Almost 42 years after she was sexually assaulted and choked by a ward boy — an attack that left her in a vegetative state, making her the face of the euthanasia debate in India — former KEM junior nurse Aruna Shanbaug, 66, died in Mumbai on Monday morning.
Shanbaug was put on ventilator support at the KEM Hospital on May 11, her home for the last four decades, after she contracted pneumonia five days ago. Her condition improved on Sunday, but on Monday she suffered a cardiac arrest at 8.30 am. A resident doctor present in the medical intensive care unit (MICU) found a flatline on the electrocardiogram monitor and alerted seniors.
“She was recovering and all her other medical parameters were fine. Today, she suffered a sudden attack and could not be saved,” said Dr Ahmad Pazare, head of KEM Hospital’s medicine department and in-charge of Shanbaug’s treatment.
“We are happy she died a natural death. Mercy killing was not right for her, she was as alive as anyone else and used to respond to us,” said Anuradha Padhare, one of the many nurses who looked after Shanbaug. “We were her guardians as her family refused to take her home. We were her only family,” said Padhare.
Shanbaug was confined to a bed in a special room allotted to her inside Ward No 4 on the hospital’s ground floor ever since she was attacked by ward boy Sohanlal Walmiki on November 27, 1973. She suffered serious injuries to her spine, while the strangulation with a dog chain cut off oxygen supply to her brain, rendering her to a vegetative state for life.
Walmiki was convicted and served two concurrent seven-year sentences for assault and robbery, but not for sexual assault. For the last four decades, the nurses at KEM Hospital looked after Shanbaug. A nurse who took care of her over the last seven days said her condition had become extremely serious after which she was shifted the MICU’s Ward 22. “She could only move her eyeball. No relative visited her in her final days,” she said.
According to doctors, Shanbaug loved eating fish but could not be fed non-vegetarian food in her final days as a chart prepared by a dietician was being followed. She was being administered food through a Ryle’s tube since 2010.
“She did not look weak or reserved and was her usual self despite the pneumonia infection,” a doctor said.
The last rites were jointly conducted by her family and hospital staff. Hospital dean Dr Avinash Supe, the nursing staff and Shanbaug’s brother Vaikuntha Vasudev Naik together lit the funeral pyre at the Bhoiwada crematorium on Monday evening.
Shanbaug had nine siblings; only one of them is alive now. “We were ready to take care of her if we were provided financial assistance. But we were never given help,” said her niece Mangala Naik.
On March 7, 2011, the Supreme Court had turned down a plea filed by journalist Pinki Virani on euthanasia for Shanbaug. While the court allowed “passive euthanasia” or withdrawing life support to patients in a permanently vegetative state, it laid down tough guidelines under which passive euthanasia could be legalised through a high court-monitored mechanism.
The KEM Hospital nursing staff had opposed the euthanasia plea. “The Supreme Court stated that the hospital is her guardian had even appreciated our work for Aruna. We had a right to decide whether her life should be ended in such a way. She deserved to live and we were all against the mercy killing plea,” recalled Kalapana Gujula, nursing tutor at KEM.
On Monday, Virani told The Indian Express, “Aruna was the reason passive euthanasia was legalised but she never got the benefit of it. In her death, she brought in a landmark judgment.”
— With inputs from Salman Hashmi