The Other One

– Dr Jewell Joseph, Vellore

“There is no one in the world, other than your siblings, who knows what it’s like to have been raised the way you were.”

In many ways, the sibling bond is unique. It encompasses the comfort of family, the freshness of friendship and the spirit of rivalry. Sweet yet spicy; strong yet dynamic.

Nimisha (Name changed) and Keerthana (Name changed) were no different. To be honest, it was only after months into Keerthana’s treatment that we came to even learn of Nimisha’s name. Until then, it was always ‘Keerthana’s sister’ or ‘the other child’.

To provide some context: Keerthana had leukaemia.

The Chaos

Keerthana had just finished her 6th standard exams and Nimisha her 8th. They were gearing up for the usual and much awaited visit to grandma’s for a couple of months full of evening swims in the river, never-ending games with cousins, ginger chai and crispy snacks. They were looking forward to yet another ‘perfect vacation’.

Everything however changed with Keerthana’s fever which was followed by multiple hospital visits, a battery of tests and long hours in the waiting area. Her days smelled like hospital.

Nimisha could not comprehend what was going on with her little sister. Afterall, it was ‘just a fever!’ There was palpable tension in the house, but nobody would tell her anything more.

The Grind

Chemotherapy was tough. Keerthana’s hair fell off, her body hurt and the smell of food made her throw up. The adverse effects kept her mostly in the hospital and her hopes of rejoining school in time was becoming dim. She missed her friends, the fun.

Nimisha’s life, by then, was an emotional roller coaster. She struggled to cope with her sister’s suffering. Everything about their life had changed. There were no more dinner conversations, silly jokes or family outings. It felt like all the smiles had died in the house.

The Collapse

Unfortunately, things were going south for the family. Keerthana’s induction chemotherapy did not work as expected. She grew tired; more mentally than physically. She refused to eat or come to the hospital. Nimisha broke down at school; all the subdued fear, uncertainty and isolation finally bursting out. Rajesh (Name changed) and Indira (Name changed), the parents, were also finding it hard to cope.

Sensing the distress, the Oncologist decided to call in a psychologist. She made them all sit together to talk. They poured their hearts out, wept and hugged. Four souls – shattered, exhausted and clueless.

Roses from the Rubble

But roses do grow from rubble; songs do come out of despair and smiles do get conjured from the deepest of darkness.

In the midst of all this adversity, something remarkable happened.

Nimisha stepped up for her ailing sister and for her family which was falling apart. She became her little sister’s caretaker and accompanied her on every hospital visit. She planned small family outings and movie nights. Every small milestone, from doing a blood test to finishing a chemo, became a reason for celebration. She taught Keerthana and with the heartfelt help of the school authorities, Keerthana passed 7th standard. Despite her health deteriorating, Keerthana (and her family) started to live again.

The Realisation

It was an eye-opener for all of us. While we focused on the treatment of our patient, we should’ve spared a thought for the ‘other one’ too. We should’ve tried to explore and validate her feelings and involved her much earlier in care. Little did we know that a dash of sibling love was the secret ingredient!

After a 19-month-long grapple with cancer, Keerthana passed on.

The Aftermath

I was in my first year of Oncology residency, while I had to navigate this situation. This whole incident had left me shaken. Nimisha’s grief-laden eyes at the funeral haunted me for a long time. But it all went away once I saw her again in the hospital, when she came to enquire about hair donation for cancer patients.

“It was something that Keerthana was sad about. I don’t want others to feel like that. I will donate my hair and I will bring my friends too” she said.

Every cloud has a silver lining, they say.

About the Author:

Dr Jewell Joseph has completed his MD in Radiation Oncology in 2018, and is currently working in the Department of Palliative Medicine, Christian Medical College, Vellore, Tamil Nadu.

Leave a comment