Therapy Of Another Kind

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Laughter is truly the best medicine on the road to recovery, discovers Dr. Sakuntala Narasimhan during her physiotherapy sessions.

The college student is 22, the newly married school teacher is 30, the farmer is middle aged, pushing 48, the retired engineer is 60 plus, and I am in my seventies. The farmer is illiterate, the boy is a graduate student in the U.S., and I am a double Ph.D. We are a truly motley bunch, but what we have in common as we arrive every morning for our physiotherapy session at the hospital, is our disobedient bodies.

The student, a football player at an American university, became partially paralysed after a sudden brain infection, and walks with an unsteady gait. The physiotherapist is teaching him to hold a water bottle, but his fingers refuse to curl properly and grip the bottle. Patiently, and gently, the doctor keeps encouraging him while he activates his wrist muscles and fingers. The teacher is swathed in bandages from neck to toe, after a bad road accident that has left his spine damaged; he can only move his facial muscles. The farmer cannot even hold up his head, and has a belt looped under his chin and hooked to a potable stand on wheels; while a nurse slowly pushes the contraption ahead, a physiotherapist sitting on a wheeled chair at the back gently nudges the man’s legs forward, one step at a time, to ‘teach’ him to walk again after an illness left him disabled. Doctor, patient and stand cover the length of the hall to and fro, slowly, while I watch, waiting for my turn with the physiotherapist.

The Road to Recovery; Image courtesy: Pixabay

The Road to Recovery; Image courtesy: Pixabay

I am here for physiotherapy treatment for a very painful knee before my doctor decides whether I need knee replacement surgery. All very depressing? Not in the least. The teacher, arriving on a stretcher flat on his back, with straps across his chest, abdomen and thighs, gives me a broad smile as we make eye contact. “Hi there,” he says, while the physiotherapist rubs down his ankles to activate his muscles back to life. Smiling ? When he cannot move a limb ? I stare in amazement as I get on the ‘Gaitkeeper’ tread mill beside him, for my mandatory ten-minute ‘walk’, and catch him cracking jokes with his young wife and with the attending staff. While I wait for my turn on the stationary cycle next, the football player is playing ball – the doctor throws a large plastic ball at him and he tries to catch it and throw it back. He fumbles and stumbles, but both patient and doctor laugh over it. I catch myself smiling too, as I watch them, forgetting my pain for a while.

Yet another patient is laid on a bed, while his physiotherapist climbs across his knees, and straddles his torso. “Hey, Arun, what are you up to?” says my physiotherapist, and the whole room bursts out laughing. The man astride the patient laughs too. “Actually, there is a more elegant way of doing this exercise, but this is easier and faster,” he says. The prone patient laughs too, joining in the merriment. Doctors and patients exchange banter and jokes, there is an infectious mood of good cheer rather than moans or lugubrious faces in the hall of some two dozen patients and physicians.

The farmer and I do not have a common language to communicate in, but through gestures he encourages me when he sees me grimace with pain while doing my stint on the treadmill. “Just three more minutes,” he says, egging me on with a smile. That sure helps me complete my regimen…

As I arrive for my second week’s physiotherapy sessions, I catch myself rather looking forward to these visits; “You and I will play football, some day, OK?” says the student, grinning broadly as he hobbles unsteadily across the room. Never mind if we ever will, just joking about it lifts our spirits up. It is not so much the machines and contraptions that are healing us, I realise, it is also the pervasive optimism and cheer that the doctors (all young) encourage and spread. Every ‘treatment’ is a game, made interesting for the ‘patient-players’, rather than a procedure for ‘cure’, with balls of different sizes and colours, chalk lines on the floor, and interesting accessories. And the camaraderie is as much ‘therapy’ as the machines we are made to work on, to tone up our recalcitrant limbs and muscles. I can continue my exercises at home, rather than go tthrough the trouble of booking a taxi and making a trip to the hospital every morning, but as I said, therapy consists of not just physical fine-tuning but also mental rejuvenation – the mind-body connection, by now well-documented by the medical profession, aids in recovery just as much as the machines that we are made to work on. In the process, we have made friends, exchanged books, acquired a broader perspective on our own handicaps after seeing others in far more distressing situations, and returned to our homes at the end of each session of physiotherapy feeling a little better not merely in body but also in mind. And that is what good ‘treatment’ is all about. Medicines and machines do not cure, as much as the extra ‘cheer’ that the physicians dole out as part of therapy. A big thank you, to Aditi and all the physiotherapists at the M.S.Ramaiah Hospital, Bengaluru. To say that I enjoyed the treatment may seem funny, but that is the truth….

And yes, my knee pain is gone, I don’t need replacement surgery, a least for now…

About Author

Dr Sakuntala Narsimhan

Dr Sakuntala Narasimhan is a national award winning journalist and academic resource person specialising in gender and development. She has published over 3,900 articles in leading publications, and written 11 books.