The screaming was screeching in its tone, yet faint. Distant as a background noise. Like a desperate, final cry before eternal silence could surround him. The silence never arrived. He knew the screaming was just in his mind. But it was more real than anything else. With a harsh gasp, as if he was surfacing above water after almost drowning, he opened his eyes.
Outer reality was calm. There was the ambulance siren, the expected bumpiness of the potholed roads, and the diffused amber street lights. But no noise. No traffic, no honking. The typical 4 AM. Keeping his head rigid, why he knew not, he scanned the interiors of the vehicle. Completely bare. The plank he felt below him was bare metal. A flimsy bedsheet, sourced from their house was all that kept the metallic coldness from seeping into him. Even the pillow supporting his neck was a piece of sponge that usually lay forgotten in a corner of the house. Where was the saline equipment, the oxygen masks, and all those other paraphernalia? Can this be called an ambulance? It was just a discarded shell of one.
The inside was becoming louder again. He knew he was sliding again. Sliding back. At least, this time, he was already lying down.
Surreal, yet ordinary. The bed wasn't surrounded by white or blue coats. No frantic discussions were being held above him. Of course, some needles had been poked and some sensors wired up to his chest, but all that kept him company now was the constant beeping behind his head. He could see five curtained chambers on the other side of the big hall. The large desk in centre, perhaps the nurses' station, was where a frantic debate seemed to be taking place.
“B positive, they tested thrice.”
“Medical history says O positive!”
The beeping behind him had quickened somewhat. What happens if blood of the wrong group if transfused in? The beeping was louder. He had to see what it was about. How many of those machines were there, standing guard over him as robotic sentries? Careful not to disturb the arm that was hooked up, he tried to lift himself slightly to look around. The beeping quickened its pace. He could feel his heart beating faster. Was the beeping quicker because his heart had quickened, or did his heart quicken in response to the faster beep?
It was loud now, like an alarm. Quickly, he sank back, worried that they might come and castigate him for moving. But no one seemed to notice. Clearly, the beeping hadn't reached the stage that summoned attention like it always managed to do in those hospital-based television shows. His arm hooked up to the saline might have moved slightly. The coldness of the liquid seeping into his vein was more stark now. He could feel it flowing in, drop by drop.
8 AM. A female battalion in blue strode into view and stood in a line. Another battalion assembled itself from the far unseen corners of the room. The leaders approached each other and exchanged notes. One queen bee handing over responsibility of the hive to another. Allocations were done, and the new battalion moved into their stations. The previous ones gathered their things and, with their chattering taking on a sunny tone, disappeared.
Daylight, or no daylight, mornings were mornings. The buzz was more. Humans were more. Cleaners abound. Doctors could be sighted. But only one among the five beds on the opposite side of the hall stirred. These five beds were the only ones he could see. And only one among the visible five seemed capable of being conscious at will. The conscious one called out for the busy ward boy with authority and demanded his bed be raised so he could sit up. Clearly, he was a highly experienced comrade. A veteran of an inmate.
Must be evening visiting hours. Even the visitors had to don the blue hospital gowns and masks over their faces. One per bed. Only one among the 4 unconscious beds received a visitor. A man with distraught eyes.
The visitor patiently kept shouting into the unconscious ear. Was it more than a myth that coma patients are capable of hearing?
Another blue-clad visitor walked up to another unconscious bed. She settled comfortably on a stool nearby.
“Attamma, attamma!” She began her intonation too, though more gently than the other one.
Does the same person visit a patient every day or did all relatives take turns? To diligently visit every evening calling out their names, their nicknames, to retrieve them from their distant realities, and awaken their comas.
Darkened room simulated the outside night. The far corner of the five visible beds had attracted a gathering: all the nurses and both the doctors. Defibrillators made an appearance. The doctor held them up silently. Everyone stepped back silently. He placed them on the chest silently. He looked up silently. He removed them silently. He repeated the whole process, again silently. Everyone else stayed still. So the histrionics on TV shows when a patient ought to be revived -- the frantic movements, the shouts, the drama – are all perhaps just that. Dramatisation.
The only time the silence was broken was when the doctor announced the time.
New morning. A new body in the far corner bed. With a new attendant. With tears shimmering in his eyes, arms folded to avoid wringing, the son listened intently to the doctor. His face unabashedly displayed the pain within. The doctor, trying to be both professional yet sympathetic, focused on the explanation to avoid the emotion. Reluctantly, the attendant walked towards the exit with one final glance at the bed of his sleeping mother.
Presumably as soon as he left, the doctor shouted for the ward boy. He then began to angrily castigate the ward boy for daring to speak with the attendant, and probably giving him false information about the patient.
“NO ONE! No one is allowed to speak to the attendants except doctors. Not even nurses!”
“Arrre! Please!! Koi hai?”
Loud pleads in a crass voice broke his sleep. He looked to the source. An old man had replaced one of the unconscious comrades. And old man who was both conscious and seemingly in extreme discomfort.
He kept calling out for anyone and everyone. But no one stirred. The nurses were all happily chatting with each other, the ward boys flirting with the maid, the doctor immersed in a file. The pain-ridden calls emanated, wafted through the room and dissipated through the roof without bothering anyone. How could all of the staff, who were otherwise so attentive, so blatantly ignore him?
Another doctor walked in.
“I'm dying! Bachaoo koi toh!”
Hearing the pleas, the new doctor threw a questioning look at the head nurse.
“That's the patient with the failed liver.”
“Oh! That guy. We could have put him in the ward but he just refuses medication!"
“How long will the withdrawal last?”
The doctor just shrugged in response.
The phone rang in the middle of the night. The head nurse picked it up immediately. Then she walked up to him with a smile.
“Good news! Your room is ready.”
Being wheeled out, it was the first time he got to see the rest of the hospital.