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  Opinion   Columnists  12 Feb 2023  Shashi Warrier | The fitness of the bystander

Shashi Warrier | The fitness of the bystander

Shashi Warrier has written fairy tales, thrillers, a semi-fictional biography, satires, and a love story. Besides writing, he teaches strategic communication at a business school.
Published : Feb 12, 2023, 12:55 am IST
Updated : Feb 12, 2023, 12:55 am IST

Off goes the bystander on a hundred-metre sprint to the pharmacy, which is always at the far end of the hospital.

A bystander in a Kerala hospital has to be on his or her toes all the time. (PTI Photo)
 A bystander in a Kerala hospital has to be on his or her toes all the time. (PTI Photo)

Some decades ago, my father, living in our hometown in Kerala, had a heart attack in the wee hours of the morning. Since I happened to be there, I took him to a nearby hospital where they took good care of him. He spent four days in intensive care and ten days as an inpatient before the doctors let him go, and he was content.

But my standout memory from those days in the hospital was being his “bystander”, the Keralite term for the person who stands by the patient to look after his or needs. It’s misleading: in regular English, a bystander is someone who looks on but does nothing. A bystander in a Kerala hospital, on the other hand, has to be on his or her toes all the time. It’s like boot camp in the army. Why? The hospital demands payment for everything up front. So when the nurse needs to administer a medicine to a patient at 5:30 am, what does she do? She hands the bystander a list of medicines to be purchased.

Off goes the bystander on a hundred-metre sprint to the pharmacy, which is always at the far end of the hospital. The lifts never work, so it involves puffing up a few flights of stairs. He has to sprint, because if the next patient’s bystander beats him to the pharmacy queue, all the other bystanders get to sneer at him.

At the pharmacy, too, there are two queues, one to pay and another to collect the medicines. And if he hasn’t got the right change, well, it’s another hundred-metre sprint to the canteen, which always has change. So he collects the medicines and charges back to the nursing station from where his patient is served. If he’s lucky the nurse will be free when he gets to the counter.

Lab tests, scans of various kinds, and x-rays are another nightmare. The bystander pays, and delivers the receipt to the appropriate technician. If it’s just a test that involves collecting a sample from the patient, the bystander’s job is done, because the rest is up to the technician.

If it’s a scan or x-ray that requires the patient to the radiology department, though, he has to arrange for someone to take the patient to radiology — which is at the far end of the hospital from the patient’s room and the pharmacy — and get the job done and return the patient...

There are compensations, though. The canteen provides tasteless gruel for patients and rich meals for bystanders. The corridors of a hospital in Kerala at one in the afternoon are rich with the aromas of chicken curry, fried fish, and so on, all for bystanders, with gruel for the patients.

When I got Dad to hospital, I was unaware of all this. There was a little group of us: Mom and my wife and myself. They took turns sitting with Dad while I did the bystander’s duties. I didn’t get to eat the regular bystander’s rich diet, though, because Dad and Mom hardly ate anything and my wife took their side and stuck to the insipid gruel. I, too, suffered the gruel.

When Dad went home from the hospital, I was in pretty good shape. I’d lost a few kilos about the waist, and I could sprint a bit and so on. The fitness didn’t last. A couple of months of home cooking put the lost kilos back on and shortened my breath.

More than a decade after Dad’s heart attack, Mom fractured her thigh. I was her bystander then. A couple of days later, Dad, too, went down with aspirative pneumonia, and I was their bystander while Mom had surgery to replace her hip and Dad was treated in a room across the corridor from hers. Mom at the time was in her mid-eighties, and Dad in his mid-nineties. They spent several weeks in hospital but neither survived: old age was their biggest enemy.

At the end of that month serving as bystander I was lean and bronzed and ready to challenge Usain Bolt. Needless to say, that level of fitness lasted only weeks. By the time we had returned home, I was sprouting a little paunch. Six months after my parents’ passing, the challenges of home food and a scooter any time I had to travel beyond the gates built me up: having to climb a flight of stairs left me breathless.

Last month, my wife nudged me as we sat watching TV. “What?” I asked.

“If you keep spreading at this rate we’ll need a new sofa,” she replied.

It was true. I was shoehorned into the two-thirds of the sofa that she didn’t occupy. Just then, the phone rang. It was a friend’s wife, saying that my friend had been in an accident and needed someone to sit with him in the hospital in Mangalore city because she had other urgent work. I remembered my bystander days and volunteered.

The next day I presented myself at my friend’s hospital room, and smiled as his wife left. The sister came in, carrying tablets and a syringe. “Don’t we have to pay for all that?” I asked.

The sister shook her head. “No,” she said. “We take care of all that.”

“Relax,” said my friend. “Watch a movie. I’ve got a decent lunch lined up.”

That was the end of my weight loss ambitions. When my friend went home a week later, I found the sofa a tight fit. The new sofa arrived yesterday, and is very comfortable.

I am looking for a bystander’s job in a Kerala hospital.

Tags: shashi warrier column, hospitals, heart attack