My mother saw doctors as angels. She died of cancer because doctors treating her didn't care about her

If the medical profession is truly noble, then doctors cannot possibly be on strike and claim moral superiority.

 |  11-minute read |   17-06-2019
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June 15 was my mother's birthday. She would have been 65 this year but we lost her to cancer two years back. It was just another morning when she walked out of home with no more symptoms than cough and cold and never came back. I took her to Safdarjung Hospital's emergency with reports of the first ever lung X-ray recommended to her. Nobody from the army of doctors she visited every three months in the last 20 years or more, for her diabetes and other ailments, could see her cancer.

do-690_061719121220.jpgNone of the doctors treating my mother could tell that she has cancer. (Photo: Reuters/For representation only)

I am compelled to write with her birth anniversary just gone by, the story of how I lost my mother not so much to cancer but to the mean, rude and incompetent doctors because the non-stop eulogising of the medical profession, and how angelic, heavenly and sacrificial all doctors are, is just boiling my blood.

Ironically, my mother would be the most upset to read it. I always hated doctors and she always scolded me for doing so. She worshiped the medical profession and literally saw every doctor as God. Even though medical science failed her — as nobody could see the cancer — she didn't give up her doctor worship till the last breath. Like literally, barely 10 hours before she died, she was telling me how fortunate she was that such great doctors were treating her. During her one month stay in the hospital, in and out of ICU, every time she spoke, she spoke of how all the doctors around her were saving lives of all the patients. "A cancer doctor never gives up," was the last thing my mother wrote in her diary at the hospital.

But I disagree with her. Doctors are no angels.

On March 17, 2017, around 11.30 am when I reached Safdarjung hospital's emergency section with my mother, there were hundreds of patients cramped in a small area. Some of them bleeding, some already dead. Mother's cancer was not known to us at that time, but her lungs x-ray was showing massive pleural effusion (fluids in the lungs) so we knew, and it was visible, that she had trouble in breathing. But there were no wheelchairs or normal chairs or benches for such patients. There were no stretchers, no oxygen, nothing. It was like a hospital in a war zone which had just been hit by couple of bombs.

A junior doctor, in his mid-20s, was seeing a large number of patients crowding all around his table. My mom, a 62-year-old patient in her last stage of lung cancer, having breathing difficulty, unable to stand, slightly leaned over the doctor's chair. He turned around and yelled, "Aapko koi manners nahi hai (Don't you have any manners)?"

doctors-690_061719120717.jpgDoctors just wanted that my mother should leave the hospital and die. (Photo: Reuters/For representation only)

A sample of doctors who are apparently life savers, who are angels fallen from the sky, blind to my mother's impending death owing to cancer and busy teaching her manners. I immediately reacted and gave him a good earful, telling him who does he think he is, where are his manners that he speaks like that with a senior citizen. I didn't hit him, but I wanted to.

But mother, the patient who was going to die exactly a month later of a cancer no doctor could see, said "sorry" to him, and told me to calm down. "They are working in such harsh conditions, saving lives, bear with them, it's ok," she said.

The fluids in mother's lungs had to be drained. For the next 2-3 hours, we were made to run from one room to another to get one more x-ray done, and some additional tests. At every counter we had to wait in a queue. Finally, we reached the procedure room. One of the doctors prepped mom and another told me go get a 'bottle' in which they will collect the fluid.

Can you beat that? They told the patient's attendant to get some random bottle for a medical procedure. I was too shocked to even react. All I could think of was that if I don't get it, they will wait for somebody to arrange for it and mom's lungs will just drown in the fluid. (They were suspecting pneumonia or TB at this point, lung cancer wasn't diagnosed).

I ran from room to room looking for empty Bisleri bottles but couldn't find any. As I rushed back to the procedure room they said the bottle wasn't needed anymore. "The procedure cannot be done today, take a date (schedule an appointment) for an ultrasound guided procedure from window no. 4," said the attending doctor. By that time they had already poked a huge needle at 4-5 different spots on her back but couldn't drain the fluid. They needed to see through an ultrasound machine to find the right spot.

"Are you sure it is safe to take her home at this point?" I asked the doctors.

I asked because I am a privileged person who could read an x-ray report, access Google and see for that the clouding on the two x-rays done on March 16 and 17 were showing a rapid growth in pleural effusion which means mother's condition was worsening by the hour. The angelic life savers didn't tell me this. They were sending us home. When I asked, they said it is not safe. "Take her to a private hospital," was the next advice. We went to a private hospital in Saket, where we met some more rude and insensitive doctors who couldn't care less for her breathing trouble and falling O2 levels, and kept telling us to "take her to another hospital", because apparently, they had "no empty bed" the moment they learnt mother was a Central Government Health Scheme (CGHS) beneficiary. I have written about that ordeal on my personal blog, which I don't want to repeat here for the sake of brevity. In the end, only a hospital which was not empanelled with CGHS, admitted her instantly, probably because we could be billed.

But we couldn't afford the hospital's billing for too long, so I had to cry for help at every forum from Twitter to private WhatsApp groups. My father and I had to make calls to all our friends and contacts to find a private hospital which was reputed, CGHS empanelled and had an empty bed. Twitter saved us. Help poured in and I finally found a great soul who had lost his father few months ago, and knew somebody in another private hospital who could help us.

That person in that hospital who booked a bed for my mother was an angel.

That man whom I've never met outside Twitter was an angel.

