By A.J. Philip

Because I write regularly in a Catholic Church journal, many people think that I am a priest. They call me Fr Philip. When I hear it on phone, I tell the person concerned that I am a Father, but of two children.

However, it was unusual for me to be mistaken as a bishop. This happened a few years ago, while I was in Kerala. My friend and family doctor KK Mathew advised me to undergo an operation for a biopsy of a gland in the neck region.

He advised me to go to the Believers’ Church Hospital at Thiruvalla to have the gland surgically removed and the biopsy done. He suspected it to be a case of tuberculosis. I needed a room in the hospital.

I knew the Delhi bishop of the Believers’ Church. I called Bishop Simon John and told him about the requirement. Within a few minutes, he returned the call and told me that a room had been booked for me and I just had to reach the hospital.

A hospital employee was at the gate to receive me. He arranged a wheel chair for me, despite my protests. “You are a patient and our protocol demands that you be on wheels”.

What’s more, he was deputed to help me do all the paper work, take me to the doctor concerned and finally to the room allotted to me.

I had a shock, as I was wheeled into a room, large enough to be a volleyball court. It had an ultra-modern bed which could be tilted to 60 degrees on both sides.

A sofa, a dining table, a fridge, a bed for an attendant, a wall-mounted television receiver and a large bathroom were other facilities, not to mention the air-conditioner.

I was shocked because I feared that I might have to pay through the nose.

When the room was opened for me, the nurses thought that a bishop had arrived. I was told that the room was not allotted to ordinary patients. It was reserved for bishops. My predecessor in the room was a bishop of the Church of South India (CSI).

My last successor in the room was Joseph Mar Thoma, who breathed his last on October 18. Incidentally, it was on October 18, 1957, that he became a clergy.

More than me, it was my wife who enjoyed the stay there. She would frequent the canteen from where she brought for me traditional Kerala delicacies like stuffed banana fry and neyyappam of Ayyappa’s mother fame.

I had a long meeting with the director of the hospital, who was a priest and medical doctor. More important, he was the son-in-law of Metropolitan KP Yohannan, who founded the hospital-turned-medical college.

From the details I gathered, it was obvious that the Believers’ Church was larger than the Mar Thoma Church, although it is a new player in the business of harvesting souls.

I had yet another surprise when the hospital bill came. It was only a fraction of what I had imagined it would be. No, it was not the first time that I stayed in a VIP hospital room, although I have always been a VOP (Very Ordinary Person).

I was at that time the BHEL Correspondent of The Hitavada at Bhopal. I knew all the top officials of the company from Executive Director F. Haq to Chief Public Relations Officer CK Sardana. I was a bachelor at that time.

I was suffering from amoebiasis. Maybe because I had my regular meals from restaurants like the one that belonged to one Mr Cherian. My friend George Thomas of Melbourne has many anecdotes to share about Cherian.

One day, while interviewing Dr Pillai, a retired Army officer, who headed the BHEL’s Kasturba Gandhi hospital, I casually mentioned to him about my recurring stomach ailment.

Dr Pillai was an ace administrator. He would make rounds of the hospital and ensure that it remained spick and span. If he found dust on a table or a chair, the concerned staff would get an earful. In short, he was a terror for the staff.

The moment I told him about my problem, he admitted me to the hospital. I was given the VIP room, usually allotted to general managers and above. After admitting me, Dr Pillai left for a conference in Bombay.

After all the routine examinations, the doctors prescribed a course of Entamizole tablets, manufactured by the British firm Boots.

I remember the name because whenever I had a bout of stomach problem, later, in Patna, my friend Varghese Kutty, a Boots staff, would give me the tablets free of cost.

The doctors had nothing more to do but they could not discharge me, as I was admitted by Dr Pillai. They had to wait for his return.

A few days later, Dr Pillai returned from Bombay and promptly discharged me. My salary was peanuts those days. I feared how I would pay the bill. Fortunately, the hospital did not raise any bill. They treated me as an employee. After all, I was the BHEL Correspondent!

The hospital stay helped me to improve my status among my Malayali friends, who came to see me at the hospital. A few years later, it was a colleague, the late Patricia Gough, who later became the Australia correspondent of The Week, who helped me to get admitted to the Holy Family Hospital at Patna, founded by a missionary group.

I had to undergo an operation for piles. What I remember most about my stay there was a priest’s daily visit to my room. He was a foreigner with a deformed hand. He would give me the consecrated bread, though he knew that I was not a Catholic. Every evening, I looked forward to receiving the Holy Host from him. I thought he did a greater service of healing than the doctors there.

A few years ago, I paid a tribute to him through a post on Facebook. My operation was a day before Easter. It was a painful affair. The doctor advised me to have only liquid food.

On the Easter Day, my friend, the late Rajan Babu (John Mathew) brought from his home a food packet that contained, you can imagine, fried fish, roasted chicken and other special dishes. It was so tasty that I had a stomach full of Easter food.

The next morning, I experienced the severest pain I had in my life. Those who are in the medical profession can imagine why I had such unbearable pain the night after the meal.

I had a re-experience of Holy Family Hospital when I got admitted to the one in New Delhi on Saturday last. Relentless diarrhoea, not verbal but physical, was the villain of the piece. Again, it was a colleague, PP Shaju, who helped me have the ease of both getting admitted and discharged from the hospital.

I was happy to be in the hospital, as it was born in the year I was born. Shaju told me that Congress leader Rahul Gandhi was born there. The Gynaecology ward is, reportedly, crowded because of this connection. I found it curious that Reader’s Digest had chosen the ward for an award.

When I shifted to Delhi in 1990, my house was close to Ganga Ram Hospital, where Priyanka Gandhi and her children were born. I had to get admitted to the hospital when my doctor found out that I was suffering from typhoid. In a way, the hospital stay was good, as the doctors found out that I was a diabetic.

My first-ever stay in a hospital was at Pathanamthitta. The hospital belonged to “Kottayam Doctor”. What I remember most distinctly is the burning cigarette that always remained between his lips, even when he asked me about my illness or wrote his prescription. I too wanted to be a doctor with a cigarette in my mouth.

The first good private hospital in Pathanamthitta was the Christian Medical Centre (CMC), run by two doctors, married to two sisters, like my friend VP Joy, IAS and former Kerala Chief Secretary Gigi Thomson.

Soon after its inauguration, I found myself there. One day, while giving me a bath, my aunt detected swelling all over my body. My mother thought that I was getting “healthier”. I was taken to the CMC where the doctors found out that I had high levels of albumin in my urine.

I shared a room with an elderly patient, who had a diabetic ulcer on his foot. He was very fond of me. So fond that he would pass on to me all the fruits and sweets he received from his visitors, as he could not have any sugary item.

One comment he made still echoes in my mind: “You have many rich, well-dressed people visiting you but none of them prays for you, whereas all my visitors, however poor they may be, pray for me”. He was probably a Pentecostal.

I gathered my wits and told him that those who prayed for him prayed for me also! My hospital story is not complete. I had a few days’ stay at a hospital in Ranny, known in local parlance as Menathodam hospital. That calls for another post on another day.

(The author, a renowned journalist can be reached at ajphilip@gmail.com)