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fostering the humanistic practice of medicine publishing personal accounts of illness and healing encouraging health care advocacy

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Saved

It was a spring afternoon in Kottayam, Kerala, India, and I was a seventeen-year-old student, doing my final two years of high school at a local college, as could be done in India. I was the student-body president, with just two months to go until graduation.

And in another five minutes, I was going to end my life.

In a secluded corner of the college library, hidden among the dusty shelves, I sat by a table. On it lay sixty pills and two bottles of water. I longed desperately to escape this fate, but I felt I had no other option….

It had all started three weeks earlier, when the college principal entrusted me with 5000 rupees (equal to about $500) for safekeeping. She was handling many different funds at the time and needed to keep them all straight; in a month’s time, I was to return the money. I kept it at home in a purse, which I checked often, uneasy at being responsible for such a huge sum.

I lived at home, the youngest of ten siblings. Emotionally, we were still recovering from our dad’s death from a heart attack, followed by our mom’s sudden death from a pulmonary embolus. Within the space of three years, we’d become orphans, and we received periodic visits from concerned relatives, including my mother’s cousin Cynthia.

About a week after I’d received the money, Cynthia came to see us. During her visit, I unthinkingly checked my purse, as was my habit.

The money was gone.

Panicked, I made a quick, quiet search, and finally snuck a look inside Cynthia’s purse. There was the money. But I didn’t dare to take it back: In those days, as now, young people were expected to be very respectful of their elders.

So I watched, silently despairing, as Cynthia hugged each of us and then left to go home, a two-hour bus ride away. I yearned to confront her, but years of training to be deferential held me back.

If I tell my family, will they even believe me? I wondered.

Now here I was, the money gone, and too terrified to tell my family or my college principal. I didn’t want to be labeled a thief, nor did I want Cynthia’s name tarnished among our tight-knit community. What could I do?

My fevered brain came up with a solution: Death.

Over the next two weeks, I thought it through.

How will I kill myself?

Idea #1: Hang myself. The problem: I’m not very good at tying knots (to this day!). I discarded that idea.

Idea #2: Stab myself. I didn’t think I could stand the pain long enough to finish the job.

Idea #3: Rat poison. Easy to buy at the store, but when I thought how I’d look, frothing at the mouth and doubled up in agony, I rejected the idea.

Idea #4: Drowning. A fast, deep river flowed beneath a bridge near our house, but just dipping my head underwater gave me the shivers, so I couldn’t see myself jumping off that bridge.

Idea #5: Stepping in front of a train. What if I didn’t die—what if, instead, I were maimed for life? Or I could jump from a bridge and onto the tracks, but my aim has always been poor…No.

Idea #6: Suffocating myself with a pillow. I actually tried this, but snatched the pillow off after thirty seconds. Not an option.

Idea #7: Lucky seven! Pills. There were plenty in the house, as my brother suffered from severe asthma, epilepsy and mental illness. I could mix sixty pills in a cocktail, drink it and die.

Now that I knew how I would do it, I needed to figure out when and where.

I started with the where. My home was impossible, as one of my siblings was always present. Our yard was visible to the neighbors, so that wouldn’t work. My college was too busy, bustling with students, teachers and visitors. But what about the huge cathedral that stood opposite the college?

I started making spot checks—a literal stakeout—and observed that from 2 to 3 pm, the cathedral was empty. I had my where. Now the question of when.

All the while, I was hoping against hope for a reprieve: I honestly did not want to die.

I had to be careful, as one of my sisters, Pam, was very observant. She’s five years older, but we were and are the best of friends. At home, I faked a gay façade while my heart secretly cried out in fear and loneliness.

A long holiday weekend was coming up.

I will give God the weekend and Monday to fix my problem, I thought. If that doesn’t happen, on Tuesday I’ll take the pills in the college library, then walk across the road to the church, sit in front of the Mother Mary statue and die peacefully.

Monday came and went without a solution. It was time to put my plan into action.

On Tuesday morning, after a restless night, I woke up crying.

Quietly, I washed my face to remove all trace of tears. I put the pills, wrapped in newspaper, inside my backpack. My brother had so many medications, he would never miss them.

Trying desperately not to cry, I managed to eat a few mouthfuls of my last breakfast, then gave my sister a tight hug and left before she could sense that something was wrong.

I walked to college, weeping as I imagined my family’s reaction to the news, a few hours from now. As the youngest, I’d always felt protected and very much loved. Walking towards the college, I’d never felt so lonely and afraid.

Now I sat in the library, five minutes away from downing the pills.

I felt a hand touch my shoulder.

I spun around. It was Jaan, a girl I’d met one day on the way to class; we often walked to college together.

Jaan glanced from my tear-streaked face to the pills on the table and back again.

“What are you doing, Esther?” she asked very calmly. “Are you trying to kill yourself?”

I nodded mutely, shoulders heaving with sobs.

She pulled up a chair next to me and held my hands lightly in hers.

“Can you tell me why?” she asked.

I did. Silently she listened, then pulled out a clean handkerchief and gave it to me.

“Blow your nose and wipe your tears,” she said. “Come with me. I have a way out.”

Bewildered, I stood up.

She swept the pills back into the newspaper. Holding my hand tightly, she walked me to a nearby bathroom and flushed them down the toilet. Then, never letting go of my hand, she walked me out of college and to her house. We went to her room, and she took $500 from her purse. (Her family was very wealthy.)

