Old Delhi, New Delhi, Delhi-Belly, Hell in Delhi
I love the Sikhs. I have written about them before. They’re a devotional sect from Northern India and Pakistan, a religion begun in the 15th century by their founding teacher, Guru Nanak. They are neither Hindu nor Muslim, but have some commonalities with both. Following Guru Nanak came nine other gurus. The tenth Sikh guru declared that forever afterwards, the “Sikh guru” would be the Granth Sahib, a sacred collection of writings from the gurus. One cool thing about the Granth Sahib is that it also includes writings from other writers, including Muslim and Hindu teachers and poets, such as Kabir. The Sikhs believe in one God who is without form. and honor all religions.
Long persecuted by the Muslim Mughal leaders of the Punjab, the Sikhs developed a marshall, almost chivalric code. To this day, as part of their dress, they wear a sword, often a dagger these days, sometimes very small. So chivarlic and reliable are they, that former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had Sikh bodyguards. They often fill the Indian army, administrative, and other security forces.
However, around the time of Indira Gandhi’s re-election campaign in 1984, radical Sikhs seeking a separate Sikh state, had set up headquarters in the Sikh’s most sacred building, the Golden Temple of Amritsar. Indira Gandhi had the temple stormed and conducted raids on others outside the temple. Chemical weapons were used. The government admitted that over 400 civilians were killed; other estimates range to 5,000. The radicals were killed or captured, the temple badly damaged, and the library was burned.
Four months later, in spite of, or because of, their chivalric code, two of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards assassinated her. One was one of her favorite bodyguards, who had worked for her for ten years.
The Sikhs have the most beautiful spiritual music in the world. I first got to know some American Sikhs who taught mediation and Kundalini yoga back in the 1970s in Birmingham, Alabama. They are a beautiful and in my opinion a noble people.
So I looked at blue-turbaned Omkar, who had rescued us from despair in the New Delhi train station, saying “Thank you. Thank you!” with my hands together. “How did you find us?”
“The train stopped before it was supposed to. That’s why I was not outside your car when you got off.”
“And,” I thought, “that’s why it started off again as I was disembarking.”
Omkar led us out of the station, but not without confusion, even for him. He argued with a guard who wanted us to go through a security set-up, one obviously meant for people entering a part of the station. We’d been going the wrong way. After consultations with other guards and more turn-arounds, we eventually wove through a set of barriers arranged to keep people from passing through and made it outside. Jennifer said she could wait for the bathroom in the hotel.
A half hour later, Omkar drove us through the gates of the Maidans Hotel in the heart of Old Delhi, The hotel, built in 1903, is a collection of beautiful, white colonial buildings, arranged on seventeen acres of lawns and gardens at night radiant under illuminated palms and flame trees. A sweet little paradise to recover from our travels and enjoy the famous city of New Delhi.
But a serpent hid in our little paradise—as has happened in paradises before.
We thanked, and tipped, our Sikh angel, Omkar, profusely.
We checked in, and after a room shuffle, had wonderful place to stay, on the fourth floor of the central building, with views overlooking the front lawn, gardens and fountain. The next morning, we feasted on a wonderful breakfast, the boys having pancakes and pastries from the buffet, our meals “free as part of the package.” We swam in the outdoor pool and then ventured out to see beautiful Delhi, taking the sleek, modern metro. We toured the Red Fort in blazing heat and found a McDonald’s for the boys. Kellen, our sole family meat (chicken) eater, scarfed down 12 chicken nuggets. We took a rickshaw to a spice market and rode the metro home. Our dinner was particularly excellent, even Aidan enjoying the Indian entres from the buffet.
But something there must have been contaminated.
I woke up the next day sick. Really sick. Excruciating stomach aches. Diarrhea six times in a couple of hours. And suddenly I had to throw up. I made it to the bathroom and knelt before the toilet. I retched with a force I thought would turn me inside out. A couple of times in my life I’ve been drunk enough to puke. Those times were nothing like this. I felt I was not in control of my body. I wasn’t sure I could breathe between explosions. I moaned on the tile like an animal. I thought I could die.
When I crawled back out, Jennifer was calling the hotel doctor. Many hotels have a doctor on call. She got the number and called the doctor directly.
I lay in bed moaning, while the boys played on the floor. “Kellen, not so loud! Please.” After an hour, a knock came at the door, and an older man in a beard, another (blessed) Sikh, came in with a doctor’s bag. Dr. Dhupia. After asking the usual questions, he said he would give me a shot with a powerful anti-emetic, which would keep me from throwing up, so I could take the antibiotics to get rid of the infection. Suddenly, while he was talking, I leapt from the bed, almost knocking him down. Back to the bathroom.
