It’s always difficult to receive news about someone’s passing. Death is not one of those things you get fully used to hearing about, thinking about, or witnessing. For me, it’s always been the same cycle. Each time I hear about someone’s passing, my brain flashes back instantly to my last memory with them, then rewinds back to my first memory with them, and slowly fills in the gaps. Right from start to end. It’s almost like a ticker tape, tick-tick-tick, which each tick marking off one less time I would be able to enjoy someone’s company. It’s not like I knew that then, but each time these memories play back for me, I find myself wondering if I’d interact with them any differently, or if there’s something else I would say to them. If I knew this was the last time I’d get to see them, definitively, would I do something different to ensure that my last memory offered closure?
I struggle to find the answer. Each time I hear about death, this cycle repeats, and I come up short, torn between the possibility of a perfect final memory, tailored to suit the human mind, and the affliction that is the human condition – unwise about the future.
And so too did my brain work away today when I returned from my exam to see a message on my phone about Dr. Kamala Gemson’s passing.
I’ve always shared a close relationship with the doctors who have treated me. My parents cultivated that at a very young age. This habit of developing relationships with those who are in the service sector. I’ve been fortunate to have had excellent medical care available to me throughout my life, even within my family (through my father’s brother), and that has in some part contributed to the kind of value I assign to the work they do. But it wasn’t always this way. I remember wondering why, as a child, we drove 40 minutes to go see the doctor. I was very sure there were other Paediatricians who were close by. I was also fairly certain I could find an Ophthalmologist within 10 minutes. Yet, whenever I fell ill enough to warrant a trip to the doctor, one of my parents hopped me into the car, and drove me straight to Unicare. I remember sitting on the couch and watching Tom & Jerry reruns till my name was called by a familiar face, and taken to another familiar face where I was greeted with a smile by Dr. Samitha. 10 minutes later I was fairly certain I could conquer the world, despite my insides protesting.
Graduating into adulthood was disconcerting that way. I no longer visited a Paediatrician and ended up acquainting myself with all sorts of fancy terms like the ENT, the Orthopaedic, and identifying whom my parents would take me to each time I fell sick. Moving to Bangalore presented its own challenges – not in the least because I was a skeptical soul about everything that was Indian, including the quality of medication and doctors (which is ridiculous, considering that my doctor in Dubai was also an Indian), but that’s just how my brain was wired.
Enter Dr. Kamala Gemson. Rather, I enter into Dr. Gemson’s cabin.
Dr. Gemson was experienced. I could tell that very quickly, not in the least because she used fountain pens like the ones my dad described to me when I was young – with a gold nib and a gold cap. She wore her half-moon (almost) glasses in the middle of her nose while reading the newspaper, and chuckled, gesturing to my mom and me to take a seat, and smiling. This was the first time she had seen me. My mum and she had interacted previously, but I was a blank slate to her.
And slowly she worked her magic. It started with biodata – my age and such and moved to whether I was allergic to any medicines, to which I prayed deference to my mother. Soon, like with Dr. Samitha, I felt confident enough that my throat would eventually come around. I remember asking my mother what kind of a doctor she was, and hearing the phrase “Family Physician” back. That did it for me. Through several trips (thanks to my immune system) to Dr. Gemson’s cabin, I gleaned that she was truly a Family Physician. Not because she cared for all age groups, and all sorts of illnesses, but because you may have walked in a stranger, but you always walked out as Family.
It’s so weird. I’m sitting here smiling as I type these nice things about Dr. Gemson, but my memories of her are associated with two of the physically most excruciating experiences I can recall. Both stitches. Both the result of horrible incidents. Both patched up by her. The first time I injured myself badly enough to warrant these things, my mum and I looked at each other confounded by what these things were. My mum’s seen me hurt myself way too much. Both my parents have. But for the first time, we had no idea what the repair procedure was. I remember crying in the car on the way there scared that it would hurt like crazy when I was getting stitched up, and asking my mom how bad it would hurt on a scale of 10. My mom called Dr. Gemson up, informed her we were on our way to the clinic, and Dr. Gemson was there. Sutures and all, needle in hand, ready to fix up my arm.
The second time I got stitches I literally remember praying in the car that she would be in the clinic. I had to get them on my upper lip this time and I was scared as all hell, pretty certain I would faint the minute I set my head back on the bed. It took her 3 minutes, I think, and I went back home feeling mended. Repaired. Whole. Like a soft toy whose stuffing had come loose, I had been stitched back up, stuffing intact.
Dr. Gemson helped me quickly finish off attesting medical records before I came to University. She helped me figure out my first first-aid and medical kit, which has lasted me pretty much through my five years. When I went back home and fell sick at the end of my first semester because my body forgot how to Bangalore, Dr. Gemson gave me the drugs that reminded my body what home felt like.
I interacted with her lesser and lesser over the years, because there was a doctor in Gandhinagar to help me out, but whenever I fell sick in Bangalore, I would ensure I had the opportunity to see her.
My last memory with her is actually me stopping by her cabin to tell her I was entering my final year of law school. And as always, she smiled, told me I had grown (she always meant I had become plumper, I saw right through her), and wished me the best. We caught up on what her schedule was like these days – and as I left her cabin, I noticed how thin her hair had become. As I had grown, so she had aged.
You never think that doctors die. It’s so weird to think the thought. The people who know the cure to the strangest things that afflict the human body – whether mental or physical, you always seem to think they’ll cure themselves. When my dad’s brother got married to another doctor, I remembered thinking how he wouldn’t have to figure out which medicines to take for himself if he ever fell sick. I also envisaged them fighting over which medication would cure him quicker. But it’s weird. You never think they pass. I’ve never known a doctor who has.
And today I heard about Dr. Gemson. And it made me sad. I’m going to miss her service, and my family and I will hunt for a Family Physician to take care of us. But I’m going to miss the warmth of her smile. It was that warmth that helped me graduate into adulthood and seeing these adult doctors with a little more ease. As I came into my own, it was that grace that helped me remember answers to questions like “what all medication have you already taken?” and “what did you take last time?”. That prepared me for college, man. I’ve self-medicated a fair amount thanks to the guidance she imparted and etched in her squiggly handwriting (the stereotype about doctors is true and her fountain pen did not resolve the issue), and it wouldn’t have happened without her.
I just looked down at the scar on my elbow, where I injured myself and split my arm open after falling off my cycle, needing 5 stitches. Usually, when I look down at it deliberately, it stings – because I remember the pain of falling and crashing into the floor. When I looked down now, I just felt healed. Fixed. Repaired. We may no longer have Dr. Gemson with us, but as a patient, I carry some of her finest handiwork. That’s going to stay with me forever.
May she rest in peace. Amen.