We walked back to college and straight to the principal’s office.

“Give her the money now,” Jaan said. After I’d done so, and received the principal’s thanks, Jaan and I walked out together.

“I don’t have money to pay you back,” I stammered.

“It’s okay. Help others when you can,” she said kindly. “That will be payment enough. And promise me you will never kill yourself.”

I hugged her and whispered, “I promise!”

Then I asked, “Why did you come looking for me in the library?”

“A little voice inside kept nagging at me all day, telling me to find you,” she said. “After going from classroom to classroom, I finally felt inspired to check the library.”

Epilogue:

Over the next two months, Jaan’s family moved away. I graduated, then traveled to another city to pursue my nursing degree. Jaan and I lost touch with one another—but, as a registered nurse, I’ve kept my promise to her by helping others for the past thirty-three years.

Esther Joseph Pottoore holds a PhD in nursing and has enjoyed a long nursing career in inpatient and outpatient settings. She is currently a chronic-care nurse coordinator at Montefiore Family Health Center in the Bronx, and an occasional adjunct faculty member at Pace University. “I love to write, sing and cook; I hold God above all, then family. My life was changed forever when Jaan—whose name, by the way, means ‘life’—went above and beyond. I have embraced life to the fullest in honor of this friend, who was there for me in my time of need.”

Comments

22 thoughts on “Saved”

  1. Esther, thank you for sharing this powerful narrative; so raw, honest, and brave. You are a true paragon of “paying it forward,” touching and healing so many lives as Jaan touched and saved yours. Proud to work alongside you…

    1. Esther Joseph Pottoore

      Thank you Paul! I have realized that I am never alone and that as a team we can make a difference in every life we touch !

  2. I was so moved by your story. I know far too many people who were able to finish the act, who did not have an angel to step in. You are so fortunate in so many ways, and it is wonderful that you have paid back.

    1. Esther Joseph Pottoore

      Thank you Marilyn! Hope it gives someone a pause before they decide to commit suicide. I have realized that stressors will always come and go. To remain even keel one must rely on one’s inner strength and pull it out when needed. One should not be afraid to speak out. There is help if only you reach out. Most people are not mind readers and must be told. Ask and you shall receive !

  3. Dear Esther,

    What a meaningful story, rich with an angelic friend, a distressed student, a loving family, and a higher purpose above all. Thank you for keeping your word to Jaan, and ultimately to your soul and all you serve.

    With Care,
    Kaveri

    1. Esther Joseph Pottoore

      Thank you Kaveri! I was able to bring a few people away from the brink of suicide. One was a coworker that lost her fiancé to covid and was having health and money issues to the point that was concerning. I requested her to call me night or day and I did get a few 2 am calls! We grieved, we prayed, we visited his grave site with his favorite drink and celebrated his life! It took a village but many of the coworkers chipped in to help her in different ways and she is slowly on the way to recovery! I tried to be a Jaan to her !

    1. Esther Joseph Pottoore

      Thank you! The funny thing is that sometimes friends catch on real quick while family don’t! In all fairness to my family, I was putting on an Oscar worthy performance and keeping them in the dark. Especially since my sister is very astute!

    1. Esther Joseph Pottoore

      Thank you! I have used my experience to always frankly ask the question “ You are going through a lot. Have you ever thought to hurt yourself or someone else?” Then I zip up and listen.

  4. I’ve done suicide contracts (so far 20 years later) with both my kids. And with myself: would cause way too much sadness, confusion, and pain for them, my wife and best friend, and other important friends and family.
    For me, my work in healthcare over past 54 years (psych and nursing home orderly and physician) is about that Connection, that Giving. Thank you very much your story

    1. Esther Joseph Pottoore

      Thank you Peter! I have had conversations with the family and friends. Everytime life gets really tough, I have to remind myself of the promise I made to Jana and the blessings that have come my way! Peace!

  5. Sara Ann Conkling

    What is the karma of someone who steals money from a brilliant, studious orphan, and thereby almost ends her life? And thank God that there are people in our lives who are better than family, when family proves reprehensible.

    1. Esther Joseph Pottoore

      The kind that is a kleptomaniac Sara! Was second nature to her. God had his eye on me though and so did the blessed mother. She probably had my guardian angels on standby!! I firmly believe the voice Jana heard was spiritual in nature!

    1. Esther Joseph Pottoore

      Thank you Pamela. It took courage to be honest. If this can help even one person, I feel it is worthwhile as your life and you are very precious in the eyes of God!

    1. Esther Joseph Pottoore

      I agree. When God intervenes nothing is impossible. There was no way she could have found me in that dusty room without being guided!

  6. Henry Schneiderman

    Tremendous story that captures pain and the miraculous in the arrival of Jaan. Such a story makes one ask whose voice Jaan heard.
    Esther’s career in nursing has clearly fulfilled most beautifully the debt of kindness that she owes to her friend.
    Pulse readers, especially in Kerala, if you know Jaan please be sure she sees the story so that Esther and she can be back in contact!

    1. Esther Joseph Pottoore

      Thank you Henry! It’s a quest that has not had any success for the last 30 years! Sometimes I wonder where she came from! Nobody seems to remember her except me!

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