One by one

Sonia Sethi
Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, PA (Spring 2016)

 

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My mother was only five years old when my grandmother went off to war. She remembers waving goodbye, not comprehending the gravity of the situation until her mother embraced her and a teardrop fell silently on her forehead. My grandmother kissed her children, one by one, before leaving and tried to forget the gloomy looks that overwhelmed their faces.

It was the beginning of the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971. After training as the only woman in her medical school, my grandmother arrived on duty at the emergency room in the Indian base. She triaged wounded soldiers, one by one—some missing limbs, some hit by shrapnel, all of them plagued by warfare. Each injured soldier was given a small box for their belongings. My grandmother would warn her staff against stealing, reminding them that they could one day be in that soldier’s place. When a soldier died, their box was sent to their family. Scribbled notes, small jewelry, even an old t-shirt became prized possessions after the loss of a loved one.

My grandmother was stationed far from my grandfather, a colonel in the military. He worked in army intelligence and many times she could not know his location. Couples would request to be stationed apart in case one of them perished. She would send checks, one by one, to her father, should something happen to her and her children be left in his care. My mother remembers the hum of the radio as her grandfather leaned by it closely each night, blinking back tears and praying that his daughter would come home safe. In Ferojpur, my grandmother left the medical center for a moment of fresh air only to have shrapnel fall within two feet of her. Her hospital had just been hit by a shell. Bombing hospitals was considered sacrilege, but it would happen regardless. The emergency sirens went off and the medical team was forced to salvage equipment and move to a safer location in a nearby town. Amidst the devastation, a make-shift hospital was created on the train and, one by one, my grandmother transported injured soldiers.

One soldier, in particular, stands out in grandmother’s memory each time she recalls her service. The soldier arrived at the ER, supporting his friend’s weight. “Treat him first, please” he urged. “I lost my hand, but he has lost his leg. Treat him first.” He was triaged accordingly and the medical team worked tirelessly. He died that day, waiting for his partner to survive. The creases that frame my grandmother’s face are engraved with his story—creases that grow deep and solemn when she remembers. Stories like his—of selflessness, pain, and bravery—course through the delicate lines that encircle her eyes. She recollects anecdotes—one by one, a fragmented collection of moments buried beneath her furrowed brow. Tales of resilience and compassion contour her palms, the same palms that healed her own soldiers as well as enemy soldiers because, as she always says, “my religion is humanity.”

One by one, I count the sacrifices that my grandmother made so courageously. She kissed her children goodbye, knowing very well that she might never come home. She chose to be stationed far from her husband, knowing she would not be told his location. As she triaged her patients, she triaged her duties as a physician, a mother, a wife, and a member of the army.

India eventually won the war and my grandmother was given a medal for her valor. One by one, I trace the fragile lines on my grandmother’s matured face. The same lines that tensed as her teardrop fell on my mother’s forehead are now mirrored on my mother’s face. Their patterns shift when my grandmother beams at me, knowing that she inspired me to go to medical school. Their smooth exterior hides the stories that lay just below. And like her bravery, they run deep.

 

Sonia Sethi spent her early childhood in India with her grandmother, who inspired her passion for medicine. She grew up on Long Island with her parents and younger sister and eventually attended college in the Pennsylvania State University/Sidney Kimmel Medical College 6-Year BS/MD Program. She now lives in Philadelphia and attends medical school. Her hobbies include reading, martial arts, and volunteering at JeffHOPE, a free medical clinic run by students at Jefferson University.

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