But my mother's oncologist, who repeatedly tried to drive us out of the hospital, was no life saving angel. He was just a technical person, he did whatever medical technology, invention, medicine, machines, laboratories could do, and once those options ran out, he just wanted her to go somewhere else to die, and vacate the hospital bed.

As soon as all her test results had conclusively shown it was mother's last stage and there was nothing left to be done, the team at the hospital kept telling us to take her home and give palliative care. Why palliative care couldn't be given in this hospital itself, I wondered. What does it mean, "Patient is terminal, take her home?" Terminal means how many days? Weeks? Months? Does terminal mean we have to sit around and watch the patient die? What are the patient and patient's family supposed to do when doctors have given up?

No angelic doctor explained these things to me.

When you are sick, first thing people ask is, "What is the doctor saying?" Ironically, during the last week in the hospital, mother's attending doctor didn't even speak to us. He had started giving us cold shoulders pretending we didn't exist. The only communication that happened between us and hospital was about discharging the patient. The doctor would enter the room and tell us, "I am discharging her, have you arranged for BIPAP and oxygen at home?"

"No we need some more time, please don't discharge," I would reply. He would storm out in anger. The whole day would go by without any other treatment except supportive care like nebuliser, tablets and mouthwash. We constantly felt like a liability at the hospital and lived in fear that the hospital would forcefully discharge her and we'd have nowhere to go.

We finally succumbed to the pressure and after running from one corner of Delhi to another to find another hospital which would accommodate her, we finally shifted her to a cancer hospital. "Maybe a new hospital would bring a new approach," I thought. The consulting oncologist at the hospital told me whether to give chemo or not is about each doctor's perception, so I hoped he would have a different perception and would be able to look beyond mom's physical limitations like obesity, diabetes, respiratory trouble and focus on her mental strength, her love for life, her immense faith in medical science, and consider her qualified for a chemo.

Mother wanted to take chemo, "I can be strong" she said. She even asked me to take her to a place where they give trial medicine, "Let them experiment on me," she said. But her doctors just wanted her to go somewhere else and die.

Mother died on April 17 around 3.30 pm, two days after we shifted her to the cancer hospital, and exactly a month after we first visited the government hospital. If I had listened to the doctors at the hospitals's procedure room, I would have lost her that day itself. And if we didn't feel the pressure to leave the hospital, she would have stayed with us a little bit longer. She couldn't bear the shifting.

There was nothing noble or angelic in any of this. There was no heart, and no kindness. Every doctor was just ruthlessly mechanical and ordinary.

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My lifetime of experiences of visiting doctors, and I have visited a lot of them, for my own ailments and for both parents, tell me that most doctors in India do not respect patients or their rights. They often don't inform the patient or their family anything about their treatment, procedure or prognosis. They infantilise patients and do not appreciate any questions or doubts expressed by them. Most doctors feel they are doing a great favour by treating patients and therefore they deserve nothing but gratitude and obeisance in return. Some of them are just greedy and money minded others are incompetent, bitter and arrogant. Some are even criminals, as there are thousands of cases where doctors have been involved in heinous crimes.

It is because of an irrational reverence that millions of Indians like my mother have held for medical profession since ages that we have reached at such a stage in healthcare, where doctors fail to see themselves as duty bound service providers to the patient but the messiah of their fate. So, the less we treat medical profession as a monolith and worship every doctor as God, the better it is for the health care system.

To conclude, it seems to me that the sudden barrage of protests by doctors across India are not spontaneous for several reasons. Even if they are spontaneous, they seem to be symptomatic of a mass hysteria, a strategy much used by BJP poll machinery over the years.

First, as heinous and condemnable the attack at NRS was, it wasn't the first of its kind. In just one quick Google search by the words 'patient family clashes with doctor hospital staff India' (search tool 1-Jan-2018 to 31-12-2018) in the first 10 pages of the search results I found about a dozen such cases across India. The problem is not specific to West Bengal, but that is the only place where elections are upcoming and BJP is heavily invested.

doct-690_061719120913.jpgThe support for the doctors striking work is bizarre. (Photo: Reuters)

Second, what explains the mass outrage now but the complete silence on Dr Payal Tadvi's suicide or the death of hundreds of children in Gorakhpur hospital or when Dr Kafeel Khan was unfairly targeted? Suddenly, why now?

Third, when you see something trending on Twitter, like the hashtag #DoctorsFightBack has all the top tweets from commonly known right wing Twitter handles or TV channels, you do suspect a possible BJP IT cell's hand in the trend, especially when horrendous rumours have been spread by popular WhatsApp groups and right wing social media spaces that Dr Paribaha Mukhopadhyay is already deceased, when he is actually out of danger, the outrage and Twitter trend do not seem spontaneous.

However, I would admit that I do not know the issue fully so I would refrain from making further comment. But the fact is that doctors going on strike costs lives. If the medical profession is truly noble, then doctors cannot possibly be on strike and claim moral superiority. Mamata Banerjee's highhandedness is not appreciated, but with so much eulogising about doctors and medical profession, one does expect these protesting doctors to get back to the noble calling they chose, even sacrificing their own interest.

Also read: Here’s what happens at a casualty ward. Read this before you justify your anger against doctors

Writer

Sanjukta Basu Sanjukta Basu @sanjukta

Freelance writer, photographer and women studies scholar, and a part of the Karwan E Mohabbat group. She writes on social marginalisation, minority rights and women issues.

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