I Will Lie Down in Peace

Young Dr Kumar Jesudasan, educated in the famous Christian Medical College, Vellore had dreams of going to the US and living the American dream. But before that could happen, he had to spend a year working in the Schiefflin Leprosy Research and Training Centre in a small village near Vellore. The year was 1975. Leprosy was in it’s worst form and endemic in this area. Missionary doctors from Vellore like Dr Ida Scudder had set up Karigiri as a hospital to surgically correct deformed hands and feet and faces, and to look into methods of reducing the spread of the disease. Kumar was part of a team that had to go into the villages, identify those with leprosy and bring them to Karigiri for surgery or put them on a suitable drug regimen.
The call to serve
One day he scolded a poor old man while picking maggots out his ulcerated leg. That night he remembers the passage from the Bible he had read that morning – where Jesus says to those listening to him, ‘as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ This was an epiphany moment for Kumar who after an inner struggle between his American dream and his being faithful to the teachings of the Bible, dedicates his life to those suffering from leprosy.
His very traditional Tamil family want him to get married and as he was going to London for higher studies, they arrange a meeting with a young lady from London who was visiting Madras. Kumar meets Usha – a girl raised in the 60’s and early 70’s from the UK. With long red nails, glossy lips and Farrah Fawcett like tumbling curls – this was not Kumar’s idea of his dream girl. Usha, despite her model like looks had a disadvantage – she had a limp left over from polio as a child and was rejected by several suitors because of this. Kumar and Usha bond in an evening of laughter and Usha is very touched that he does not mention her limp, even after he sees her walk, but finds all the make up and curls difficult to accept. So compromises will have to be made. They have a year to get to know each other, and face a clash of cultures during their time in England as an engaged couple.
Though Usha had agreed to the return to India and be a missionary wife, it was still a big shock when it actually happened. She was transported from swinging London to a wild jungle far from family and friends Learning to accept those who had leprosy and who were so deformed and disabled as part of Kumar’s circle of friends, his wild unstinting acts of generosity to those who had very little, his exuberance and love of life were all things she had to learn to cope with.
Two little boys James and John complete the family. Kumar was invited by other countries which had leprosy – Papua New Guniea, South East Asia, the South Paicific Islands, Africa as consultant with the WHO. At the zenith of his career, Kumar discovers that an earlier bout of Hepatitis B which he had after donating blood as a medical student had flared up again and had attacked his liver. He was given just a few years to live – but those years were filled with relentless pain. Because it was his liver that was being destroyed, no medication could be given for pain.
Kumar and Usha loved each other dearly and held no secrets from each other – as they had promised each other on their wedding day. But Usha was shocked when she opened Kumar’s brief case to take out a fashion magazine he had brought for her. There she sees a letter addressed to her but which had not been sent. The letter written 3 months earlier when Kumar was alone in Papua New Guinea described his visit to the doctor who tells him about his disease getting worse. He shares his deepest fears and anxieties in this letter. Usha confronts Kumar over the painful secret he had been carrying alone.
The descent
While preparing for a trip abroad, Kumar suddenly goes into a coma. Usha, the family, Kumar’s friends in the medical fraternity at CMC are all anxious as they wait a few days for Kumar to wake up. He wakes up in great pain, and as he recovers slowly there is hope that life will return to normal. But that does that not happen as over a period of a few months Kumar slips in and out of comas 5 times. During these times, Kumar goes through desperation at having to be alive with so much pain. All his dignity as a human being has slowly been taken away. He fights against this. All he wants is to die with dignity with his family beside him , at home. His faith once so strong now has waned. He fights with God. There are no answers to his questions Why? What have I done wrong ? Why Must I suffer? What kind of a God would allow so much suffering?
Kumar’s Church, his medical school class mates, his neighbours and patients all come together to encourage and help the family in many ways. We see a loving caring community of all kinds of people being formed around them.
In the midst of all this, quite by accident, a little baby girl ‘fell into their lap’ and despite all well meaning advice, the family adopted her. This little baby – Mallika became Kumar’s pain killer and was the joy of his life.
After one more coma, Kumar decides that he will leave hospital against medical advice and go home and die in his own bed. By now Kumar was so weak and frail. The anger that this was happening to him just kept increasing. All this while he had been fighting, accepting that all this pain, suffering and humiliation was God’s final ‘will’ for him—not being famous, or winning the Nobel prize for achievements in leprosy. “Why is God doing this to me? Why is He taking everything that was important to me away from me?”
Kumar does not want any more treatment. His doctor tells him gently, “ I cannot not treat you.” ‘Please understand, ‘said Kumar, ‘I am not asking to die. I want to live, and I want to live as best as I can under the circumstances. You and I know that my end is near. I want to go home, I want to spend what little time I have with Usha and the children. I want to make plans, to prepare them for what must be. I think l have that right and the responsibility. Usha has agreed that the next time I go into a coma, I will not be brought to hospital and that she will look after me at home.” Everybody was against this plan and Usha had to face a lot of threats by well meaning friends and family.
There at home, in his garden, their priest asks Kumar if he would like the communion of bread and wine. Disinterestedly he nodded. The priest called the family, friends who were their , the helpers, the drivers, the gardener, all of different faiths and one by one they dipped their hand in hold oil and placed it on Kumar’s head, praying for healing or release from the pains of this world. It was a morning of great beauty. Before the service of communion Kumar’s face was sullen and black with anger. After the service as if by magic he was smiling and talking saying that in acceptance lay peace.
The hope
With acceptance comes intimate conversations with Usha, family and close friends about what is healing? What is faith? Why doesn’t God hear all our prayers? Does He still love us if He does not answer? What is healing? Kumar felt healed , but those around him questioned this. They talk too about love within family, forgiveness / community/ and many of the questions that we want to address when we are ill, but are afraid to.

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Usha Jesudasan