I barely made it. I retched with the same, wounded-elk moaning, with the same feeling I couldn’t breathe, that I could die. Later, Jennifer would tell me that while I was moaning, the doctor had said, “You better go check on him. He’s in bad shape.” She said, she knew that. That’s why we’d called him. Once I was done, I came back out, feeling a bit better.
We told him about my reactions to the Levofloxacin, the quinolone family, which includes Cipro. He prescribed a different antibiotic. He said he would have the hotel get them and bring them to us. This is a great thing about India. There are so many people, and so many who need jobs, that there is an overabundance of employees everywhere, so there’s always someone to run errands for a hotel.
Doctor Dhupia had me roll over on my side and gave me the injection in my hip. “You won’t feel the needle. You might feel the medicine going in.” I don’t mind getting shots. I weirdly sort of like getting them. But this was completely painless.
I was queasy and nauseous for the rest of the day, but the retching had ceased. I slept mostly, dosing in and out of consciousness. Jennifer took the boys out on the metro to see more of the city. They went across town to a big mall and she let them buy some toy cars. There found a Pizza Hut and they partook. Little moments of the familiar help when you are away from home for months. I remained in that flu-like state in which decide you need a drink of water and lie there for an hour thinking about getting up and getting it.
The next day, I was feeling a good bit better. Antibiotics are miracle drugs. We got packed for our flight to Pune and checked out of the hotel. Our driver was late, of course, and we got stuck in traffic, but made it to the airport in good time. On the ride, Aidan was saying that his tummy was hurting because he was hungry.
At check in, our bags were too heavy (over 15 kilos—33 pounds), so we stuffed more things into our carry-ons. We made it through security and found a food court where the boys were excited to have more Pizza Hut pizza. J and I had banana smoothies. We boarded the plane and all seemed pretty okay. I was feeling pretty fine. I’d taken my anti-nausea medicine, but no one else took any.
After we got up to cruising altitude, Aidan started getting sick. We had a couple big zip-locks we carry for motion sickness. He started retching just the way I had. We hoped it was motion sickness. Luckily, the throw-up bags of Indigo Airlines were each inside another ziplock. Over the course of the flight, poor Aidan went through five or six of them, retching his guts out.
Going through that yourself is nothing compared to seeing your son go through it. I felt horrible for him, helpless, blaming myself for bringing them here.
Once we landed we were walking into the terminal, and poor Aidan had to throw up again. I held him, saying, “It’s okay, sweetie.” His vomit splashed on his shoes and pants and mine. “It’s all okay, sweetie. We’ll get you home.”
We got our bags, Aidan slumped pale and listless like a doll in a chair. I got a prepaid taxi. We had to walk across the parking lot to where a skinny, energetic Muslim man took off running to get his taxi. We waited. Then, on the way to the flat, weaving and stopping and starting as usual, Aidan, in the front seat had to throw up again. We had a ziplock. The driver pulled over. Jennifer and I knew it was serious.
When we got to the flat, I called my doctor friend, Rajkumar, who happened to be in Delhi. He gave us the name of a doctor who might be able to come over and give Aidan the anti-emetic shot. Of course, we could not reach the doctor of the phone.
“We have to take him to the hospital,” Jennifer said.
I looked at her with fear in my eyes.
I’ve heard horror stories about the risks of infections at Indian hospitals. About how new, antibiotic-resistant bacteria are making their way around the world inside people who have been in Indian hospitals.
Last year, Sonia Shaw wrote an essay in The Atlantic, “The Super Resistant Bacteria That Has India Hell Scared”:
Over 50 percent of bacterial infections in Indian hospitals are resistant to commonly used antibiotics, and surveys show that many widespread bacterial pathogens in India are also resistant to powerful, broad-spectrum antibiotics.
In 2010, a team of South Asian and British scientists analyzed bacterial infections in a hospital around New Delhi, and found that 24 percent could also resist hospitals’ last-resort intravenous antibiotics, called “carbapenems,” and 13 percent were endowed with a super-resistant gene, dubbed “New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase 1,” or NDM-1, which confers resistance to carbapenems along with at least 14 other antibiotics.
“Everybody is hell scared,” says medical microbiologist Chand Wattal, of Sir Ganga Ram hospital in New Delhi.
It was our worst nightmare. The reason I hesitated to bring my family here. We felt we had no choice.
“I’ll call Rajkumar,” I said, “and get the name of the best hospital in Pune.”
‘In Harm’s Way, Part III. Over the Edge: The Doomsday Shot
(title supplied by Aidan, the patient