Guardian sisters of Aruna Shanbaug
At a time when questions are being raised about ethics in medical practice, the nurses and staff members of KEM hospital who took care of their former colleague present the noble side of medical profession
Aruna Shanbaug who spent 42 years in a vegetative state in Mumbai’s Kings Edward Memorial (KEM) hospital where she formerly worked as a nurse and went on to become the face of the euthanasia debate in India, passed away on Monday.
Her death revived memories of the highly charged court room scene in 2011 when the Supreme Court bench headed by Justice Markandey Katju rejected the plea for Shanbaug’s mercy killing. While giving the verdict, Justice Katju read out celebrated Urdu poet Ghalib’s couplet: “Marte hain aarzoo mein marne ki, maut aati hai par nahi aati” (I die in the hope of dying; Death arrives and then never arrives).
The order was given on a petition filed by activist-writer Pinki Virani who requested the court to stop feeding Shanbaug and let her die peacefully. The bench rejected the plea after the nurses and staffers of KEM hospital refused to accept the suggestion that Shanbaug should be put to sleep and said they had been caring for Shanbaug as one of their own.
The court, in its verdict, commended the entire staff of KEM Hospital, including the retired staff, for their noble spirit and “exemplary and unprecedented dedication” towards taking care of the former nurse for so many years.
At a time when questions are being raised about ethics in medical practice, the staff members of KEM hospital present the noble side of the medical profession.
Shanbaug was cared for by the hospital staff from the morning of November 28, 1973, when she was found lying in the pool of blood in an unconscious condition. The nurse who was 24 years of age at the time was sexually assaulted by Sohanlal Bharta, a sweeper in the hospital who strangulated her with a chain as he raped her. The assault cut off oxygen and blood supply to Shanbaug’s brain.
Since then, Shanbaug had been confined to a bed in the hospital and living in a vegetative state. As age took over, she lost weight, her teeth decayed and she looked increasingly frail and gaunt.
From putting mashed food in her mouth to cleaning Shanbaug’s excreta and urine, the hospital staff took care of all her needs. Such was the care that Shanbaug did not develop a single bed-sore or fracture in spite of her being bedridden from 1973.
The apex court of the country observed: “The entire nursing staff and other staff members have a very compassionate attitude towards Aruna Ramachandra Shanbaug and they all very happily and willingly take care of her. They all are very proud of their achievement of taking such a good care of their bed-ridden colleague and feel very strongly that they want to continue to take care of her in the same manner till she succumbs naturally.”
The care taken by the nurses of their former colleague is worth highlighting when the entire medical profession no longer enjoys the high credibility it once did.
A book penned by 78 doctors about six months ago shares stories of malpractices in the profession. Several national international campaigns are being run to defend common people from exploitation by doctors.
The spirit of service to humanity towards those in distress, exhibited by the nurses and staff of KEM hospital, needs to be celebrated as one bids adieu to Shanbaug.