It was a Sunday, a day before my night shift begins. We had lunch and retired for a short afternoon nap. My daughter in the seventh grade was to write a semester test the next day. So we were surprised when she unfolded a camp cot next to her mother’s and soon fell asleep. Half an hour later she startled out of sleep as if from a nightmare and began blabbing gibberish. We were confused and could easily sense a loss of equanimity overtaking us. I wanted to test if everything with her was okay. Brought a note-book and asked her to write her name on it. It never occurred to her that dad was doing something unusual, testing her basics. She drew some irregular geometrical patterns. Both of us, my wife and I, were scared. We took her to a doctor who had a clinic in the colony market opposite our house. He gave her an injection and assured us she should be fit the next day to write her exam.
When she woke up next morning she continued to talk incoherently. My wife had just started sobbing and making promises to Gods when there was a knock on the door. Sundar was an acquaintance of ours, a junior doctor at All India Institute of Medical Sciences. There was no need to panic, he told us. He had fixed an appointment with Dr Gupta, the chief neurosurgeon at the AIIMS, at 10 in the morning he told us; it buoyed us up a bit, the demolition of a bureaucratic wall..
I asked a colleague of mine who lived not far from my house to tell our editor I would not be coming for work for at least ten days. I told a classmate of my daughter next door to inform her principal about my daughter’s health crisis. I had no idea if my wife and I had ever thought if our abstraction and inversion could transmit our agitation to her.
I was not sure if any of us including the child had breakfast or something close to it. We set off for the hospital on my scooter and reached it in five minutes, deposited the vehicle in the parking lot and hurried to the first floor to be the earliest to be called. We sat, glum and withdrawn, on a long bench in the corridor facing the neurosurgeon’s room. An orderly passing our way did us a favor by collecting our calling card to place it on the doctor’s tray. It was now 12 O’clock. My daughter could easily see the meaning of our running about while my wife and I were worried about what kind of dark scenarios were spinning before her mind’s eye.
Dumb kid, she did not even tell us she was hungry. I ran out, crossed the road to the side of Safdarjung Hospital in front of which there was several fruit shops. Bought a big apple, cursing my misfortune of taking birth in a country where even baby food is sold in black market after it is adulterated with cheap flour. My wife and I didn’t know we had no food since morning.
The wait for the doctor was getting on everybody’s nerves. One visitor saw the orderly enter the doctor’s room and reshuffle the order of files to put someone ahead in the line. He grabbed the menial by his collar and shook him thoroughly before a security man separated them. The doctor called us at 2 O’clock. Two mongrels stood at the doctor’s door with their fangs bared. The orderly drove them away. After a few questions, the doctor asked us to get an electroencellograph of the girl taken, a brain scan. The orderly told us where to pay Rs.50 for the scan. I had no money either in my wallet or at home. I drove home, borrowed the money from the house owner and went to the hospital’s accounts counter. It was closed because the time was up. The technologist, a Bisht by name, very generously said he would do the scan and I could pay the money the next day.
The technologist helped my daughter on to a high table and told her to lie on her back with her eyes closed on a futon covering the table. He set about attaching several flat metal discs (electrodes) at different places on her head, using a sticky paste to hold the electrodes in place.
Wires then hooked the electrodes to a device. After a last minute check of the machine, he started recording the electrical activity inside my daughter’s brain as a series of wavy lines drawn by a row of pens on a moving piece of paper. ‘Lie still with your eyes closed during the recording, and do not talk to me unless you need to,’ the technologist told my daughter. He watched her through a window during the test.
What a brave child, wee thought with a lump in our throat, not demurring, not complaining of pain, not betraying anxiety. We were proud. Fifteen minutes later the EEG machine stopped recording. The technologist told us that the test was over and its record would be sent to the doctor, ‘You could go,’ he said.
We didn’t know where. Hunger was the main problem now, dwarfing anxiety generated by hospital scenes of suffering and mortality. I found a canteen of sorts in the basement and brought some food. A chance meeting with Bisht helped me trace the neurosurgeon. He said my daughter’s brain contained water and she has to be admitted. The doctor’s words were delivered with the same absence of feeling of a judge reading out the capital sentence. All this conversation took place in the presence of my daughter. It could have drained all life-matter out of her. The Doctor asked me to get a drug named Citozar. I ran down to the ground floor pharmacy of the hospital. Every time I had to go out on a hospital chore, I had to leave my wife and child alone in a locale they are not familiar with, a locale fraught with crime against women. It was night and nine O’clock then. All shops on the Safdarjung Hospital Road brought down their shutters. I wanted to call our savior Sundar. There were at least ten persons waiting to swoop on the public phone outside the pharmacy. I drove to his home. Luckily I found him there.
’It is too late to call anyone now. I will look for it tomorrow morning. Don’t worry,’ he said and called Dr Gupta to ask if it could wait. After two minutes Sundar rang off and told me that the doctors would do lumbar puncture on the child to drain out water from the brain. The EEG showed it. Dr Gupta was kind enough to commission a bed for my daughter, waiving all admission formalities. He also issued a pass for my wife to stay by her bedside. Leaving my wife and child, I drove home to bring them tooth paste, brushes, towels and fresh clothes and some bread. My wife and I went down to the basement and fell into each other’s arms crying.
It was twelve in the night. I went home and collapsed on my bed without food.
Next morning I woke up early, made coffee, toasted bread and packed toothpaste, towels and fresh clothes for them and raced off to the hospital without an inking of what the puncture is—is it merely an injection or worse.
I went to the hospital library and learnt that lumbar puncture was a procedure to collect and look at the fluid (cerebrospinal fluid, or CSF) surrounding the brain and spinal cord. A needle is carefully inserted into the spinal canal low in the back (lumbar area). Samples of CSF are collected. The samples are studied for color, blood cell counts, protein, glucose, and other substances. Some of the sample may be put into a special culture cup to see if any infection, such as bacteria or fungi, grows. The pressure of the CSF also is measured during the procedure.
My only child is on the edge surrounded by a turbulent sea without a shore or horizon I am not sure if she knows what is happening to her, that ignorance adding to her. Misery. The world has not come to a standstill in recognition of our helplessness. Each one of us has become an island separated from the other two by a curtain of self-pity. We were not able to shake off a feeling that we were on the threshold of irrevocable finality.
Around nine in the morning Dr Gupta and a senio assistant came accompanied by two nurses. I still have no idea why this surgical violence was performed in the presence of my wife. The later told me that the presence of a parent took away a lot of imagined pain caused to the child. She stood it gallantly but not my wife. It was a matter of few minutes and the doctors praised the girl’s courage and determination to absorb pain without fuss.
The doctors kept her in the hospital for observation. Her entire class accompanied by the Mother Superior came to see her and broke to her the news of her winning the State Science Talent scholarship. Dr Sundar and our neighbors in the colony too were there.
After fifteen days of great care, the doctors discharged her and said she could resume going to school.
It was a second birth for the three of us battling with a crisis all-alone.