Systemic Silence

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A doctor checking a pellet victim at SMHS. Pic: Bilal Bahadur

Five months after the first pellet victim walked into SMHS hospital amid sloganeering and charged up tempers,   Tabish Rafiq Mir visits the hospital only to find probing eyes and sealed lips

In July, 2016, wards 7 and 8 of SHMS hospital were once filled to the brim with pellet victims. Every man, woman, and child that was brought in through the open doors was painted with blood, and more times than most, the blood was their own.

Beds which were designed to carry one man had been pushed to adjust three. There were young bleeding faces everywhere: in the corridors, against the walls, on the beds, and under them too.

The hospital was understaffed for a casualty of this degree, which pushed the staff to work to their maximum possible capacity. Doctors had been providing first-aid without taking a rest, some for seventy hours at a stretch. There was havoc everywhere.

Even today, when one enters the SMHS, floating past the heavy green drapes, one can smell residual blood in them.

I walked into the ward seven to interview some of the pellet victims who had been admitted for surgery on the arrival of Dr S Natarajan.

“I have been told not to talk” is the most you get when you try to talk to the pellet victims.

“Can you tell us why you cannot talk?”

“I have been told not to talk. Please leave me alone”

“Who warned you?”

Silence.

“Was it the administration?”

Silence.

Earlier, I had asked the doctor on duty to help me identify the patients who have irreparable retinal damage. She started walking quite faster than she was earlier, and said something vague which sounded a lot like “HOD”, and “permissions”.

Dr Tariq Qureishi is the HOD Ophthalmology at SMHS, Karan Nagar. He was in surgery, along with Dr Natarajan. I waited outside in the corridor for him for about two hours, hoping to find some patients walking by, as well.

With some luck, a young boy with a limp, a pair of dark goggles, and an attendant, agreed to talk to me. That is how one identifies a pellet victim.

His name was Naveed Ibrahim, and he was from Nowgam. He is/was a first year engineering student. He had been sprayed with pellets in both of his eyes. The damage in his left eye, though, was extensive and irreparable. This visit to the hospital was for his fourth surgery, to remove the silicon wire from the eye. “After Asar Namaz at a local mosque, I was walking home. There was a procession in the way and out of nowhere, the CRPF started firing pellets. My left eye was filled with lead and blood and I couldn’t see anything,” he said.

He removed his goggles and showed me his left eye, which had not too long ago, been functional. “Last week I was walking on the street, and a bus hit me on the left shoulder. I never saw it coming. I am yet to get used to having only one functioning eye,” he said while adjusting his goggles.

While I was talking to Naveed, his attendant came up to us running and stood in front of me. “Why are you asking all these questions, and why are you writing it down? Show me some identification” he was angry, and defensive. More people started surrounding me. I frisked my pockets and found my ID and showed it to them. On seeing the proof, the entire crowd relaxed.

None of them agreed to step outside the ward for the interview, and tensed up again when I asked them to.

“I am sorry about this, but you never know who is keeping a record of the pellet victims here. We have to be very careful,” said his attendant.

My attention was deviated towards the sudden commotion in the hall. I stepped out and saw Dr Tariq (the HOD) there. I rushed up to him and asked for the permission to interview the pellet victims. He said that he did not have the authority to allow me to do the same and that I should talk to the CMO, since the Medical Superintendent was not present on Sundays.

I rushed to the CMO’s office as time was already against me. The CMO asked me to talk to the Medial Superintendent the next day as he claimed that he himself did not have the authority to give me the permission.

I rushed back to Dr Tariq, hoping to convince him. “See, I don’t have the authority to allow you. You can talk to the Medical Superintendent tomorrow,” he told me.

The problem was that the pellet victims were being discharged early morning, the very next day. I conveyed this concern to him, to which he said “Don’t worry. We will discharge them a little later in the afternoon”.

The next person out of the operation theatre was Dr Natarajan. He was more than happy to answer a few questions I had for him.

“When I reached Kashmir for the first time this year, I was very disheartened. It was a war-like situation. I have worked with the IPKF, and the Blue Star operation in the past. The number of pellet victims here are mind-boggling,” he stated.

“The peculiarity of the injuries is that the pellet, which is perhaps made of lead, has gone through and through. With that force, it tears the front, the centre and the back of the eye, all the way to the retina,” he added.

Till date, Dr Natarajan has performed 185 surgeries in Kashmir. The team as a whole has performed 500 surgeries. “Around 900 victims had primary surgery, which involves suturing,” he said.

I asked him if anyone regained his vision completely. He answered “That’s the thing. Everybody lost vision in the damaged eye. A few of them can see light. Once the retina is damaged, it cannot work again. The surgeries restore the peripheral vision in some people, but the central vision is lost forever. For retinal surgeries, there is anatomical success and then there is visual success. The surgical procedures ensure that the crumpled retina, after scarring, is flattened out.”

“Insha Malik, 14, was a personal success to me. She was in coma for many days due to meningitis and brain injuries, and we couldn’t perform retinal surgery on her” he said.

The next day, I reached SMHS around 10 am. The first thing I did was rush to the wards seven and eight. Contrary to what Dr Tariq had promised me, all the pellet victims had already been discharged. There was no way I could interview any of them now, unless the hospital staff allowed me to take a look at the records. This, again, was not entertained.

Not knowing exactly what I was looking for anymore, I went to the Medical Superintendent’s office. The HOD, the CMO, and the doctors on duty had told me that Nazir H Chowdhary (the MS) was authorised to give permission.

The Medical Superintendent, however, told me that he was not authorised to give permission to anyone to interview the patients. He asked me to talk to the Principal, who, he claimed had the authority. I could see where this was going.

Before going to the Principal, whose office was in the college campus, I decided to try my luck at the operation theatre again. The moment I reached the room, a young boy with goggles, and a red jacket, was leaving the room after consulting the doctor. I caught up to him, and told him that I had some questions.

“Can you please leave me alone? I don’t want to get into this,” he shouted, and walked away fast.

I had been tacitly denied the opportunity to talk to any of the patients. I was one step away from complete disappointment.  At the medical campus, I went to the principal’s PA. He told me that the principal was in Jammu.

“When will he be back?” I asked.

“Tomorrow, for sure,” I was told.

As I walked away and into the hall, he leaned in to another person and said “He will be back tomorrow, right?”

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