Around me, rows of white-railed beds fight each other for space. Colorful, thin blankets drape the beds’ inhabitants, children and women and men curled up in balls, lungs rasping as they attempt to suck in air without oxygen masks. Their wrists and elbows reveal brown, unbroken skin, conspicuously missing the needles and wires that would indicate infusions of IV fluids. There is no money for those here.
This hospital’s director is Charles Darwin, his disciples ladies driving mops and brooms across the floor with admirable devotion to their chief. In the absence of much else, sanitation is the best form of medicine. As I move to step across a threshold into another room, one of these ladies rushes up to me, jabbing the broom into my feet. She motions at my shoes: “Not allowed,” she says. I apologize and bend down to relocate the dangerous items from my feet to the stack outside the door.
As I enter the oncology ward, the nun-nurse whom I am shadowing motions me toward a doctor consulting with a patient’s family. After an intense conversation, he turns to me and smiles a haggard, genuine smile. Like everyone else in this hospital, his initial reaction is confusion. Who is this blonde, white girl wandering through a below-poverty-line, government run hospital by choice? Unlike most they see, I am not here to ‘help’. I am here to learn from them, I explain. Before long, he is ushered off to another patient’s bedside. Noticing the worried kindness etched into the nurse’s face as she watches him leave, I ask her about him.
He is one of three surgeons in this hospital, she tells me, a hospital ostensibly open to the approximately 102 million people living below the poverty line in India. His words drift across the room in a local Indian dialect I do not know, but the concern in his voice does not need translation. The nurse helps me anyway: he is inquiring about the lives of the other family members, the education of the young boys whose father lies dying on the bed, pulling in great swathes of useless air. The mother requests a priest: it is time. She need not explain any further, because the surgeon knows exactly who they see and what they pray for every day. 15 minutes goes by and still, the surgeon remains by their bedside, the newly-arrived priest murmuring words into the man’s pained chest as his wife cries silent tears into his hair, which she strokes with frail fingers.
We leave them in the privacy of the other 50 patients jammed into the same large room, exiting the oncology ward and entering a recovery ward for patients who have just undergone chemotherapy. I feel as if I have stepped into a kaleidoscope: bright colors jump from the walls, patterns of butterflies and trees prance across the beds, and fake flowers in pastel pots grow from every bedpost. Gentle, joyful Indian tunes dance from speakers in the ceiling. This is unlike any hospital I have seen. The melange of pinks and oranges and yellows all but hide the lack of silvers, whites, and blues: the colors of the machines that could help the patients survive.
The nurse explains the resort-like scenery to me. They have little else: but they can keep the patients positive, remind them why they want to live, invigorate them with music that makes them want to dance and placate their stinging eyes with flowers reminiscent of their homes. Willpower is more important here than anywhere.
We continue to the pediatrics ward, this one emptier than most – thankfully or deceptively? Perhaps both. The children stare at me with curious eyes, but respond quickly with laughter and emulated games as I motion to them with giggles and peekaboo and compliments about princess dresses. Among cases of measles and gangrene and lymphedema, their smiles are medicine for me, a reminder of shocking resilience and unprejudiced innocence in Darwin’s biting kingdom.
My assigned nun leads me outside this time, to a central area between wards. Instantly a wall of giant, pencilled faces jumps out at me. She notices my gaze and tells me about an Australian artist who began coming to the hospital and sketching pictures of the patients, who clammer for a moment in the spotlight and an eternity of their likeness plastered on the brick wall. Survive a treatment, get a portrait: it is a form of art therapy, the nurse explains, unsolicited but so popular that the artist keeps coming back by patient request. The grey, pencilled lines are tiny miracles.
As we continue through this outdoor garden, we pass a long line of people bending around a corner, patiently sweating. These patients are not sick, but hungry, and this line will give them food. One room later and the sharp smell of urine streams into my nostrils. We are entering the destitute ward, the refuge wards for those picked up off the streets and brought in for months of recovery time. The gender-segregated rooms are full. The nun briefly speaks with each person before pausing by a 100-year old woman shrunken to half her original size. I catch her eyes, which flicker to follow us, fighting the rest of her near-paralyzed body with astounding alertness. I smile at her and her eyes widen, her mouth turning up, too, in suspicious surprise.
My American senses are in overload. There is no smell of formaldehyde or betadine, no flash of gleaming needles or sanguine bags of dripping blood, no beeping of digitized monitors or sterilized overhead announcements. The hospital is a modern architect’s dream, boasting an open floor plan and few rooms, no privacy and no confidentiality, everyone’s illnesses and family problems and jaded poverty there to see and share.
Instead, there are doctors and nurses and cleaners and artists and social workers speaking not just to patients, but to families, too, praising the grades of children and asking after father’s crop harvests. There are surgeons praying with priests and nurses caring for doctors and five-year old children playing with stethoscopes, learning from the physician desperately trying to cure the child’s parent. There is music soothing pain and color splashed like bandages across wounds and oral histories and traditions in place of piles of paperwork and computer documentation.
Machines and medicines and technologies are badly needed. But I did not come here to notice what I always knew was missing: I came to learn what was present. And what I observed was a network of healthcare workers all supporting and praising one another, a community of families and priests and neighbors invested in the lives of those with nothing, a hospital full of people, not diseases, of family stories and reasons to keep living, not prognoses for how best to die. I observed a world full of optimism, a world, because looking up from the bottom of the rock, focused on climbing toward the sky.