When Aruna Shanbaug’s body was laid on a wooden platform adorned with rose petals in KEM Hospital’s central hall, it was the hospital’s nurses who shielded her from advancing cameras. This team, and their predecessors earlier, had shielded Aruna for over four decades in the side room of Ward No 4 on KEM’s ground floor, and Monday was the last time they would throw their collective protection around her.
At the forefront was Anuradha Padhare, current nurse in-charge. “We are her guardians,” she said, adding she is happy Shanbaug died a natural death. About the euthanasia plea rejected in 2011, Padhare repeated the Supreme Court’s observation that only KEM Hospital, Aruna’s sole family, could take that call. “If you fed her non-vegetarian food, she would bite your finger greedily. If this is not being alive, what is?”
Nurse Samita Naik, who changed her diapers three times a day and took care she did not smell or look unclean, said Aruna liked devotional music and responded to the Gayatri Mantra. “She also liked mangoes and fish and we frequently got that cooked.”
Shobha D’Silva, who retired in 2013, said she had joined in 1974, a few months after the assault on Aruna. “In the 1980s, the first thing to do every morning was her sponging. Then we would feed her breakfast.”
The Supreme Court had commended KEM’s nursing staff, even naming a retired nurse who had offered to continue tending to the patient with neither a salary nor a conveyance allowance. What the nurses did was “marvellous”, the judges noted. They’d washed her, bathed her, cut her nails, year after year. “The whole country must learn the meaning of dedication and sacrifice from the KEM Hospital staff… in a sense they are her real family today,” the judgment said.
KEM Hospital is one of Mumbai’s busiest, treating over 18,00,000 out-patients and nearly 1 lakh in-patients annually, and the nerve centre of medical care during annual seasonal outbreaks and in times of disaster. The 980 nurses have 1,800 beds to tend to but looking after Aruna, many say, was never considered a chore.
Aruna’s health deteriorated in the last few years with the staff using a Ryle’s tube to feed her since 2010, after a bout of malaria. Her teeth were all extracted some years ago for fear she could ingest a loose tooth. Even after 2010, a smearing of mashed bananas and sugar would yield an involuntary lick, something a court-appointed team of doctors in 2011 would make note of.
Dr Pradnya Pai, who retired as the hospital’s dean in 1999, said Aruna’s behaviour was like a child of nine months. “She used to laugh loudly and get angry too. I used to visit her daily and tell her stories in Konkani. I still remember she used to scream when we cut her nails.” Pai said that several attempts had been made at physiotherapy sessions to improve Aruna’s movements. “She’d scream in fear when we wheeled her out of the room,” she said. Later, these sessions stopped.
Sejal Naik, who was a nursing student in 1973, said she’d been asked to look after Aruna in the early years when she’d been declared as being in a permanent vegetative state. “She was so beautiful. We all used to argue about who will take turns to look after her,” Naik said. Naik remembered Aruna as quite expressive, shutting her mouth tight if she didn’t like the food.
Kalpana Gujula, now a nursing tutor who has been with KEM for 32 years, said there every nurse has an attachment with Aruna, “probably because she was a nurse too”.
Over the last decade at least, the only people who saw Aruna regularly were the nurses and the ayahs, with the unit doctor and the dean the only males allowed to visit. Her wrists and knees had bent awkwardly with contractures over the past few years, Aruna lying mostly in the foetal position with railings on either side of her bed to prevent a fall.
The music system in her room remains, with cassettes with old Hindi songs but mostly devotional songs by Wamanrao Pai.
For many years now, KEM had a special indenture list for Aruna — talcum powder, diapers, Protinex or Kabipro powder, soup sachets, sometimes eau-de-cologne. The nurses won’t fill that indenture out any more, as a 42-year vigil ends.