“Need Doctor Vomit,” said Nikhil. He was at the kitchen island, hunched over his iPad as he articulated the words using the icons on his app. He looked ill. In fact, he had looked under the weather the previous evening and we had let him sleep in having called his transport office earlier in the morning to let them know that Nikhil would not be attending school.
Nikhil had just recovered from a cold and had returned back to school and it had hardly been a week when he came home looking tired and drained. That he was telling us he needed to see the doctor was remarkable for a couple of reasons. The first of course was that Nikhil communicated that he was not keeping well and the second was that he inferred that it was time to see the doctor.
As a young boy growing up in India, annual illnesses were the norm for me. There was a phase when I had measles, mumps, and jaundice in a span of a couple of years. Jaundice was the worst. I’ve been a foodie from a young age and being put on a strict diet that excluded oil, meat, sweets, and really anything worth eating was a harsh punishment. The only thing that I was allowed to eat was “lauki halwa” a dessert made with the vegetable bottle gourd (calabash). I got so sick of it that I’ve not had it in the last 45 years!
Nikhil has not always been fond of visiting the doctor’s office. He has had his share of ER visits, 24 hr EEGs, MRIs, and endless blood draws. In fact, there was a point in time when he would start crying as we pulled into the parking lot of the pediatrician’s practice. His newfound enthusiasm to visit the doctor stems from my wife’s strategy of hyping up the visit to what would otherwise be at best uninteresting and at worst an unpleasant experience.
The hype starts a week prior to the scheduled appointment. “Nikhil, next Friday, you are going to the dentist”. Nikhil regards my wife with curiosity. “We will go in the minivan to the dentist’s office and you will ride up the elevator”. Nikhil scans his iPad and selects “dentist office elevator” and he grins. He loves van rides and elevators. “The dentist will seat you in a chair and ask you to open your mouth”. “Elevator elevator” types Nikhil. “The dentist will examine your teeth and brush them and then we can return home”. Nikhil claps his hands, he loves elevators and is willing to put up with having his teeth examined.
“Mathru Clinic” was our family doctor’s clinic in Bangalore. Dr. Sreenivasan was the genial doctor and he in fact stayed at the end of our street. The clinic was fairly small and within walking distance from our house, though when I was sick, my dad would take me to the clinic on his Lambretta. The waiting area had a couple of benches and a wooden partition separating the waiting area from his examination room. A curtain shielded the entrance to the examination room.
While waiting for the doctor, my eyes would wander around the waiting room. A cupboard with glass doors displayed a variety of surgical instruments. The walls were adorned with pictures. One was a print of a doctor examining a patient in the classical Greek style. The other was that of Ganesh, the god who removes obstacles. However, this picture still stands out in my memory as Ganesh was not depicted customarily seated on his vehicle, a rat. The rat was instead shown standing by his side partaking a laddu (sweet) from the heap of laddus piled on a plate in front Ganesh. There might’ve been a poster advertising a tonic, but my memory is a bit hazy now. The clinic was situated on a busy street, the post office was across the street. Next to the clinic was Emmnath tailors and the doctor’s Vespa would be parked outside the clinic.
The examination room had a bed with a pink rexine cover. Dr. Sreenivasan would examine me, and take my temperature while chatting with my dad. He would then disappear into a small room that served as his compounding dispensary and would reappear with a bismuth mixture. My dad swears by that mixture to this day.
It is practically impossible to get Nikhil’s height. He stoops, his knees are always bent and he regards the contraption to measure his height with suspicion. It’s also difficult to get his pulse and oxygen level as he keeps wiggling his fingers and the pulse oximeter rarely registers an accurate reading. In fact, if he is willing to put up a fight, we figure he is doing okay. If he is listless, then it is cause for worry. While in the examination room, he points to the sink indicating that he wants to wash his hands. We use it as a carrot to tell him that he can do so after the doctor’s visit.
He puts up with the doctor’s examination. He can be lightning quick when he wants to and when in the mood will grab the badge if the doctor or nurse has one hanging around their neck. So my wife handles Nikhil’s hands while I keep an eye on his legs to make sure that he does not kick out. Nikhil gets a little warier as he is asked to stick his tongue out and the doctor runs the stethoscope on his back. Nikhil keeps up a chatter on his iPad and so visits to the doctor always require my wife and me to be present. One to keep Nikhil company and the other to talk to the doctor and take notes.
On this visit, it turned out that Nikhil had an ear infection. The doctor wrote a prescription for antibiotics and once the doctor left, we got Nikhil ready to head back to the car. After having asked to wash his hands at the sink, Nikhil figures that it is probably better to beat a hasty retreat when the coast is clear. He does not want to dawdle to wash his hands and we return to the van. Nikhil is a sport when it comes to taking medicines and he gulps anything given to him without protest.
As a child, when I was sick, I would lay curled up in bed. The first couple of days would be a haze when I would drift in and out of sleep. Songs from the radio in the background and my mother checking in on me now and then. I had no appetite for her delicious food and she did her best to cook food that was appropriate for me.
As I would recover but was still weak, I would devour books. Mainly Readers Digest Condensed volumes – some of my most memorable offbeat stories were read then – “Our Miss Rossie”, “No Man Walks Alone”, “The Shepherd” and so on. And as my appetite returned, I would marvel at the taste and smell of coffee or udad-moong daal dosa (crepes made with lentils) with chutney, tastes that I hitherto took for granted and never paid attention to.
Nikhil spends most of his time in bed when he is sick. If he is really sick or has a high temperature, he lies down. The house is unnaturally quiet then. There is no chattering or the sound of Nikhil playing with his toys. As he feels better, he sits up and we can hear an occasional chirp from his room. When his chatter returns and he points to the laptop to view “House Hunters” we know that Nikhil is feeling a lot better.
My father would return from work in the evening and touch my forehead with his cool hand to gauge my temperature and his touch along with the faint smell of the perspiration-infused strap of his watch would be comforting. My dad had served as my uncle’s compounder for a period of six years in Bombay. He in fact holds a pharmacy license, and as a young boy, to me, he was as good as a doctor.
Nikhil can’t tell us how he feels and when he is sick, my wife envelopes him in hugs, holding him close, and talking gently to him. Nikhil is growing up and is taller than her and at normal times, he is like a goofy grown-up child but when he is sick, his vulnerability stands out as he clings to her and rests his head against her cheek or shoulder. He still can’t express pain. “Sad” is the closest he gets. It is relatively simpler to make the correlation between a tangible object and an icon on the iPad but harder for us to get Nikhil to make the correlation between the emotion or pain that he is experiencing and an icon on the iPad.
But Nikhil is known to surprise us. There was a time he told us he was frustrated. “Vomit” is not a word that we have used in front of him. My wife told me that he was gagging on his food and she mentioned that to me in our native tongue. Yet Nikhil was able to use the word “vomit” to convey that fact. Perhaps he had heard it used in school. It has been an interesting journey with his iPad so far. It is always useful to be able to tell your parents that you need to go to the mall or to Costco but the ability to tell your parents that you need the doctor is something of a miracle for us!