Dr. Madhu


© Dr. Rajas Deshpande

Blue-Grey eyes, fair pink face and curly hair. Tall, thin, agile and always happy. Boyish demeanour. Life of the moment. Most unmarried resident doctors swooned  over her , and most married ones secretly admired her. Her name was Madhu. She studied neonatology, and often baby-talked to those who  tried to be macho around her, making a chutney-pulp out of their muscular egoes. She stayed in the room next to mine, with another girl, a resident doctor from surgery.

We often shared the late-night breezy balcony on the 12th floor, overlooking the secretive city lights, when we sat in different corners studying, reading, writing or just thinking things over.

My shyness (really, I swear!) probably was quite noticeable, as once late after midnight, she asked me if I would like to share the tea that she and her roommate were planning to make. My roommate Dr. Vinay, who was studying besides me, said yes before I could. “So this is why you study here late night” he winked at me, as I made vigorous attempt to not blush and defend my non-involvement in the whole issue.

I became good friends with Madhu. She was from Madhya Pradesh, her parents were middleclass teachers like mine. She was engaged to be married to a handsome postgraduate businessman from her own community, staying then in the UK. ‘Don’t tell anyone yet, I want to declare only after I pass my MD’ she warned me with big eyes and a beautiful long finger wagging at my nose when she confided this. With the busy residency, there was no scope for any further interaction beyond the customary midnight tea-talk where we shared our joys and woes. But we waited for and enjoyed those moments.

Her roommate, the surgery girl, was very attractive too. However, she used to be mostly quiet, often sulking, and in general appeared unhappy. Once she was crying, so I asked Madhu if we could help her some way. “No”, Madhu replied,  “She has problems at home, she married early after MBBS, and now her in-laws are insisting that she has a child. Her husband is an engineer and says that he wants to avoid late pregnancies, he wants two kids minimum. She has two more years to finish MS, she knows having a kid will affect her learning, and we don’t have leaves as you know, so she will skip a term”. Complicated. Many female doctors go through the hell of this twin task: high-demanding duties in career and life at the same time. Perpetual shortage of doctors precludes any leaves, and many families do not support women’s careers whole heartedly. Some girls do it all with a smile, some collapse, often compromising on their career.

© Dr. Rajas Deshpande

One black morning brought the bad news: the surgical resident, pregnant, returning home early morning after a heavy emergency night, lost control of her car and hit a pole, died on the spot.

Nobody can be held responsible in our great legal system for this death except herself.

Madhu was devastated. Myself and Vinay accompanied her in her sleepless and horrible nights, there was no question of being able to study. After three such sleepless nights, she went home for a week. She returned with the determination of studying better, she had to complete her MD to be able to marry sooner. Our routines returned to a clouded normal again. Madhu’s legendary smile was scarred.

After about two months, she started coughing. One day I found her having high grade fever, so reported this to her HOD, and got her medicines and some food. Vinay and I attended her for next two days till her parents arrived. Many tests were done.

On the third night of their arrival, at about 1 AM, her father came to the balcony where I was studying. He was a tall, bald, fair and intelligent man. “Madhu asked me to talk to you”, he said, “will you please keep this confidential?”.

Scared to the core and praying in my heart, I reassured him that I won’t disclose anything to anyone.

He started to sob violently like a child. He strangulated a wail, covering his mouth tightly with his hands. In broken short sentences, he told me that Madhu had developed tuberculosis of the lungs.

“Is that all?” I asked and realised this might be very impolite. “I mean, is there anything more than that too? “ I rephrased my question. “No, but what will we do now? We are destroyed. Why should such a sweet fairy like my child suffer this?”.. A father crying for his daughter is unbearably painful.

“Tuberculosis is curable if treated correctly, there is no need to worry at all.. I am sure she will improve. We will show her to Dr. Karnad” … We were all very proud of Dr. Karnad’s abilities and knowledge.

© Dr. Rajas Deshpande

“ He has seen her today and started treatment. I am not sure if we should inform her department and her fiancé. This news spreading is not good for her”. His dilemma was genuine.  They decided what most middle class people do: have faith in the power of good and honest. They informed her department, and had her fiancé talk with Dr. Karnad.

She went home. There she developed liver failure due to the anti-tuberculous drugs, a common side effect. Treatment was delayed for another two months. After six months she returned. Her fiancé had broken the engagement while she was in liver failure phase. He had married someone in a haste after that.

She kept studying and working hard. We often went to the mess together for dinner.  She had lost her shine, more due to her broken engagement than her illness and medicines. She who always talked with such passion about her fiancé never mentioned him again ever.

When I once asked her if she still felt hurt, she said “Yes, it hurts beyond my ability to bear. But what hurts more is the thought that I was about to marry him”.

She was eventually free of all medical problems, but decided not to marry. She passed well, went to a developed country, and is practising quite successfully there. In a recent email, she wrote: ‘One spell of an infection, and the whole concept of humanity, human behaviour changed for a doctor like me.  I wonder what it does to the illiterate and poor. I know, but I feel scared to pin the blame here. I wish I had grown up in the developed world where I practise now’.

Many female doctors have to bear the brunt of social, familial and cultural expectations, pressures, insults, humiliation and sacrifices while studying the extremely demanding science of medicine. They lose their happiness, give up simple pleasures of life just to be able to cope up with their wish to serve humanity, at the cost of their own life. They are any day superior to their male counterparts, as they also shoulder the toughest responsibility: being a mother, while being a doctor. Unrewarded, unrecognised, and many a times not even acknowledged, they stand tallest in the fraternity, taller than any material or scientific achievers!

My highest respects to them.

© Dr. Rajas Deshpande


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