First Place – “Thanurwad”

Saoner was a small village that snuggled in an elbow of one of the tributaries of the great Narmada River. It was a small farming community of thatched huts and some small brick buildings. One of those that had a small World Health Organization clinic, a dispensary (or a pharmacy, as we would call it) and quarters for a few freshly graduated doctors to work the area for a few months. There were many such clinics set up in villages all over the country to bring medicine to previously neglected populations. In the summer of 1961, fresh out of medical school a few of us were sent out there to begin our year of service.

A whole new world opened to me. Almost within days of getting there the monsoons began. It would rain hard for days, pouring down in sheets, soaking the fields and turning the roads and walking paths into little rivers and sticky soups of mud. We went everywhere in gumboots. Each morning two of us would go to the outpatient office to see people who had gathered there. Coughs, runny noses, fever, diarrhea, headaches, insect bites, injuries were the common stuff that came in daily. Now and then an acutely ill person would be checked and sent off to Nagpur’s government hospital for further treatment. One of our teachers stayed at our place as a consultant.

Two weeks after we got there the rains swelled the river to overflow and flooded its banks. Not far from the edge of the banks the villagers had their wells where they drew their drinking water. The raging Narmada was too much for the low mud and stone walls and quickly contaminated the wells. Within days a cholera epidemic broke out that spread like wildfire from village to village. The reddish brown river was almost impassable and our jeep, which ordinarily took patients to hospital, was grounded. From morning to night, teams of doctors, patients and helpers who carried our supplies, moved from village to village inoculating people against cholera in an effort to contain the epidemic. Those who fell ill were quarantined in the schoolhouse made into a makeshift infirmary. Contaminated clothes were boiled and set aside and large pots of lemon juice mixed with salt and sugar were made to save lives from lethal dehydration. This went on for more than a week when the rains let up and slowly things began to dry.

It was on one of those days when the three of us had just come in late and were washing up for dinner. A young man had come running from a nearby village to report that his brother was having fits and was thrashing around on the floor and could we please come to save him. Being on call I grabbed my bag and boots and set off with the young man for his village. We walked through wet fields and past a low point on the river where we could cross, and on to the village. There he was, the patient, tied to his chair with armrests, serving to bind his arms, and pillows to protect his head. Every few minutes his body went into a spasm and he arched, throwing his head back, his feet stretched out and his jaws clenched, then equally suddenly he would go limp. I recognized these as the spasms of tetanus, which came on easily following contaminated wounds in this unprotected population. I rushed to open my bag and ready an injection of Phenobarbital to relieve the spasms. This was the dreaded “lockjaw” and was almost always fatal. As I moved to get my stuff ready, the man’s grandfather – one of the village elders – gently put his hand on my arm to stop me. The villagers had bound my patient to his chair to give him some comfort, and as the word got around they came with flowers to speak to him, wipe away his sweat, caress him and speak to him.

“Thanurwad,” he said. That’s the descriptive name for these spasms that patients with tetanus get that resemble an archer’s drawn bow. They were comforting him and saying goodbye. I protested to the elder that he should get my medicine to try and stop his seizures. I said that what was happening in the village was old-fashioned and things had changed.

The old man had a pained look in his eyes as he turned and asked me if I had a cure. I said that the patient was past that but could get relief. He told me that he understood that but believed it was better for the young man to meet his family and friends and have their blessings and love to take to where he was going, than my medication.

My brash head full of newfounded science had learned the first important lesson in life from an old man who lived in a village few people had heard of, on a river with a nondescript name.

I am a retired physician who settled in Door County nine years ago, after 35 years in Marshfield, Wisconsin. I am a member of the Wallace Group of poets and thoroughly enjoy the community here.

Judge’s Comments:

This is a near-classic telling, the young doctor versus the village headman/elder. The role of medicine, the act of healing, in some tender balance here. I was greatly moved as an ex-medic by this story.