I was somewhat flummoxed about what to do next. I had just concluded visiting one of my patients in the hospice. I had gone to see a new patient that I had been just assigned but he was deep in slumber. At that hospice, those were the only two patients I had. I was wavering between whether to go back home or visit another hospice center half an hour away when I noticed a blind person shuffling along with his walking stick in the corridor. Two things stood out. First, he was reasonably well dressed – and when I say well dressed in a hospice, I mean his shirt was tucked in and his hair was combed. However, he also did not seem to know where he was going.
I stepped up, cleared my throat and asked – “Are you trying to go somewhere, Sir?”
“Yes, I am trying to get to my room”, he replied.
“You live here?” I will admit, I did not think of him as a patient.
“Yes. But they have changed my room. And I am all confused now”.
“Okay. Maybe I can be helpful. What is your room number?”
“I think it is 5…7… something”.
I knew that the hospice had no such room number. The highest was 540. So, tactfully, I asked “By the way, my name is Raj. What is your name?”
“Louis Armstrong” (name changed to maintain privacy).
“Hang on here”.
Then I walked up and down a couple of corridors and found his name tag outside room 531.
“Okay. Your room number is 531. I can help you get there”.
“Thank you. Who are you?”
“Oh! I am just a volunteer. I spend time with patients”.
“So you are a doctor or a nurse?”
“No. I just spend time with patients”
“Mostly talking to them. Listening to them. Giving them company. Taking them for a walk. You know all that stuff I am allowed to do without a medical degree”.
By now, we had entered his room, All this time he used his walking stick to feel his way thru and I would just tell him which way to turn.
“So, you just talk to people?”. HE seemed almost incredulous.
“Yeah! Something like that”
“So, you will talk to me?”
Well, that presented an interesting conundrum. He is not a patient of mine. In fact, he is not even a patient of the company I volunteer for. But what the heck? I did not have anything better to do.
“Sure. Tell me your story. Who are you? Why are you?”
And the afternoon started rolling from there….
Louis was a NASA engineer. He worked on the first stage of the rocket that eventually put the first man on the moon. He also worked on the first stage of the rocket that put the shuttle into space.
And he was a World War II veteran. Who served in Burma where he was shot down from the sky.
Suddenly, he asked “Where are you from?”
“Which part of India”
“I have been to Calcutta”
“Yes. Do you know what is a third class compartment?”
(I had a vague memory that trains in India had three classes of compartments when I was growing up – usually it is only two now)
“I can’t remember”
“Well, there is no glass in the windows for the third class”
Laughing, I asked “How do you know?”
“Well, we were sent from Bombay to Calcutta by third class compartment in a train to proceed to Burma”
Louis has gone blind slowly over the last thirty years.
“Glaucoma?”, I asked
“Exactly. Are you sure you are not a doctor”
“Trust me. I am very sure. Tell me how was the transition. Are you used to it now?”
“Raj, unless you are born blind, you never get used to getting blind. You really do not know how much you give up till your eyesight is actually taken away from you. I know it is fall season now. I know how the trees and leaves used to look like but I cannot see it now.”
“Do you think it is more difficult to be born blind or go blind”?
After a few seconds of thought, he said “I do not think I can compare. I do not know what being born blind is like. But I also think it is much harder if you are given something and then it is taken away from you than never been given at all. You do not know any different when you never had it to begin with”.
Believe it or not, by then, it was almost an hour and a half that we had been talking. And when I say, talking – I mean he did all the talking. I was mostly listening.
Finally, I let him know that I needed to go.
“Raj – you said Raj is your name right….?”
“It is Rajib. But I go often by Raj”
“Right Raj. I know you do not do this for a living. So you may not come back. And even if you did and went past me, I won’t realize it. But if you find time, I would like to spend more time with you.”
“Sure thing. I have so much more to know about the rest of the life”
“No. Next time, I want to hear about who you are”
Well then, I have to come back, don’t I?
Post Script: Two days later, I went back to the same hospice. After finishing with my own patients, I went looking for him. He was not in his room. I went around all the corridors and finally found him in the common area totally immersed listening to the piano being played by a gentleman who was doing a rather good job at it, I thought. Another volunteer, like me, no doubt.
I thought a lot and decided not to bother him. Felt guilty that I did not let him know that I was around. But did not want to distract him from something he was obviously enjoying either. Will go see him tomorrow.