Last week at Kolkata’s Nil Ratan Sarkar (NRS) hospital, relatives of a dead man turned their rage on a junior doctor.
Dr Paribaha Mukhopadhyay stood defenceless as a brick was hurled at him, fracturing his skull, leading to major head injuries. He was operated upon, but now there are fears of possible brain damage.
It was by no means the first such attack on a doctor. Just today in the midst of the nation-wide doctors strike, another doctor at AIIMS has been roughed up by patients.
Here are some recent attacks on doctors from 2017 alone:
· March 12: A 35-year-old resident doctor Rohan Mhamunkar was brutally assaulted by a mob of relatives of a patient at the Dhule Civil Hospital.
· March 16: Three hospital employees – a trainee doctor, a medical officer, and a staff nurse –were allegedly assaulted by relatives of a patient who died of H1N1 at the Nashik Civil Hospital.
· March 18: Dr Rohit Tated, a polio-afflicted resident doctor from Sion Hospital was assaulted by relatives of a 60-year-old patient with chronic kidney disease.
· March 18: A group of about ten people attempted to attack Dr Sarang Dave at the Parel’sWadia Hospital due to the unavailability of a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) bed. The hospital, however, denied the incident.
· March 19: An orthopaedic junior resident at the Government Medical College in Aurangabad was beaten up by a patient’s relatives.
My son is a junior resident doctor. And he too does hospital rounds alone in his white coat, carrying only his stethoscope. All parents of doctors have witnessed first hand the tremendously arduous journey, almost a pilgrimage, that is the study of medicine.
Fiercely competitive entrance examinations, a massive burden of study during course work, constant tests, gaining an MBBS degree then back to examinations and internship to progress towards the postgraduate degree. Once again innumerable sleepless nights (learning to snatch a few winks while standing in the shower!), grinding work in hospital and intensive preparations for another round of all-India competitive examinations. Coaching classes and voluminous books, sitting at patients’ bedsides while at the same time poring over piles of notes. Fifteen minutes of sleep, precisely timed between work hours.
As a 24-year-old junior doctor, like all junior residents, my son has no off days, no holidays, and the grave responsibility of care of another human being. What a noble task indeed! A healer in times of sickness, a carer in a world filled with uncaring, swearing to uphold the oath of the great Hippocrates: Primum Non Nocere. First, Do No Harm.
Solitary white-coated figures toil through their wards, always on call, rushing forward with their armory of skills and instruments. What is their daily work? To stare down Yamraj himself.
Dr Paribaha Mukhopadhyay now lies in the same hospital where he was the caregiver, his skull bashed in. Like me, Dr Mukhopadhyay’s mother must have seen his herculean struggle, watched him sweat over his books, witnessed the highs and lows of exam results, the emotional bond with patients. To see him now lying prone in hospital himself, his skull bandaged, how worried she, herself suffering from Parkinson’s disease, must be for her exhausted, care-worn boy.
Perhaps doctors have no right to be on strike. Perhaps their first duty is to their patients with not a thought for themselves. But when the skull of a doctor is bashed in? When another doctor loses an eye because acid is thrown at him? When another is beaten within an inch of his life and reduced to a shivering bloodied quarry with his clothes torn off? What then? Still no right to protest? Still no right to cry out, please do not beat me up, I’m trying to do my best, am a doctor, not God?
The junior doctor patrols the frontline of India’s collapsing healthcare system. There are simply not enough hospitals or doctors. Allegations of negligence fly when a single doctor must tend to over 100 patients. Equipment is falling into disrepair, surgeries cost a fortune.
In dark grimy hospital corridors, Death walks with imperious power. The doctor cannot realistically be expected to be a miracle worker. He or she can try with all her might but can she stave off a body’s last gasp? Tattooed on the back of my son’s neck is the slogan: care, cure, create. When it’s the doctor’s second nature to care, when his default mode is to save, can he or she possibly voluntarily hasten death? But society needs scapegoats and as the healthcare system collapses, the helpless junior doctor bears the brunt of public fury.
According to WHO statistics, the current doctor-patient population ratio in India is approximately 1: 2000, when according to WHO guidelines it should be 1: 1000. There is thus a 50 per cent shortage of doctors.
Of the 8, 56, 065 allopathic doctors in India, 6,00, 000 are active practitioners. Indian doctors are enormously skilled because they have a massive range of clinical experience yet they work in conditions in which their skills are often simply not supported by adequate medical infrastructure.
In an important judgement in 2009, Justices Katju and R M Lodha held: “While this court has no sympathy for doctors who are negligent, it must also be said that frivolous complaints against doctors have grown by leaps and bounds in our country particularly after the medical profession was placed under the purview of the Consumer Protection Act.”
In September 2017, Dr Kafeel Khan was arrested and jailed because of the deaths of 30-40 infants in a Gorakhpur hospital in August 2017. Its now become clear that Dr Khan in fact launched a heroic personal effort to bring oxygen supplies to the hospital and in fact saved many lives through sheer individual action and energy.
Hero Kafeel Khan, unfairly blamed and persecuted when he strained his every nerve in an emergency to save as many lives as he could.
Political charges and counter-charges fly around about the events at NRS Hospital. Rival political parties have jumped into the noisy fray, seeking opportunities for religious conflict or political points. The Chief Minister sees conspiracy, the opposition searches for an election agenda. None of this matters to me.
All I see is a dimly lit figure sitting hunched over his patient, taking his pulse and listening to his chest, enveloped in that intimate quiet of a doctor and his patient. It’s a relationship of integrity, of unspoken closeness, strangers who must together tread a road that could end in eternity.
India’s crumbling healthcare is up against a rock: the indomitable rock-like spirit of every Indian doctor to prevail over the avalanche of suffering that confronts him. Does this pilgrim deserve to be beaten? Does he or she deserve to be reduced to a bleeding wreck?
Of course, they will return to their duties. They will return inspite of their injuries. Back to the ward, they will go, back to where the doctor holds up the single lamp of his willpower against an uncaring administration and crumbling infrastructure. India, land of great sages, scientists and thinkers, still creates great doctors. Get well soon, Dr Paribaha Mukhopadhyay, your patients are waiting for you.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.
Sagarika Ghose has been a journalist for almost three decades, starting her career with The Times of India, subsequently moving to Outlook magazine and The . . .