Manisha Koirala: I let out a guttural scream the moment I saw my naked body
In a tell-all book on her battle with ovarian cancer, Manisha Koirala shares the trauma post her first surgery
My state of mind was toxic, my approach to life complacent and my attitude ungrateful. So here I was, reliving the past in my head in a hospital in New York, praying desperately that I would live. I snapped out of my reverie abruptly when one of the nurses came up to me and asked me to stand up. What? How does she even imagine I can do that? Everything hurts so badly. I just can't! And won't! Of course I understood that the nurses wanted me to move my body to begin the healing process.
They encourage you to either walk in the hospital corridor or move around a bit to begin the curative and restorative effects post-surgery. The next moment my hard taskmaster made me do exactly what she had in mind. I clenched my teeth at the onrush of pain. I all but collapsed. Then stand I did, on legs that seemed to be made of jelly. The torture did not end there. On the third day, a nurse came up to me early in the morning and said, 'Come on, honey, let's walk to the washroom and take a shower.' I was horrified. I protested. She was adamant. She handed me a walker and insisted I ignore the pain. 'Oh, it's not too bad, honey!' I summoned up all my courage. Using superhuman effort, I put one foot in front of the other.
The pain made me grimace. But the nurse was calm — in a strict, no-nonsense manner. She expected me to walk towards the bathroom as casually as if I were taking a morning stroll. Once there, she got busy taking my hospital robe off. I let out a raspy, guttural scream the moment I saw my naked body reflected in the bathroom mirror. What had happened to my marble-white satin skin? My flesh had been ruthlessly stapled with steel pins right from below my breasts to my groin. To tell you the truth, with each passing day, I was becoming stronger. That is why my mind was clear enough to implement a strategy, and Bollywood came to my rescue. The next day, when the morning-shift nurse arrived, I began making small talk with her—the light and breezy kind that connects one woman to another.
Shamelessly, I resorted to name-dropping. Mine! 'Have you heard of India's Bollywood?' I asked the nurse as she pulled out and reapplied my wound dressing quite mechanically. 'You mean in which they dance and sing? Ah, yes! I love watching those musicals.' 'Well, I am a big star there, you know. I have done eighty films in Bollywood.' She paused, mid-action. I could see a veil of admiration descending on her bored eyes. She looked at me with new eyes now. She checked my vitals more attentively, smiled at me more and even placed the TV remote in my hands! My heart rejoiced as I stroked the length and breadth of the TV remote. It had worked! After that, I began dropping gems of information about my starry life on my attending nurses. The result?
I would receive more sympathy and extra care from them. I could even ask for and become the privileged recipient of more heated blankets whenever I fancied them. 'Really?' the nurses would ask me. I would nod my head, trying to look important and yet being very matter-of-fact about it. My clever plan had worked, but it drained my energy. I had to use the same strategy shift after shift. 'Why don't you Google me?' I asked them, hoping they would give me more attention. My fairy-tale introduction actually worked as an open sesame. They suddenly became curious about me and the enchanted life I had led. One day I was informed that the ghastly staples would be removed from my body. Post-surgery, the doctors had stapled my skin after stitching it to keep it together while it healed—much like stapled paper. My entire torso had been opened and from the stomach down, I was stapled up. When I got to know that these were going to be removed, I became a bundle of nerves.
My heartbeats became mad and irregular, my palms sweaty and there was that old sinking feeling. No more pain, god. Please. No more pain! A tiny sigh of relief escaped my lips when I saw the nurse who had come to do the job. I liked her and knew all about her life. She smiled at me reassuringly and I relaxed. She had earlier given me an injection and had done it so painlessly that I had admired her expertise. I was happy that she would be removing my staples. I was certain she would be kind to me. At least I prayed she would. As always, I began to hide my nervousness by blabbering away. I assumed that our chit-chats would make her more sympathetic and kind towards me. Flippantly, I popped several everyday questions at her.
I acted normal and friendly, as if cutting off steel staples from my tender flesh was a daily game I enjoyed playing. In a bright, high-pitched voice that belied my trembling body, I asked casually, 'So, what did you have for lunch?' We could well have been sitting in my house, exchanging pleasantries over green tea. I did not know if she was listening. I did not even know if I expected to find out the answer to my world-shaking query. She was focused on only the task at hand. Suddenly I felt a painful snip on my stomach. Wincing in pain, I asked once again, 'So how are your kids?' Again another snip. I gritted my teeth. 'And your work?' Snip, she went again, until I realized what a silly question that was. This was her work. And this was what she was doing right then. But I kept asking random questions. Anything to take my mind off from the pain.
Each time she snipped with her steel pincers, I yelped loudly. She had not spoken until then. But now she did. She stopped mid-snip, looked me straight in the eye — her blue ones locking with my brown ones—and asked, 'Is it really hurting? Or are you just scared?' I paused, feeling like a child who had been caught and reprimanded. I took a deep breath. Am I just afraid or am I in pain? The discovery made me snap my eyes open. A frisson of shame rushed through me. Yes, there was no pain, just fear. So I resolved to become more mature. As she went about the process of de-stapling me, I trained my mind to not listen to the clipping sound any more. I clenched my jaws. Wilfully, I diverted my mind to other worries—bigger ones. God knows I had enough of them.
After a long session of gritting my teeth silently and scraping my palms with my nails, the ordeal was finally over. All the staples had been removed. But when I looked down at my bruised body, I was shocked. In the centre of my body were two gaping holes—craterlike, cavernous depressions. Horrified and traumatized, I looked at the nurse in confusion, my swollen lips unable to form the right words. She replied nonchalantly, as if we were witnessing a piece of art, 'You shouldn't be scared of these; what is inside you is far more dangerous.'
Excerpted from Healed: How Cancer Gave Me A New Life, by Manisha Koirala with Neelam Kumar, with permission from Penguin Random House India
Also read: Manisha Koirala unveils her book Healed
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