By Sonya Rehman
It’s a lovely walk from the Roosevelt Island subway station to Coler-Goldwater located on 1, Main Street. From Manhattan, the train brings you straight to the Island.
Out of the station and away from the madness of downtown Manhattan, you notice the wide-open spaces on Roosevelt. And the walk to Coler-Goldwater Hospital can put a spring in your step on sunny days. With the Queensboro Bridge to your right and a long, clear pathway up ahead, you feel free. A brisk, three-block walk down, and in six minutes the hospital is within view.
With the onset of my second (and final) semester at Columbia (at the Journalism School) I was frequenting the hospital regularly (towards the end of 2009). I was basing my Master’s thesis on an inspirational man, a patient at the hospital, Sundaram Srinivasan, better known as ‘Srini.’
Once I’d get past the reception, I’d make my way briskly to Ward B-32. With a satchel carrying my recorder, camera and my notes, I’d walk as fast as I could to Srini’s ward. The spacious corridors made me thoroughly depressed to be honest. It was so strange; walking down gleaming white floors, sunlight would be pouring in from either side of the corridors’ numerous, large windows. And then I’d see severely unwell patients in wheel-chairs parked along the side, waiting for nothing in particular. I’d see some patients (those who could walk) walking slowly down the corridors, talking to themselves, with eyes vacant – they’d be physically present, but their overall ‘absence’ was so loud, so tangible. They were so alone.
But then, when I’d reach Srini’s ward, I’d catch sight of his cheerful little mode of transport (a motorized vehicle) parked near his bedroom door. It was a small vehicle, which got Srini from place to place within the halls of the hospital. Adorned with more than 50 flags, representing countries from all over the world, the flags would flutter about when Srini would do his rounds.
Srini contracted paralytic polio when he was a child. Paralytic polio can be severe to the extent of being fatal. It can begin with flu-like symptoms, followed by sudden paralysis. Limbs don’t move, muscles ache or spasm, and there is a loss of reflexes. The disease can lead to lifelong deformity and disability. People who contract polio at a young age and recover can be struck down again years later. This mysterious reoccurrence, known as post-polio syndrome, also has no cure. Srini was battling post-polio syndrome for most of his life.
Since being admitted to the hospital in 1990, till the day he breathed his last (this year in December) Srini was an integral part of the hospital. He began volunteering at the children’s ward years ago, feeling compelled to put himself to use, to give back to the world and to be of service to others: those in a far more fragile state than himself.
From thereon, through his volunteering and his open-hearted, gentle approach to life, Srini was selected as President of the Residents Council – a council that advocates on behalf of patients and gives them a platform to voice their problems.
After becoming the President of the Council, Srini joined the Auxiliary at the hospital. The Auxiliary is a body that raises money for patient programs that the Residents Council organizes, including patient trips. Apart from raising funds through flea markets and vendor programs, the Auxiliary also keeps a lookout for grants and other sources of funding. For instance, a grant that came from the United Hospital Fund was used to revamp Coler-Goldwater’s very own radio station, WCGH – the first patient-run radio station in the country that can be tuned in at 88.1 FM by the residents of the hospital.
For three years Srinivasan had his own talk show called ‘Searchlight’ on WCGH. He focused on healthcare, education and politics. Mainly commentary, with a few songs interspersed, ‘Searchlight’ ran live for an hour a day from Monday to Friday. But at the time, Coler-Goldwater’s radio station didn’t seem to be running efficiently. It needed funds for new equipment.
In 2000, Srinivasan and his team at the Auxiliary wrote to the United Hospital Fund requesting a grant for WCGH. They received $20,000 that year and an additional $20,000 in 2004. Srinivasan was on his way, and nothing could stop him. The grant from the United Hospital Fund was enough to buy 1000 radios as Christmas presents for the patients. During one of my trips to the hospital, Srini told me how happy he was when he saw patients in their wheelchairs listening intently to their radios in the hallway that day.
Located in the patient library, just past the office of the Auxiliary, WCGH’s studio is small, cozy and a little cramped. There, on a piece of paper pasted on one of the walls are the words: ‘Listen to the beat of the heart’ – WCGH’s slogan. With less than one watt of broadcast power, WCGH reaches only the hospital and a three-mile radius beyond it. This means it can be heard on Manhattan’s 1st Avenue and bits of Long Island and Astoria, all of which are right across the Queensboro Bridge.
At the time of my research I discovered that the station had 15 radio jockeys; all of them patients and former patients of the hospital. And it made me realize what great therapy the station must’ve been for the patients; making them feel heard, easing their pain and providing relief from the loneliness. All thanks to dear Srini. But WCGH was just one part of it. One part of Srini’s services to the hospital. I wonder how the patients would fare now, without him.
On one of my last trips to Coler-Goldwater Hospital, I told Srini I’d bring him a Pakistani flag for his little vehicle. That had made him really happy. But I never did. I got too wrapped up with packing up the past year into two suitcases, bidding farewell to a character I was playing out for all those frenzied, turbulent months.