In the several reports of Aruna’s death which flooded the newspapers in Mumbai on 19 May one dimension was glaringly absent.
In a bid to milk the death the previous day to its fullest, print media sought to sensationalize the event. The Times of India went to town with coverage from banner headlines up to even page 7. The Hindustan Times came out with an additional quarter page cover with ‘R.I.P. ARUNA’ supported by a black and white sketch of her done by Siddhant Jumbde. Dna front-paged a teary scene at the crematorium. Mint stayed with a staid obituary on the bottom of the front page which continued not on the inner pages but on page 32 --the last page. The Economic Times sought to tuck away a ‘By Invitation’ 4 column article by Pinky Virani who petitioned the Supreme Court for Aruna’s death by euthanasia in 2009.
Aruna lingered for 42 years in coma after being assaulted as a nurse by a ward boy while on duty at the Bombay Municipal Corporation’s King Edward Memorial (KEM) hospital in Mumbai on the night of 27 November 1973. She was 25. All these years she was cared for by the nurses at KEM while she was allegedly disowned by her own family.
However in the media blitz following her death due to cardiac arrest, no newspaper reflected on improving the working conditions of nurses. This should have been the logical fallout of such a heinous act, but the media chose to ignore it completely. As Sandhya Nerurkar, retired nurse at the BMC’s Sion hospital, and who was in service at the time of the incident says, ‘Ye sab tamasha heh. Uske baad nurses ke liye kya kiya heh? Har patient ka hath pakadna hota heh, pulse lene heh, temperature lena heh. General ward mein jahan 50 male patients hota heh waha khali ek trained nurse aur ek student nurse rehte hain.’*
The grim fact is that nurses today continue to live in fear for their lives while discharging health care at grave personal risk. The way the nurses of KEM chose to care for the comatose Aruna for 42 years needs to be seen as a silent protest against a system that has failed them.
Recently we celebrated Nurses Day. The nurses of a prominent hospital in Goa put up a programme on the occasion. When the head nurse at the ICU unit was asked if she was coming to witness the drama that was being staged, she icily replied that that there was enough drama in the ICU. Sure enough 2 patients in coma passed away during the night.
Health care is a major issue. We owe it to those trained in the profession to discharge their duties without fear or favour.
Published in Gomantak Times Weekender, St. Inez, Goa on Sunday, 14 June 2015. Pix of Aruna Shanbaug's ward a day after her death by Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint.