It was a Sunday evening and I had only an hour to go before my shift at the government-run district hospital ended. I was the medical officer on duty for the evening shift, and like most Sunday sessions, it had been hectic. Although we were supposed to handle only emergencies, people ended up coming in for things like bruises, mainly because most private doctors were shut. I had been on my feet for the last three hours, thanks to a bus accident involving a group of Sunday school kids returning from a picnic. Luckily, none of the injuries had been life-threatening. Two of the children had been admitted for observation, but the rest had been sent home after initial assessment and treatment.
I sensed the movement at the main door and stifled the groan that came to my lips. Not another case, I thought, grimacing. Glancing up, I saw that there was a young man standing there. He was beefy with wide shoulders that threatened to burst out from his t-shirt. He peered into the Casualty uncertainly, looking around until he saw me. I waved him in, and he turned to gesture to someone behind him. It was an elderly man, and he hobbled in, assisted by the first man. I could see some resemblance in the features and figured they were father and son.
The father lowered himself to the patient’s stool while the son cleared his throat. “I think his foot is infected or something.” He was standing, peering down at the affected limb as he spoke. “You’ll have to remove the bandage to see but from the smell…” I noted that the father’s name was Stanley and the son was Daryl, and after a brief history-taking, called a nurse to help Stanley onto the examination table.
“Check his temperature, Sister.” I instructed her, making notes on the case paper. “And attach a BP cuff.” I got out of my chair after pushing both feet into my slip-on footwear and went over to Stanley’s right side. The bandage was placed over his left foot, and it had been applied sloppily. But what caught my attention were the smell and the stain. The once white dressing had turned brownish. Using gloves, I cut away the dressing after soaking it with a diluted antiseptic solution.
The old man winced as I tugged at the final layers which had hardened, drenched with pus oozing from the wound. The son stepped back as the stench of rotting flesh assailed us all. I studied the big toe carefully, noting the discoloration and the swelling. Careful to show no reaction, I looked down at my patient. “How did this get so bad?”
Despite the pain he was obviously in, Stanley managed to look sheepish. “As Daryl mentioned, I got injured some days back. I cleaned the wound with iodine and put bandages every day. But when the pain got worse, I told Daryl we should see a doctor.”
“Are you diabetic?” I asked. He nodded. “On insulin or tablets?” He gave me the answer and I nodded, looking at the nurse. “We’ll need to get a Surgery reference on this. Please make the call. In the meantime, I’ll check his vitals.” I moved over to the desk to fill in the paperwork.
I saw the son quickly follow. He had a concerned look on his face. “Isn’t this a simple wound, doctor?”
Scribbling, I gave him a glance intended to reassure. “It could be worse than that. That’s why I want the duty Surgeon to have a look. He’ll have to take a call on whether or not your father needs to be admitted tonight for further treatment. At the very least, we’ll need to treat that wound with strong antibiotics and if his sugar is raised then that will need to be tackled for the wound to heal.” Looking at the patient, I noticed the old man was staring at us. “This didn’t happen overnight. Why didn’t you bring him earlier?”
The son almost looked away. “He did mention it- but it wasn’t so bad. I mean, it was just a slight wound. It was a nail or something. I don’t know how it got like – this.” He scratched his head, looking flustered. “I didn’t think it would be so serious, that you may want to admit him. I didn’t bring anything, no clothes, no food…” He let out breath heavily and shook his head. “Damn…”
Less than an hour later, Stanley was standing at the foot of the cot where his father was stretched out. He was wearing a faded green hospital outfit and his foot was freshly bandaged. Using his smart-phone, Daryl was making a list of items he would have to bring. “The ward Sister said they will be serving you meals here, so that’s one headache less…”
His father tried to look contrite. “I’m sorry, son. You’re taking so much trouble for me. I should have been more careful…”
Daryl put away his phone. “You should have thought of that before you stepped on that damn nail.” His curt tone silenced the old man as effectively as if he had delivered a slap to his cheek. “Now I have to go home and arrange for all these things, and then come back here again. As if I didn’t have enough to do already…” He made no effort to lower his voice. “And please don’t expect me to stay here with you the full night. It’s only a damn foot, after all. If you need anything, ring the bell for the nurses. That’s what they’re here for.”
Five more minutes, I thought, not daring to look at the doorway. If anyone walked through there in the next few minutes I would club him to death and hide the body in the nearest cupboard. And just then, as if Fate had been holding its breath and watching the minutes tick down, the door opened inwards, and one of the ward sisters marched in. She looked stricken. I instantly forgot my concerns, stiffening at the concern plastered all over her face. The news she brought was not good. The old man, Stanley, was missing.
“We’ve checked the whole ward, the toilets – even the female wards. He’s not there!” Her voice mirrored her worry. This was a serious matter. And this was an elderly man; if he had wandered out of the premises and out onto the roads. I shuddered at the thought.
Getting to my feet, I thought quickly. “Sister, he can’t have gone far: he can hardly walk. How long has he been gone?” She shrugged. “OK, we’ll have to search. Gather together the orderlies and attendants. I’ll need to inform the MS and keep him posted.” I was about to pick up the phone when it occurred to me: instead of searching the hospital, first check with the gate personnel. Stanley could not have walked through the gate at this late hour without escaping their notice. An elderly patient with a large foot bandage unescorted would surely have caught their attention.
