Scent of a hospital: a medical student’s perspective in a developing country


A little background before I set off:  I study in a medical school in India whose attached public hospital is as busy as it can get. It serves its people absolutely free of cost and is often a refuge for the poor of the society. We often run out of resources, and patients outnumbering the beds is a common sight. And yet, like everything else, life and medicine must go on.

The first time I felt like a doctor was when I returned home after a taxing exam on a Sunday. My grandmother had just returned home too, from a surgery that perhaps was more taxing than anything I’ve ever experienced. I smelled the chlorhexidine and spirit that traditionally defines hospital air. A few years ago, this was my favorite smell on my mother. To my growing mind, it defined what she did. I faintly remember wondering how much time in a hospital one would have to spend to smell like your surroundings after leaving them for the day. I loved the idea, and those were the beginning of a couple of wishful years of thinking, “Maybe I will get there someday.”

The “someday” is here, but for the most part, it feels very different from what I thought it would be. For only half a day of work for a student, the hospital is pretty emotionally investing. The poverty is so concentrated. You can no longer ignore it. Their helplessness stabs you from every corner of a shape you cannot escape. The staff is inundated with a helplessness of a different kind – exhausted and out of resources. Our witless eyes let all this sink in, but unfortunately, in this school of medicine, our most powerful skill is geography alone. Every corridor pointed with a finger soaks some apprehension, just not enough. There is no place to rest but the thieves of sleep steal some anyway. There was hardly anyone who was not sick. The attendants were simply less sick, even if often more wearied.

The simplicity of ill-health is not its uniformity in affection, but its variability in inducing endurance. When you see people fighting it with all they have right next to the people who succumb to unspeakable fate, you know there are many things about medicine even doctors can’t help. The withering is regular, and you hate the idea that you’re getting used to it, but you are. The people getting better and the ones dying – they’re all there. Somehow, the ones you have no idea about weigh the most on your fragile knowledge.

The illiteracy and poverty here walk hand in hand. You can’t choose which to feel worse about. Most patients would happily walk in fire barefoot if you told them that’s the cure. Or that it would reduce expenditure. It’s painful to see them surrender themselves to a dozen percussing fingers and tens of stethoscopes, hoping at least one of those will turn out to be the reparation. All this while lying in a bed, if lucky, architecturally isolated from means of ventilation and aeration, made to accommodate a population that lived a hundred years ago. The sweat adds to the concoction of odors. It often makes me wonder how easily they adapt to the trash of human and hospital, alike. Are the feline families hollowing nearby an annoyance, or have they become a comfortable source of distraction, more of a relief than a plight?

You slowly understand the dynamics. None of blood and sweat, trash and vomit, ignorance and poverty matter as long as there’s hope to look out for. Faith beats them all in an open battle. You scan around for the faith only to find it everywhere. Their faith is in you. Their scent of the hospital is not what you see, but what they feel. It is their scent of belief in reversible damages.

The scent penetrates you so deeply that you can no longer tell if it’s you or the environment. You become a part of the process of healing. That Sunday, when my sister told me I smelled of a hospital, and she loved it, it was still my favorite smell – only now for different reasons.

Ifrah Fatima is a medical student in India.

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