The word ‘Tuberculosis’ brings old memories. Not very pleasant. That’s an understatement. Painful they are.
The event which brought those memories was the health check-up camp organised by Rotary Club of Thane Metro. I joined them in the camp today. We awaited people to come in for registration and then check-up. I was helping registration.
A lady came and asked, in Marathi, ‘What is this camp for?’ ‘Health check-up’ I mentioned and continued, “It is primarily aimed at helping people who may have TB infection.” She gestured to indicate that ‘the camp is of no use to me.’ I told her, “Please do the check-up. It does not cost you any money, it is free check-up. How will you know that you are okay without undergoing any test?”
“Oh, I am so overweight, I am ok, no TB.” She replied and went away.
It is monsoon of 1972. That’s my first visit to Dr JC Kothari’s consulting room at Charni Road in Mumbai. My father and I have travelled from Kalyan to meet him. Dr Kothari is the Medical Director of Hindustan Petroleum, and a friend of my father. My father is also a doctor. I wait in the reception area while my father goes to meet Dr Kothari. There are a few middle aged ladies waiting in reception area. All those ladies are obese. They can’t be TB patients I think. ‘TB patients lose their weight and ultimately look like a skeleton with some skin on it.’ My father later tells me that many overweight people can contract tuberculosis infection. Obviously some of those ladies were affected by tuberculosis! I never knew that!
The camp was held in a slum area. Dirty water was flowing everywhere on the street. Ladies were washing clothes just outside their entrance door. Polythene bags and other garbage was strewn on the road. Children were playing in the dirty area. Many of them did not wear clean clothes. Some would not have had a bath too. [Sunday! I thought]. Children moved closer to my table. Some asked their names to be registered. “I will first register your name, then this uncle [I pointed out Kantibhai, a fellow Rotarian] will fill up a form for check-up. Please then go there to check your weight.”
Another girl showed up for registration. I filled up her form. “Age?” I asked. “Twelve” is the reply. I am surprised. “Twelve?” I repeated the question. “Yes, twelve” she said confidently. She took the form and moved to check her weight. She was obviously very underweight. “Does she look twelve?” I asked Yogita, my fellow Rotarian who was sitting next to me. “No, she does not look twelve. But she appears very mature girl” suggesting tacitly that the girl may have stated her age correctly.
“Good! No loss of weight. I am happy. You are responding to treatment.” Dr Kothari says. I heave a sigh of relief. Dr Kothari has just finished scanning. I eat two Bananas every day to make sure there is no loss of weight. Ripe bananas help you increase weight, I think. At home the breakfast is always very heavy. Two eggs, a banana, a toast and a glass of milk. Some coffee added to make sure that I do not complain about milk.
I am asked to remove all metal objects from my shirt before scanning. “I dust my body with a lot of talcum powder, it contains some chemicals and metal compounds. Will it not show up in scanning? Isn’t that the reason why you see a small patch in the X-Ray?” I ask Dr Kothari. That’s my attempt to prove to the world that I haven’t contracted tuberculosis, it has to be a technical error. Metal salts in the talcum powder must have shown in the X-Rays, and vitiated the judgement of Doctors. ‘Denial!’ My father and Dr Kothari ignore me and continue their discussion about the treatment.
“Thirty injections are given so far. You have to take seventy more!” They tell me. Seventy! Every day one injection. I refuse to take on the thighs. So seventy more on my arms. Two spots on my arms become very thick and sensitive due to repeated injections. My father would avoid those spots while giving injections, but sometimes he would miss. Oh, excruciating pain!
I saw the children playing. Some of them surely would have contracted tuberculosis I thought. The area was so filthy, it was so easy to catch infections. They were unaware. They are underprivileged. My father was a doctor. Our family stayed in the housing colony of a Tata company, in a bungalow, with all amenities. A superb club house. I played tennis, badminton, table tennis for a few hours every day. Why did I contract tuberculosis?
“No tennis. No table tennis. No badminton. I do not want you to exert anymore. Get well first and then resume all these activities. Take your medicines regularly.” My dad tells me sternly. So I sit by the side-lines while my friends play. “Oh come on, join us, just one game with us” they plead. I am too scared to join them – I don’t know who I fear more – my father or the death.
“Why did I contract tuberculosis?” I asked him. “Difficult to say. Probably you caught the infection because you stayed for a year in hostel of your institute at Parel. That’s near KEM Hospital. A lot of textile workers there, many are patients of tuberculosis.”
Then comes the bombshell! My mother interjects, “You had caught this infection as a baby. You were given thirty injections then.” I am shocked. It means this is the second time I have contracted tuberculosis! My father comforts me “Old story. Don’t worry, TB is curable, it is no longer the dreaded disease it was.”
A lady walks in to register for check-up. She has a child in arms. My eyes are full of tears.
PS: After the treatment X-Ray photo showed no patch in the lungs. My father was happy to see those photos. But for this story no doctor would ever know that I had contracted tuberculosis.