There was no phone linking the Casualty to the sentry post so I would have to hoof it. I dashed through the corridors and towards the main gates. The hospital premises were largely empty, and there was nobody to stare at me, a doctor rushing through the corridors as if being chased by a wasp.
Out in the open I noticed instantly how warm the air was. Seated indoors, under a fan, personal comfort had not been an issue. Undoing my shirt button, I suddenly noticed movement from the corner of my eye.
Stanley was sitting on one of the stone benches inside the hospital grounds. As I approached, I noticed that he was staring out at the main gates where a few people were standing. My first instinct was to shout at him for causing such chaos in the ward. But then, looking at my watch, I saw that there was still minutes left; I was also aware of an overwhelming sense of relief, that I had found the patient so easily, and that he seemed okay. It could have been much worse, he realised. I cleared his throat. “You’re not supposed to be here. You had a lot of people worried.”
The old man turned to look at me. “Is my son one of them?” he asked, and I saw that there were tears on the patient’s cheeks. “I’m 78 years old, Doctor.” He looked back at the people at the gates. “Maybe I’ve lived for too long.”
I was struck speechless.
“I’ve become a burden to my son. Now that I have outlived my usefulness, all I am is extra weight. He has no use for me, no time for me, sometimes not even words for me. It is as if, to Daryl, I have simply ceased to exist. If I had any other children, if I had the money or the means, I would have made his life easier, taken away his troubles, by moving out of his house and removing myself from his world.
“I realised, that in my advancing age, increasingly redundant, it would be my son who would have to put up with me, shoulder my responsibilities. And so I strived to make myself as small as possible. I was careful to not get in his way, or to become a source of annoyance or objections or irritation. But I didn’t realise that the problem was simply because I existed. By being alive, I am an extra mouth to feed, an extra body to clothe, an extra soul to shelter. And, in return, I give nothing.” A shudder ran through his frame. “But what could I do?
“All I want is a little love. For my son to give me some attention, to discuss his problems with me, to ask for my advice, to spend some time with me, to be a son to his father. Is that too much to ask? I didn’t think so: and so I cut my leg, and didn’t take my medication. I thought he would see what was happening and come to help me out, to find out what was wrong. I told him, but for him, it was ‘just a cut’ and ‘you know where the medicine cabinet is’. I tried taking my tablets but it had got too bad. So he brought me here. And when the other doctor said he might have to operate, I looked at my son’s face for a trace of the concern that I prayed would be there. But it wasn’t: just anger and frustration.” He turned to face me then “It’s funny really: I would have happily given up my foot if it meant us becoming close. Really, it would have been such a small price to pay…”
I sat in my car for many moments, wondering why I was doing this, wondering why I was parked outside the residence of a person who I had met just once and would probably never see again once the father was discharged. I had found the address of the son easily enough from the hospital records. It wasn’t very far away, and it wasn’t a major diversion from my own homeward journey.
I had no way of knowing how he would respond to me and to what I had come to say. It would be safer to keep a distance while I said my piece, I thought. Perhaps I would be lucky and he would not be at home. Maybe he had already left to go back to the hospital with the stuff for his father.
I steeled myself and got out of the car. The flat was the right-side one, on the ground floor. I read the name-plate and rang the bell and stood back.
The door opened within moments and when Daryl saw me standing, he was so taken aback he didn’t know what to say.
I managed a smile. “I was on my way home and- I…” My voice trailed away. “Perhaps I am exceeding my authority as your father’s primary doctor by coming here, to your home, sir – but that’s a chance I am willing to take. It’s about your father…” I saw his mouth open to ask something but didn’t give him the chance, knowing I would lose the courage to do what I had come to if he spoke.
“My own father expired four years back.” My eyes flitted past him to a point on the door frame. It was just easier not to focus on this big guy if I had to get the words out. “I lost him because of a heart attack. Like most attacks, it was very sudden. One day he was there, just like he had been for years, the next he was gone, forever. The whole of the funeral service, I just stared at my father in the casket, and all I could think was: this is the man who made me everything that I am. This is the man who would and who has done, so many countless times, everything in his power to ensure a better future for me. The man who has brought me up, kept me safe, looked after me in sickness, slaved to give me the best of all that I had. How did I come to deserve such a father? And how did I ever show him that I was grateful, truly and eternally, beyond words or actions, for all he had ever done for me? I don’t think I ever did. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I was always putting it off. He’ll be around tomorrow, I used to tell myself, there’s plenty of time left. But then, suddenly, he wasn’t there anymore, and all I could feel was regret, pure and deep regret. I still feel that regret at times, even today, four years down the road. If only I had had the chance to show him how much I appreciated what he had spent his whole life doing for me, that I cared for him, that I could never forsake him. It would have meant a lot if I had gotten the chance. To both of us…” My gaze suddenly swept back to Daryl and I saw that he was looking at me very carefully. “Life’s strange that way: some of us would give anything to get a second chance, and some of us have the opportunity, but don’t realise it…”
The old man didn’t see his son until he had laid a hand gently on his arm and said, “Hey, Dad – how are you doing?” and even then he couldn’t see him clearly, because of the sudden tears that came to his eyes.