Aruna Shanbaug passed away on 18th May 2015. This is a tribute to the noble soul and to the nurses who took care of her all these years. The face of euthanasia debate in India died from pneumonia after being in persistent vegetative state for nearly 42 years. Much has been written about her. I am sure generations to come will know about this woman, who despite being in a vegetative state, moved the country.
I would like to thank Pinki Virani who filed the plea for euthanasia for Aruna. But for Pinki, India would have forgotten her magnificent yet melancholy daughter. Of course, for Aruna emotions didn’t exist or perhaps they did – I don’t know, I don’t even want to enter in her heart and feel her pain. Not because I am indifferent but because the thought itself terrifies me. When I read her story for the first time in the March of 2011, I couldn’t sleep for days. Her pain so real, I could almost touch it. I could feel the cold, dog-chain around my neck that choked Aruna. I could see myself splattered in blood. I experienced the breathlessness she might have endured. That man who sodomized her was strangely standing in front of me and I could do nothing. Nothing. The sheer helplessness of the circumstances makes me deranged in an aggressive way. I just don’t want to enter her heart, feel her emotions or live her life. Aruna’s tragic life is an epitome of meanness life can bestow upon human beings. Each time I read about her, my faith in the Almighty is left questioned. I tear up in a way I would hate to tear up again. If there is just one prayer which can be answered, then let no one ever suffer her fate again!!
As a child my father would recite to me stories about great women. He would quote these ordinary looking women, whose courage and affection made this world a better place to live.Jeanne d’Arc, Rani of Jhansi, Chandbibi were a regular feature in my bed-time stories. Once he told me the story of ‘the lady with the lamp’, Florence Nightingale. The nurse who served soldiers wounded in war. She never married because she was convinced marriage would interfere with her ability to follow her calling to nursing. Initially I didn’t believe someone like her would have existed and thought it to be a made up story. Today I know of about a hundred Florence Nightingales existing in the campus of King Edward Memorial Hospital. These nurses took care of Aruna without complaining, tirelessly for 42 years. They fought against the euthanasia plea and celebrated when honorable Supreme Court ruled in their favor. For them Aruna was their beloved child and they did what any mother would do for her child. Aruna could become the longest surviving coma patient in the world, without a single bed-sore ever, much because of the dedication of these angels.
Imagine this – a woman in coma, lying in a fetal position, menstruating until the age of 48, must have suffered from a bout of diarrhea as well. But none of the nurses in KEM ever complained at the kind of service Aruna received from them. They would lovingly give her a sponge bath every day, affectionately massage oil in to her scalp; one of them might even ask her husband to supply a daily glass of fruit juice for Aruna, free of charge, for over two years. Aruna never wore all-day diapers. It was uncomfortable. Hence, for the past 42 years the nurses would simply check if she had wet herself and change her clothes and linen every time the bed was wet. Diapers were used only during the night time because of staff shortage during night hours.
The strictly vegetarian hospital would allow non-vegetarian food, only for their lifeline Aruna. The nurses could see the happy tinge in Aruna’s eyes when she would eat her favorite fish curry. They would stock for her talcum powder, diapers, Protinex powder, soup sachets to break the monotony of hospital food. In the late 1970s, when Aruna was moved away from KEM, the nurses had participated in a three-day strike and demanded to bring her back. The authorities obliged. The most striking thing about these caregivers is they would go-on without complaining, doing their duties just the way they are supposed too. There was no gossip about Aruna, no drama in taking her care, no seeking of honor for looking after her. They worked just like mothers work, tirelessly, lovingly.
These nurses are epitome of humanity. Even before, when we Indians were searching for a reason to be proud of India, these nurses were silently making us proud for the last 42 years. It was these nurses who fought against mercy killing of Aruna. For them Aruna was hope. A hope living in the Ward 4 of KEM hospital. How could they let this hope be killed? Who would pull the plug off her body? Yes every day was a challenge with her, it would break their hearts to see Aruna in this condition. But they all took this challenge head-on. They made her feel like family, she was loved and cared and was never alone.
Dear nurses of KEM, I salute you with all my heart. Even as I write this, I have tears trickling down my eyes but these are not tears, this is my heart melting for you. You have raised the bar of humanity. If there exists God, then it has to be in you, in your hands, in your heart, in your work. Today I know what nursing is and I am glad I am not in the medical profession, for I can never be as kind as you are. You, for me, are the best examples of compassion. My heart forever will be filled with respect and gratitude for nurses. You are the living Florence Nightingales of India and the world. Thank you so much for restoring faith in humankind.
As for the doctor, who was madly in love with Aruna, who kept visiting her for next fours years in the hope of a miracle – to you my Sir, I bow in respect. Love is certainly immortal.
Aruna Shanbag – The lady who gave us hope, love and compassion, may your soul rest in peace!