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Monday, 8 October 2012

Bad Blood: Tragedy of Kashmir - by Sualeh Keen

Several tragedies are playing in the valley of Kashmir. But today, I will talk of a personal tragedy, which I believe is symbolic of the tragedy of the entire valley. My aunt died last month. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer, but that is not what killed her.

There were no decent hospitals in Anantnag town where she lived with her children, so my cousins took her to Srinagar to Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS), the only super-specialty hospital in the valley. Following the surgical removal of her affected breast at SKIMS, her doctors recommended that some tests be conducted at a premier cancer institute in India, because SKIMS does not have the facility to conduct such tests, unfortunately.

Naturally, my cousins were extremely worried. The very breast that had suckled them milk was now going to be the cause of demise of their mother, if they didn’t do something. So, they took leave of their businesses, jobs, and colleges to give her the best healthcare possible. Money, time, and efforts were a little sacrifice and they left no stone unturned to ensure that their beloved mother was free of the disease.

After a week of running around in the overcrowded premier cancer institute of India, my aunt and cousins returned home with the test results. Now, it was time for chemotherapy.

A strange cure this chemotherapy is: in order to eliminate the malignant cells, you have to kill the normal cells as well, and this process has to be repeated in a ‘cycle of self-inflicted violence’, in the hope that the malignant cells would be stamped out by the poison before the host is killed. There was nothing to worry, the SKIMS doctors assured my cousins. Chemotherapy is a routine procedure and there were many examples of patients who came out of it alive. My aunt would have to undergo six chemotherapy sessions and then she would be fine.

Each poisonous cycle took her closer to the brink of death. The doctors advised my cousins to keep their mother as far away as possible from the thronging well-wishers who visited to enquire about her health, lest she catch someone else’s infection. The doctors explained that their mother’s immune system had become so compromised that an innocuous common cold could prove fatal. My cousins strictly followed the doctors’ advice. And though my aunt had withered to a frail shadow of her former self, she exhibited admirable grit and determination to bounce back just in time for her next dose of poison.

The cycle of nearer-death and slower recovery continued, until it was time for her sixth and final chemotherapy session. My cousins were relieved: it was the final stage of the struggle of the past several months and now their mother would become free even as they would be free to resume their normal lives.

During the final session, the SKIMS doctors cheerfully declared my aunt ‘cured of cancer’ and a few doctors in the family said there was no need for radiotherapy that usually follows chemotherapy. But my aunt insisted on radiotherapy. She wanted to leave no stone unturned to secure a certain and healthy future.

She was the first one in her family to discover her jaundiced eyes. My cousins, who were relieved that the main killer disease had been destroyed, were not too worried. In any case, they were going to take her for a follow-up at SKIMS, as soon as the cycle of shutdowns and curfews outside their home abated. My aunt’s eyes became deeper yellow and my cousins eventually procured a curfew pass. But it was too late. She lost consciousness on the way to SKIMS and went into coma. Doctors gave her a few hours to live, but she showed her resilience for an unexpected four days, until she was dead.

My aunt wanted to live, but she died. Not of cancer, but due to bad blood. At the time of her last chemotherapy injection, one point of donated blood was transfused into her to speed up her path to full recovery. However, the donated blood was infected with Hepatitis B virus. My aunt’s body, already diminished by the poisonous cycles, became a submitting host to the virus. My aunt was murdered by doctors with good intentions.

The tragedy and unfairness of it all still makes me choke. The very thought of her death makes my blood boil and makes me want to pick up a stone and demolish SKIMS and lynch its doctors. How could the doctors infuse a patient, a cancer patient at that, with infected blood? I still cannot believe it.

Of course, my cousins too had asked this of the doctors, who replied that, unfortunately, the hospital did not the Hepatitis B screening facility, which costs several crore rupees, and that it was always a gamble and it was unfortunate. Unfortunate: a weasel word.

And of course, neither I nor my cousins translated our violent thoughts into actual violence. We were aware of the horrible working conditions of the overworked doctors of an ill-equipped hospital to which all serious patients from all districts of the valley find their way. We knew how these doctors reach the hospitals everyday braving showers of stones and bullets aimed or straying at their private vehicles and ambulances. Besides, the doctors had done their best to revive her from coma.

If not the doctors, then whom do we blame for the beloved mother’s death? Who do we channelize our anger at? Do we blame the financially and morally bankrupt government for not deploying a world-class infrastructure (forget about the district hospitals) at SKIMS? Do we blame the daily clashes between angry youth and the police, the reason she could not be taken to the hospital as soon as she displayed the first symptoms of jaundice? Or do we blame Destiny that she was made to suffer from cancer only to die from someone else’s disease, from bad life-saving blood?

The tragedy of Kashmir is that the suffering of the normal cells is unaccounted for in the fight between the poison and the malignant cells that dictate the course. In that tussle between the purported cures and diseases, the Motherland is weakened, making her vulnerable to any pathological agent that will kill her even as she is declared ‘cured’ and ‘disease free’.

Sure, let the people of Kashmir leave no stone unturned to secure a great political future for their land. But let them look at the problems within and build better hospitals and educational institutions so there is no need for the sick and the students to look outside. Let people attend to their businesses, jobs, schools and colleges and strengthen Kashmir, economically, intellectually, and morally. And if freedom is the main priority, let Kashmir be welcomed as the friendly new neighbour. There can be no Greater Kashmir without Good Kashmir. Let there be no bad blood.

© Sualeh Keen

Originally posted on Saturday, August 28, 2010 at:

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