But my friends cheated me, made me an alcoholic, saying, it is not harmful to take a peg or two. Then I could not stop drinking. When my mind was cloudy, I was robbed of all my wealth.”
“I will not drink again. Give me one more chance. Is it possible?” he asked. Dr. Jeya was silent. She did not believe in giving false hopes to any patient. “I want to do something good before I die. Can I pledge to donate my eyes?” he asked.
“Why don’t you talk to the patient in bed No. 1? He is admitted with alcoholic gastritis. If he does not stop now very soon he will be like you. It will be more effective if you teach him the harmful effect of alcohol,” said Dr. Jeya.
Mani asked to be discharged after two days. As he left thanking her, Dr. Jeya had that sickening feeling that physicians dread to have about patients whom they have looked after for a long time. She knew the end was near.
Three weeks later, his sister came to the ward. There was no need for words. Her look was enough to convey the message that Mani was no more. “My brother wanted me to give this to you,” she said and gave Dr. Jeya an envelope.
Inside was a photograph of Mani showing his emaciated body and bloated abdomen, exactly how he did not want to be seen when he was alive lest the children should make fun of him. He had written in bold letters below the photograph. “This is what alcohol will do to you.”
“Madam, please hang my photograph above bed No.13. This is the wish of a dying patient who has never done anything good in his life. Someone will see this and save himself. I shall not see you again but you will see me everyday, Thank you,” he said in his letter.
Dr. Jeya took down the portrait of Gandhiji and Mani’s photograph took its place.
(The writer is a physician practising family medicine at Vellore.)