ARUNA SHANBAUGH

WHEN A BRUTAL ATTACK LEFT ONE NURSE IN A VEGETATIVE STATE, HER COLLEAGUES TURNED PROTECTORS, IN WHAT WOULD BE A 42-YEAR VIGIL.


May 18, 2015It was morning, and Matron Arundathi Vellhal at Mumbai’s King Edward Memorial Hospital was hoping that Aruna Shanbaug would soon be returned to her room in ward number 4.

Shanbaug had contracted pneumonia, and had been on a ventilator for five days. The matron checked in on her every morning before doing her rounds of the ground floor emergency ward.

But Shanbaug died of a sudden heart attack at 8.30am.

“When I got a call in the morning about her death, I was shattered. I went straight to the bank and withdrew Rs 10,000. I knew we would need money for her funeral,” Vellhal said. “I have pretty much grown up in KEM Hospital. I studied nursing, and have worked here since 1981.” She added, “I have known Aruna since then.”

It is not for nothing that the Supreme Court termed the 800-odd nurses at KEM Shanbaug’s “next best friends”. Aruna Shanbaug was a junior nurse at KEM in Mumbai in 1973 when Sohanlal Walmiki, a ward boy, strangled her with a dog chain, cutting off blood to her brain, and then raped her, leaving her in a vegetative state for 42 years before she died.

In 2010, Pinky Virani, the author of Aruna’s story and a friend of Shanbaug, filed a writ petition before the apex court to stop feeding her. The apex court, however, turned down her petition, after the nurses who worked with Aruna intervened and expressed a wish to let Aruna live.

After the judgement, the nurses of KEM hospital came out in the compound area of the hospital and shouted, “Aruna zindabad!” They were vocal in their love for her and made it clear then that she was not a burden. They had a right to decide what is best for her, they said, and not her family or Virani, both of who did not take care of her.

Dr Sanjay Oak, then-Dean of the hospital, told the Supreme Court in an affidavit that in an annual ritual, every batch of nursing students was introduced to Ms Aruna Ramachandra Shanbaug, and told that “She was one of us”. Every year her colleagues explained to the fresh crop of students that “She was a very nice and efficient staff nurse, but due to a mishap she is in this bed-ridden state.”

Most of the nurses currently at KEM never met Aruna as a working person. But all have heard stories about her. “She was good at getting work done,” said Namrata Kasave, a staff nurse. Others chime in, “Unka svabhav bhari pad gaya,” (Her nature did her in), and “Kadak thi,” (She was strict).

Whether they’d met her before the accident or not, the nurses would bathe her, cut her nails and feed her. If someone had a special something in their lunch box, especially fish, a small portion would be kept aside for Aruna.

When a brutal attack left one nurse in a vegetative state, her colleagues turned protectors, in what would be a 42-year vigil.

“I have heard that doctors would specially ask for her in the operation theatre,” Sejal Naik, retired KEM nurse who was a student in 1973, told us. “She was strict, but kind at the same time. She felt pity for others. And she would train the juniors well,” Naik said that she took care of Aruna as a junior nurse, and was given instructions by her seniors about how to take care of her. Aruna never had a bed sore. Not even once. “I have seen her when she was younger,” said Naik. “She had such beautiful skin.”

Despite being a mere shadow of Shanbaug the nurse, Shanbaug the patient was a presence in the life all of KEM’s nurses. Paradoxically, before the incident Aruna kept largely to herself, hardly speaking with her colleagues. “She was a very good nurse, no doubt. She was a clean, completely no-nonsense person, and would get work done from everyone else,” said Pratibha Tiwari, laughing. Tiwari retired as a matron from KEM and was a year junior to Aruna. “She was, however, prone to complaining against people. She has even reported against me!”

The day Aruna was found unconscious in the changing room Tiwari recounted, “We picked her up and rushed to the emergency. We were incensed. Our girl had been attacked on duty. We went on strike for the first time in the history of KEM Hospital. We were not even a union then. We walked to the municipal commissioner’s office demanding for our rights to safety. It took us a long time to get over the fear of working in the hospital.”

Shanbaug’s case prompted the nurses to unite, and to demand rights. Every time there was an order to remove Aruna from ward 4, the nurses would go on strike. Tiwari said, “The junior nurses were under some pressure from us to take care of her. That was passed on from generation to generation. And over the years, those nurses also grew fond of her.”

The doctors who examined Shanbaug testified in the Supreme Court that she was not conscious or aware of herself or others, but the nurses insist that Shanbaug knew what was happening. “It took her some time to understand that we are her people. She would shout every morning at 6am when she was given a sponge bath. Maybe our touch was unfamiliar to her. She later calmed down and became more peaceful,” Anuradha Pradhan, a senior sister at KEM Hospital said.

They say that Aruna didn’t like her room being crowded, and since the nurses celebrated her birthday, they kept the board marking the occasion outside her room, so as not to encourage traffic. They kept her room fragrant, had it painted, and changed the curtains every couple of years. She wore non-hospital issue clothes, Pradhan told us. Very few people outside KEM Hospital saw her room.

42 years after she first slipped into a coma, Shanbaug’s relatives were called to conduct her final rites, and KEM’s nurses were upset. “They never came to see her all these years. They never took care of her. Why should we give her body to them? We will conduct the funeral,” Kalpana Gajula, sister tutor at KEM, said. A compromise was struck. Her final rites were conducted in the presence of both the family and nurses. Both Dr Avinash Supe (now the dean of the hospital) and Aruna’s nephew, Vaikunth Nayak, lit the pyre.

Aruna’s body was laid on a bed with rose petals for darshan in the hospital. Scores of people came to see her, including hospital staff, family members, the state health minister, Mumbai’s civic commissioner, and those in the public who had followed her story. The nurses dressed her in a red sari, blouse, earrings, nose pin and stuck a red bindi on her forehead.

“The family did try to meet her,” Umesh Pai, a family friend, said. “We used to come see her often in the first ten years after the incident. But it got very difficult. The nurses would guard the room. It took dean’s permission to just see her. It became very difficult for us.” “Aruna aamchich aahe, aachich rahel,” the nurses said. She is ours, she will remains ours.

Author: Menaka Rao
Illustration: Nahusha K


Motherland is a bi-monthly magazine with a focus on contemporary and emerging Indian cultures.

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