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After the rain: Experiencing illness as a medical student and granddaughter

SMS (“Stanford Medical School”) Unplugged is a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week; the entire blog series can be found in the SMS Unplugged category.

rainy groundIn India, when the first heavy droplets of rain meet dry earth it releases a particular kind of smell: a dampness arising from sizzling soil that in Bengal we call shnoda gondho. It is raining on the second day we go to visit my grandfather in the hospital.

He has been readmitted to the hospital, after spending a week recovering at home from a hospitalization for rib fractures and bleeding into his lungs. The irony of his hospitalization is not lost on his family: that a renowned doctor, one of the first cancer surgeons in the city of Kolkata and one who spearheaded oncological care in this region, is now gowned and sitting in a hospital bed. This happens frequently, of course, for doctors are not immune to being patients, even if we would like to think so. The problem is that we are little prepared for the unstructured, unscripted nature of experiencing illness rather than treating it.

Certainly for my grandfather, a man who even recently traveled to multiple hospitals each day to supervise surgeries and see patients in clinic, being confined to bed for respiratory treatments and being unable to walk without support feels equivalent to being bound up, tied down, and chained to the hospital. This is the way illness imprisons. For his family, used to seeking his wise medical advice on various things from pesky coughs to unremitting cancers, we are unprepared to now help make decisions for him.

We never stop being medical students, and later we never stop being doctors, whether in relationships with family members, friends, acquaintances, or strangers in emergency situations

Perhaps this reflection is too personal for a forum created for sharing medical school experiences. But I suppose my realization is that medical school is not a place but rather a privilege we hold. We never stop being medical students, and later we never stop being doctors, whether in relationships with family members, friends, acquaintances while traveling, or strangers in emergency situations.

But, as I spend these three weeks with my grandfather and my family in Kolkata, I find that it is important to play both roles: that of medical student, the one who can help translate the staccato of medical jargon into fluid lines, and that of loved one, the one who listens not via an earpiece through the taut drum of a stethoscope but through bare ears and naked eyes, the one who listens for and is moved by the cries of pain, or suffering, or confusion, or desperation, of the ones they love.

In many ways the loved one is the harder role to play, for it is the role with no lines. No chest x-rays to evaluate in the morning. No medications to re-dose for a rising creatinine. No growing charts of oxygen saturation, or heart rate, or urine output. As someone who has recently grown used to doing these things on the medicine wards of Stanford Hospital, I now acculturate to a more improvisational kind of care. Placing a soothing hand on an aching back. Sitting at someone’s bedside while he nods in and out of sleep. Holding down an arm so that it doesn’t tremble like the string on a harp. In Indian hospitals, the family must often arrange to bring the medications that the doctors have prescribed and may often visit the hospital multiple times a day to bring food. We mix rice with soft, curried vegetables or boiled eggs and offer them to our loved ones, hoping to find through these labors some connection, some solace.

As family members we grasp for metaphors. In India, these metaphors of illness are often built around ideas of hot or cold, of water or wind. Perhaps that is why I find it so poignant that it rained today, the dense, gray clouds releasing their water just as the water from the pleural effusion in my dadu’s lungs was drained.

I hope that one day soon, when this rain had cleared, my grandfather will write his own words as he has planned to do. And then he can tell you his story, not I.

Amrapali Maitra is a fifth-year MD/PhD student working towards a PhD in Anthropology. She is interested in the illness experience, the cultural and social basis of health, and practices of care.   Amrapali grew up in New Zealand and Texas, and she studied history and literature as an undergraduate at Harvard. She is a 2013 Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow.  

Photo by Jason Devaun

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