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Getting Stitches In Kerala

Getting Stitches In Kerala

December 01, 2011

Doctor was kind enough to interrupt his morning newspaper for a few minutes to fix my chin.

It took a year and a half for me to make my first hospital visit in India, but it was worth the wait. I was leaving for work one morning – rushing to catch my bus to the railway station – when I slipped on mossy, monsoon-battered tiles in front of the house and bashed my chin on the concrete. My neighbour's young son heard the sound and sprinted over, finding me a bloodied, frustrated mess.

He took my hand firmly and started jumping.

“You also jump,” he instructed.

At first I thought he was trying to distract me from my rage by giving the strangest instruction he could think of. I looked into his eyes for a moment and searched for understanding, my arm buffeting up and down in his grip. Then, as the blood dripped from my beard, I stopped thinking and started jumping with him.

He actually did it to shake the shock out of my system – and it worked well. So well, in fact, that I was able to call in sick to work even before I cleaned myself up. I then showered, shaved, taped a wad of toilet paper over the gash in my chin and sought passage to the nearest physician.

My venerable neighbour Venugopal went with me by rickshaw to Mangala Hospital in Punnamoodu: a two-storey edifice so drab, not even its coat of bright pink paint could enliven it. We were met at reception where, after the office ladies recovered from their requisite saip shock, I filled in an identity card and had a personal file made up. Onwards we went through a series of grey, interconnected, entirely uninspiring rooms, until we came to the attending doctor's office.

A white-coated man in his 60s sat behind a desk reading Malayala Manorama. His thick glasses were a testament to a lifetime of good reading, and his belly a testament to a lifetime of good eating. A nurse gestured for me to sit in a chair at the end of the desk, while Venugopal was ushered to a seat opposite the doctor.

For a few moments, there was silence.

Doctor eventually looked up from his newspaper – but at Venugopal, not me. They began a conversation in Malayalam, and I could tell from Venugopal's gesturing that he was describing what had happened to me. When he pushed his hand up to a height and thrust it downwards, fast, accompanied by a stream of descriptive Malayalam, Doctor gave a short snigger. When Venugopal then pointed to his chin, Doctor roared with laughter and turned to me, butting in with another torrent of Malayalam. It was harsher, though, delivered with a furrowed brow and an open palm extended towards me. I recoiled and looked to Venugopal for help.

“He says better you not hurry,” said Venugopal.

I turned back to Doctor and nodded.

He hollered something to the same nurse who had ushered us in. Suddenly, the room was a flurry of activity. The nurse went to a cabinet to retrieve disinfectant, needle and thread. The doctor stood and re-tied his mundu. Venugopal stood and went to the door. I sat, bewildered. A second nurse came and took my hand, leading me to a hard bed at the side of the room. She helped me up and had me lie down on my back.

The first nurse laid out the implements on a separate table as Doctor began walking over to me. More nurses appeared in my peripheral vision, chattering away and responding to the doctor's commands. One placed her hand reassuringly across my now slightly sweaty forehead. Another removed the wadded toilet paper from my wound. The second, who had helped me onto the bed, continued to clasp my hand and look down at me, smiling. I felt like I was about to be lobotomised.

Suddenly, Doctor attacked my chin with iodine-soaked cotton wool. I gasped, and the hand across my head tightened. He scraped and grated the exposed flesh to ensure no speck of dirt was left behind. The pain was like fire. I gritted my teeth, wishing I had a large stick to bite down on.

The room was now in a state of pin-drop silence. Next, an enormous needle appeared at the bottom of my vision. He pushed it through my skin and across the wound, one two three four times, thread trailing behind. The nurses retained their calming hold on my head and hand – and calming they were, given that what felt like a knitting needle was laying waste to my now grotesque, disfigured chin.

To finish, Doctor took a tube of iodine ointment and daubed it messily about the closed wound. He then went back to his newspaper. The nurses released me and placed a gauze bandage over the stitches. Then, they had me stand up and leave the room. Venugopal shuffled out behind me.

Behind a curtain in another, even-plainer room, four young, male orderlies with broad smiles entered with a syringe and a small vial of liquid: a tetanus shot. They had me drop my pants and gave me the shot into my backside, all the while asking 'good name' 'which country' 'married' and 'how many days staying'. I went back to reception and paid a bill of Rs 870 (about US$20 at the time). And then Venugopal and I took another bumpy rickshaw ride home.

I returned a few days later to have the stitches out. The wound had healed without infection, though my chin remains stamped with a relatively prominent scar.

Like many things in Kerala, the medical system at Mangala Hospital, while inelegant, proved effective.

Photo credit
: Lance Nishihira 


  • Kirklops
    22.12.11 04:10 PM
    Welcome to the club. A scar on the chin, I sport that proudly :)
  • Nishita
    05.12.11 03:38 PM
    Oh, I am so squeamish. Felt like fainting just seeing the pic you posted, felt even more sick after the entire post :D
  • Mathew Mathew
    Mathew Mathew
    04.12.11 08:38 PM
    Your story reminds me of how dogs and pigs were neutered in the villages of Kerala by practically anyone who had a sharp knife and steady hands. A little bit of ash and sometimes a dab of Amrutanjan (pain balm) was applied to the stitch/cut and the animal recovered without any infection!
  • Rakhee Ghelani
    Rakhee Ghelani
    01.12.11 09:09 PM
    Great story. Whilst it left a scar, it sounds like it also left behind some great memories of India.
    01.12.11 08:11 PM
    The pain is bitch isn't it. I bet you still remember it like it was yesterday.
  • Shreya
    01.12.11 06:31 PM
    Ouch!!! Well, at least u jumped :P
  • Bronwyn
    01.12.11 05:14 PM
    "You also jump," how clever! I'm glad your issue got 'sorted' and they were able to fix your chin. I think you said it all in the last line: "the medical system, while inelegant, proved effective."

    I have thankfully never visited an Indian hospital in an emergency (knock on wood) but did spend three days in a Varanasi government hospital taking care of a woman who needed it. She was a prostitute who lived on the train platform, and has gotten very sick. No-one from her community would take care of her because of the work that she did, so a friend and I volunteered to stay with her.
    I remember wishing I could record the scene, just because it was so hard to believe. Blood in pools on the ground that stayed for days, syringes tossed into the corners, syringes being reused. I couldn't believe my eyes.

    I'm glad you got out okay!
  • beinghindu
    01.12.11 04:15 PM
    :) good one!!!
  • Maria
    01.12.11 02:43 PM
    I had so many visions in my mind as I read this - first those slippery steps, the your bloodied chin (ouch!) and then the horrific procedure.

    The article was worded so well, that it took me back to my own C-sec surgery at Thrissur. which was 90% horror :)

    Sorry about the scar but you said it well when you said Kerala treatments are effectivee They stitch us up well and good! :D
  • captainjohann
    01.12.11 02:25 PM
    A simple story told with lot of humour

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