The other side of the gate
Civil Hospital, Karachi. The teaching hospital our college is attached to is surely one of the best places to learn a lot of things besides the obvious medicine and professional skills. It’s a place which teaches you to shun your pride, banish your classy items, and raise your tolerance levels! It’s one of the public hospitals in Karachi, run on government expenses and charity by some NGO’s and the students of our college. It serves to all stratas of society but most importantly the poor, who can’t afford medical care in private hospitals. There is no consultation fee, no fee for most medical procedures, and some drugs that the patients need are covered as well.
The first time I came to Civil Hospital, back in the first year of med school, it felt like I had entered a different world. Stepping through the gate that separated our college compound and the hospital campus, felt like I was entering a scene from a fairytale movie, where there is a hidden portal leading to a fantasy land. The only difference was that I had stepped into a land that was far from fantasy. It was reality; a harsh and true reality. Only I didn’t realise it then. The campus was inhabited by people in dirty clothes, talking in loud voices, pushing and shoving and walking around without shoes. The improper sanitary conditions and the untidy corridors were enough to disgust me and make me turn my back to the hospital for three years.
That’s until this year, the third year of medical college, when we have mandatory duties at the hospital, for at least two hours every day to learn basic medical skills. I wore the most used up sneakers I had and kept a huge bottle of sanitizer in my bag on the first day of posting. We were posted in the ENT (Ear, nose and throat) ward. I fueled up my resolve to complete my medical education and stepped into the hospital campus once again. I must say it was much cleaner than the last time I saw it, but it still wasn’t a pretty picture.
There was a camp set up by a charity organisation to provide free food to the poor, three times a day. People were napping on mattresses on the side of the road as if it were their home, and a child was puking in the ditch. Although I was disgusted again, I kept going because I only had one thing in mind: my degree.
Before I knew it, two weeks passed and I was growing more and more immune to the conditions around me. I actually liked the protocol I’d get. Wearing the white coat meant that people would automatically give me way. One of the major things we’re supposed to practice is history taking.
So one day I went up to the ENT ward and started taking the history. The first lady I took history of was around 35 years of age and had multiple tumours in her nose. She had been operated on multiple times, resulting in disfiguration of her face. She was single, in pain, and penniless. Hers was indeed a sad story. But what really touched me was the look in her eyes, the way she asked me in the end “Main theek to hojaungi na ?” (Urdu for, I will get better, won’t I?) It melted my heart and I comforted her by reassuring that she would be fit to go home in no time.
My immunity kept growing, the wailing children in the corridors didn’t bother me as much as they used to, and I began bonding with the patients on a more personal level. Meeting new patients every day, each with their own sad story, made me realise that this place which made me sick to the core just a few weeks ago, was the only place these poor people had to turn to in order find relief from their sickness.
There was another patient whom I distinctly remember, for he is surely a big reason I’ve come to love my new life. While giving his history, he wandered with his thoughts and began telling us how he began his smoking addiction and other life stories (he was one talkative patient!). Amidst all that, he began to express his appreciation for the efforts of the doctors in Civil Hospital, how the ‘angelic’ doctors never charged a penny for all their life saving services. He then directed his attention to me and two other friends who were with me, and said, “You medical students are the flowers of heaven. Because you strive to make people’s lives less miserable, you’ll grow up to be doctors who’ll alleviate other’s pain. God loves those who help others, and because you people help others day and night without asking anything in return. I’m sure God loves you.”
That was the day I felt the last few threads of the fabric of prejudice in my heart tear apart. As if it were a strange epiphany, I realised what an amazing place this hospital was. Even though I might have considered myself different and distant from the people who filled the corridors and wards of this hospital, they kept considering me their saviour.They weren’t dirty because they don’t know how to keep themselves clean, they’re dirty because they have very few clothes and no money to take showers. They don’t talk loudly because they are ill mannered, they’re just used to talking that way because that’s the only way their complaints are heard by the society.
Furthermore, the illnesses I see people suffer from daily, ranging from severely life threatening diseases to severely painful injuries, have made me humble enough to appreciate the health I have.
I now understand that the world across the gate of the Civil Hospital, where people wear designer clothes and fancy shoes, the world I’d been living in for so many years, was actually a fantasy. It is this life across the wall, in the hospital, that’s real. These are the living conditions that a vast majority of people around the globe live in everyday. I thank God day and night for being born with no major disease and illness, having food to eat, and people to love me.
Medical school has taught me that my purpose in life is to help others be aware and respectful of other’s cast, creed, religion etc. To me, a patient should be a sick human that needs to be healed and not judged for who they are beyond that! I’m sure I’ll find myself and God to be very happy if I serve those who are desperate, and have no one else to turn to (I’m not saying I’d neglect the other ones, of course!). I’m now proud to be a part of Civil Hospital. I admire my seniors, the doctors, the residents and the post graduates here who diligently work day and night to make the lives of the less advantaged a little less difficult.
Najwa Pervin blogs at Days in the Life of a Pakistani Girl.