57: Angel in India

57: Angel in India

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Nurses

Angel in India

The human body has limitations. The human spirit is boundless.

~Dean Karnazes

In the midst of a grueling, five-year stint at medical school, I was invited to volunteer at a health camp in India for a few weeks and I accepted without hesitation. I was joined by volunteers from many NGOs.

Our journey started in Bangalore, and included several exhausting hours of a bus ride on a dusty bumpy road. When we finally reached the village at 8:00 p.m., it was pouring rain and the roads were ankle-deep in mud.

We started our activities the next morning, and in a week’s time most of us felt like we’d been there forever. But as our trip drew to a close, I was sorry I was leaving.

On the eve of our departure, I began feeling a little uneasy, and at dinner the room suddenly started whirling around me. A fellow volunteer put her palm to my forehead and gasped. I was running a fever of 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Because there was a spurt of dengue cases that year, I decided to get tested. My blood sample was sent to the only lab around, fifty kilometers away. At midnight, we found out I had dengue hemorrhagic fever.

Over the next few hours my symptoms worsened. My fever spiked, I had a headache that felt like my skull was splitting in two, and my bones felt like they were breaking. No wonder dengue is also known as “break-bone fever.” At 5:00 a.m., it was decided that I was too ill to stay in the village so an ambulance picked me up and took me to the hospital in a neighboring town.

When I was admitted and placed in a tiny room on the top floor of the hospital, I understood what it meant to be truly alone. My parents were thousands of miles away, my boyfriend was at a conference in Vienna, and all the people I knew were scheduled to leave in a few hours. Some volunteers offered to cancel their tickets and stay with me, but I didn’t want to ruin their plans, so I refused.

So there I was, all alone, in a strange room in a strange place, too weak and nauseated to even sit up, and running a temperature so high my brain felt like it would melt. A nurse came in to take my temperature. From the look on her face I could tell it wasn’t good news. At that moment, I couldn’t take it anymore, and I broke down, sobbing. The nurse, Maya, put her arms around me. She was around fifty, with graying hair and soft kind eyes. She reminded me of my mom and immediately I felt comforted. She reached for my hand and squeezed it.

It was as if we had entered a pact, as from that moment on, Sister Maya was always there when I opened my eyes. When the bouts of nausea and vomiting began, she was there to hold my hair back for me. She then made me sip water with a teaspoon so I would stay hydrated, all the while gently stroking my forehead. When my platelet count dropped to a dangerous 30,000 and I was bleeding from my nose into my eyes and urine, Sister Maya hovered, examining me every fifteen minutes for new signs of bleed, in case I needed a platelet transfusion. Because I had to be pricked every six hours to monitor my platelet count, all the veins in my arms were painfully swollen, and when they decided to draw blood through a vein on my foot, Sister Maya held me tightly as I howled in pain. When my hands throbbed excruciatingly from the intravenous cannula, she massaged them for hours, gently breaking the clots that had formed in the vessels. When I was too weak to get up on my own, she carried me to the bathroom.

One night, fluid started collecting in my lungs and abdomen and every breath was painful. Sister Maya propped me up and whispered comfortingly about how I would soon get better and how I had to hang in there. When my blood pressure dipped to dangerously low levels and I had to be shifted to the ICU, Sister Maya held my hand and never left my side, even cancelling her regular shifts and staying with me for more than twenty-four hours at a stretch.

When I took this turn for the worse, my folks were informed. But given my condition, I feared I wouldn’t last until they came. In med school, I had read about the innumerable complications of dengue fever and the high fatality rates, but until that moment, I had never realized how terrifying it could be.

When I cried out of fear, Sister Maya held my hand and prayed with me, for me. She begged me to have faith, to never lose hope, and to be strong enough to fight this illness. For hours, while I slipped in and out of consciousness, she sat next to me, her hand never leaving mine, whispering prayers and words of encouragement in my ear.

On the third morning, Sister Maya had an idea. She had once read that freshly squeezed juice of raw papaya leaves helped raise platelet counts. She contacted a friend who brought it in for me. When I tasted the intensely bitter green liquid, I gagged, but Sister Maya coaxed me to finish the dose. After two more doses in the afternoon and night, she sat with her fingers crossed and her head bowed in prayer as my platelet counts were being reassessed in the lab.

When I opened my eyes at 5:00 the next morning, I had a pleasant surprise. My platelets had risen to 64,000 and my condition was stable enough for me to be moved out of the ICU. I put my arms around Sister Maya and we both cried with joy.

When my parents arrived that evening, I was strong enough to sit up and smile at them. Slowly, I started getting better, and a week later I was discharged. It took me four weeks to fight off the illness completely. When I think of those dark days, I shudder to think I almost gave up, and I smile to think of the angel who helped me fight.

It’s been two years now, and I plan to go back and visit Sister Maya later this year. She instilled in me a profound respect for nurses, and more importantly, a staunch belief in the healing power of the human spirit that they deliver.

~Pallavi Kamat

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