In the past month, I had the privilege of knowing not one but two young people who helped someone lying on the road. The experience I shared, peripherally with both of them, taught me that while we do need to reach out to our fellow beings in need, the system does its best to discourage us from doing so, in a variety of ways.
Two days before the young man gave his interview, Archanaa Seker, a friend who works with The Banyan (an NGO which works with the homeless mentally ill), called me in the middle of dinner. She had been distributing food packets among homeless people in the Santhome area in Chennai that night – as she did regularly – and had found that one of her "regulars" was paralysed. Ponni (name changed) was a homeless woman, probably around 70 years of age.
The people around her said that Ponni hadn't moved for three days. This to Archanaa constituted an emergency. She called 108, the number for the free ambulance service run for the State government by the Emergency Management and Relief Institute. "The paramedic got out of the vehicle, checked her vitals and on finding them normal, claimed she was fine. I told him she obviously wasn't because she was not moving," she recalled. His response? "But that is no reason for calling an ambulance or to take her to the hospital he responds." Once Archanaa convinced him to take Ponni to the hospital, he raised another objection: she was too smelly, the hospital wouldn't take her in. A woman got a saree and Archanaa's driver gave her a dhoti and they replaced Ponni's urine-soaked saree with that.
Archanaa said she had to argue with doctors at the emergency room at the Government General Hospital at Royapettah to admit Ponni – their objection was that she was homeless. Finally she was admitted to a general ward "care of Archanaa". By the time I reached the hospital with another friend, Archanaa was distraught. At least an hour had passed since Ponni had been brought to the hospital. We went to see her in the general ward. She had been left on the bed and was on drips. She couldn't move. No one had cleaned her or changed her.
And from the looks of it, unless you have an attender you will get little care and attention. Another friend had joined us by now and the four of us approached poor Ponni, who couldn't speak, but was indicating she wanted water. We thought we should change her clothes and asked the doctors on duty, if a gown would be available. They looked surprised at the request: the hospital only provides a cot and a sheet, even to the destitute. We sent for a nighty and a blanket. The lady at the next bed pointed out we might want to get a bedpan. I asked the doctor about this. "Well you can buy a small plastic bedpan," she said. "Great. Will someone take care of that for her? Because she is homeless and won't have an attender."
"But we don't admit people without attenders. We don't usually admit people like that."
Ok. We got adult diapers instead. We struggled to change her – with assistance from other attenders who were kind enough not to even flinch at the smell as her decades-old clothes came off. Together, a group of clueless women cut off her old clothes and clumsily fit her arms into a nightgown. We wiped her down with a wet towel and placed the diapers under her. The one nurse on duty at the ward, smiled encouragingly as she carried on with her duties. In fairness the hospital is short-staffed – she wouldn't have had time to help us out. Somewhere along the way, we managed to dislodge the cannula in her arm. When I told the male doctor on duty he looked positively disgusted. But we were not done yet.
"What will happen to her tomorrow?"
"She needs to get a CT scan in the morning so the attender has to take her."
"She is homeless. There is no attender."
"Well someone has to take her," the doctor looked around helplessly at the nurse. "The ‘worker' can take her," the nurse responds. This is a grudging solution: there is only one worker on duty at a time for five wards, I am told. The worker is also responsible for sweeping in those wards.
"What about food?"
"The hospital will give free food…."
"Will they feed her? She is paralysed…"
"We only give the food. The attender should feed her."
By the time we have Ponni cleaned, changed and tucked into bed it is midnight. The lights are still on in the ward – they are always on I am told. Other attenders are settling down to sleep. We are tired but haven't resolved the issue of who will be Ponni's attender or how we will manage this. Archanaa agrees to go to the hospital and handle the CT scan for the next day.
As we leave the hospital, I am find myself bewildered and then slowly angered. Ponni is homeless and old. She is a ward of the State. But to get medical care when she is paralysed and on the streets requires someone to fight for her every step of the way. I think of all the things Ponni needed to be cared for at the hospital, that Archanaa was never warned off. What would have happened if we hadn't gone back? And then I remember the nameless woman of a few weeks earlier.
A houseguest, Naveen Margankunte, found an elderly woman on Cenotaph Road having seizures on the pavement. He called 108. The ambulance arrived and refused to take her – someone had called about her earlier so they had taken her to the Royapettah GH where she was given IV fluids and a meal. The ambulance had returned her to the street and left her where they found her with a juice box by her side. Naveen convinced them to take her to the hospital. He then had to convince the hospital to admit her.
She was admitted to the ICU. When I reached the hospital minutes later to see if I could help, Naveen was outside. We thought our job was done, but thought we would pop in and look her up just in case. When we reached the ICU, we were told she had just died of asphyxiation. On that day I wondered if she could have been saved if Naveen hadn't had to fight to get her help, every step of the way. After my experience with Ponni, I shuddered to think of what would have happened to the nameless woman if she hadn't died. If she had lived and we had left who would have bought her a bedpan? Who would have taken her for her scans? Who would fed her? I would like to believe that if push came to shove, and if no one was there, the system would have taken some care of her. But I don't know that for sure.
Meanwhile, with Ponni, Archanaa's work came in handy. The Banyan sent in someone to stay with her for three days. Archanaa followed up with her doctors regularly. Still when they said the hospital decided to discharge her this week, still paralysed and in need of physiotherapy, they left it to Archanaa to figure out what could be done with it. (The Missionaries of Charity took her in eventually).
And while relieved that Ponni will be fine, I cannot help but wonder what would have happened if you or I were in that position to help someone on the street. What if we had neither the time, resources nor institutional backing to provide this kind of support? Where does the system come and take charge? Where is the protocol to take care of the destitute? Do you need to live in the hospital with a person you rescue to make sure they get care or at some point will the State do its job and thank a Good Samaritan for her efforts and take over from there?
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Ranjitha Gunasekaran studied English and Mass Communications before joining The New Indian Express reporting team in 2006, covering urban local bodies and heritage.
She left the paper to help the Communications department of The Banyan, an NGO which works with destitute mentally ill women before rejoining the Express Weekend section. She covered gender, mental health, development and edited the paper's Sexualities section, the first of its kind in the country. She headed the Weekend section from August 2010 to April 2011 before leaving to help ideate on and launch a daily school edition of the newspaper.
She loves dogs and food and has written about the latter for the Express lifestyle magazine, Indulge, from 2009. She quit her job in October to focus on her writing.