BY NANDITHA HAREESH
The following piece received 2nd place in the Writing (Preclinical) section of The Auricle’s 2020 Annual Writing Competition.
“What is your full name”?
“And how would you like to be addressed?”
“Just Megha is fine”
“Thank you Megha, what’s your occupation?”
“I used to be an English teacher, but I’m not working now”
“That’s wonderful, literature is an intriguing discipline indeed, hope you don’t miss it too much!”
Her (is it a ‘her’? A ‘him’? an ‘it’?) mellow voice never lost its grace, even the inflections were measured. The literature comment did sound a little passive aggressive but then again it had not mastered the nuances of sarcasm yet, so she was still safe. The semantics student in her marvelled at how the AI nurse could sound so profoundly Homo Sapiens yet not quite human, like an intricate melody that was missing one chord.
“What would you like to discuss today Megha?”
The moment she was dreading had arrived. She felt the struggle her students had so often complained about – the introduction. The inability to start an essay on blank paper, the sudden moment when all your words leave you. She did not know where to begin.
How could she put into words the intangible ‘sadness’ engulfing her?
How could she convey the grease in her hair from not showering for weeks, cuffs in her jeans from wearing them every day, dots of blood on the ends of her fingers where she has obsessively bit her nails of, the knee that wouldn’t stop jerking, the dreams that wouldn’t stop coming, the darkness that never left. The English teacher who used to spend day after day adding, changing and enhancing words had none herself.
What brought her to the clinic today was the incessant pressure from her mother and brother, their slight concern growing to serious worry as the days passed. Her matted hair and downcast eyes had told them all they needed, but it didn’t seem to be enough here.
The doctor’s eyes blinked every 2 seconds, convincingly human shaped and the iris startlingly intense, as though they were looking right at you. But they only saw what they were trained to see, not beyond.
The question came again, the same pleasant, inviting question – “what would you like to discuss today?”
“I have …. a headache, and I haven’t been able to sleep properly”
Was there ever such an understatement.
What followed was a well-rehearsed set of follow up questions, everything from the type of pillow she used to her menstrual cycle. Then she was briskly escorted for an MRI scan, to “rule out any complications”. A well animated video of how it works played as she was wheeled into a dark metal room. The vortex like MRI machine towered over the space, a huge metal tube.
Megha turned to the nurse strapping her in – “will I be okay?”
“Of course! an MRI machine just employs powerful magnets which produces a strong magnetic field that forces protons in the body to align with that field – you will be very safe”
Powerful magnets and proton fields did not sound safe to Megha, but she took the nurse’s word. The contraption turned on, whirring and grunting, like a monster waiting to be fed.
She needed a hand to hold.
“can I hold your hand?”
“of course you can, I’ll be right here with you” came the kind reply, ever so controlled.
Megha slots her hand into the nurse’s and closes her eyes, preparing to be sucked into the vortex of the MRI. Her hands were unbelievably soft, like the ones on hand cream advertisements. The palm lines were faint, the skin responding to even her lightest touch, as though it was translucent. She could feel the ups and downs of veins and the tough nails, even the rough cuticles that separated them. But there was no pulse. The rhythmic rise and fall of skin that was ever so comforting, the consistency of blood flowing in and out of the heart – a constant reminder of life and energy. The softness of the skin and the grooves of the palm lines soothed her nerves, but the cold of the nurse’s hand remained the same as the cold, hard metal machine she was in.
A long wait, a mental health questionnaire and an iced coffee later, the doctor comes back with a dainty piece of paper with her diagnosis and options.
“questionnaire indicates early signs of clinical depression, in accordance with DSM-5 diagnostic criteria”
“patient can indicate preference for psychologist appointments or self-directed therapy via tele-counselling”
Separated by a neat thin line lay her two choices, with a comprehensive list of pros and cons. The pastel writing was the only reassuring aspect of that sheet. Neither of those made any sense to her. The fear of a daunting diagnosis competed with relief of medical validation within her. She looked back into the doctor’s eyes. This pair was deep brown, the shade of hot chocolate.
“what do you think I should do? what would you do?”
Her face widened in an understanding smile, corners of her eyes crinkling, but the eyes did not smile. They simply stared – still blinking every 2 seconds.
“both options have their own merits, but we believe that the patient should have a role in their treatment”
“why don’t you take some time to read through them and come to a decision”
She had answered the question Megha spoke but missed the one her eyes asked. They darted across the sheet of paper, wide and confused. Which one of these would help her get out of bed in the morning? The doctor had already left, probably with an internal timer set for however long research indicates a patient needs to make a decision.
I wake up in cold sweat, scrambling out of bed to find my laptop.
The essay sits there, pristine, well researched, the fruit of over a month of labour.
I look at the topic: “Artificial intelligence will eventually render healthcare workers obsolete”
Control A, Delete
A blank screen replaces the intricate graphs, multilayered diagrams and painstakingly compiled bibliography. Essays written at 2 am continue to be dangerously delirious.
I begin again, this time about a young woman who was all alone and needed some help that an algorithm could not quantify. About the empathy of trust, of listening and of caring that cannot be programmed.
After all, the success of a flawless robotic surgery won’t do much more than make a flashy headline if there wasn’t a hand to hold through it. A hand with a pulse, a rhythmic reminder of life and being.