You sometimes happen to find a book which is wonderfully written and which introduces you to a wonderful person. It was just by chance that I happened to read a book titled "The Scalpel, the Sword: The Story of Doctor Norman Bethune" by Ted Allan and Sydney Gordon. The book is a wonderful read of the travails of an extraordinary person. Dr. Henry Norman Bethune / (March 4, 1890 – November 12, 1939; a Canadian physician, medical innovator, and noted anti-fascist,
Dr. Henry Norman Bethune belongs to a genre of persons which is named kshana-janma i.e. born in a rare moment (in Indian languages). Pursuit of personal comfort and happiness was not his forte. He listened to his conscience. He was an eternal restless soul. He was a doctor who committed himself beyond treating his patients. He wondered as to why diseases such as tuberculosis were associated with poverty and committed himself to eradicate them. His understanding was that the social order perpetuated deprivation, inequality and exploitation. In the 1920s when he learnt of the rising of Soviet Union with a promise of classless social order, he was drawn to it.
Bethune had a truly chequered life. Born in Ontario, Canada to deeply religious parents, he was aetheist and died in battlefield in faraway China, fighting along with with the communist forces of Maotze dong. He interrupted his studies for one year in 1911 to be a volunteer labourer-teacher with Frontier College at remote lumber and mining camps throughout northern Ontario, teaching immigrant mine labourers how to read and write English.
In 1914 when World War I was declared in Europe, he once again suspended his medical studies. In a flourish of patriotism he joined the Canadian Army's No. 2 Field Ambulance to serve as a stretcher-bearer in France. When he had recuperated from his injuries, he returned to Toronto to complete his medical degree. He received his M.D. in 1916.
In 1920 he met Frances Penny whom he married in 1923. In 1926 Bethune contracted tuberculosis. In the 1920s the established treatment for TB was total bed rest in a sanatorium. Bethune insisted upon his wife Frances to divorce him as a precondition for moving to a sanitorium for treatment, He did not want her to suffer, Ultimately Frances divorced Bethune and returned to her home in Scotland
While convalescing in the sanitorium Bethune read about a radical new treatment for tuberculosis called pneumothorax. This involved artificially collapsing the tubercular (diseased) lung, thus allowing it to rest and heal itself. The physicians at the Trudeau thought this procedure was too new and risky. But Bethune insisted. He had the operation performed and made a full and complete recovery.In 1929 Bethune remarried Frances They divorced again, for the final time, in 1933.
Thereafter he concentrated his medical practice to the treatment of tuberculosis. He designed several surgical instruments. Bethune became increasingly concerned with the socio-economic aspects of disease. As a concerned doctor in Montreal during the economic depression years of the 1930s, Bethune frequently sought out the poor and gave them free medical care. He challenged his professional colleagues and agitated, without success, for the government to make radical reforms of medical care and health services in Canada.
Shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish civil war in 1936 Bethune went to Spain to offer his services to the government (Loyalist) forces He set up a mobile blood transfusion service by which he could take blood donated by civilians in bottles to wounded soldiers near the front lines. He may be credited with developing blood transfusion technique in frontline.
Shortly before leaving for Spain, Bethune wrote the following poem, published in the July 1937 edition of The Canadian Forum:
And this same pallid moon tonight,
Which rides so quietly, clear and high,
The mirror of our pale and troubled gaze,
Raised to a cool Canadian sky.
Above the shattered mountain tops,
Last night, rose low and wild and red,
Reflecting back from her illumined shield,
The blood bespattered faces of the dead.
To that pale disc, we raise our clenched fists,
And to those nameless dead our vows renew,
“Comrades, who fought for freedom and the future world,
Who died for us, we will remember you.”
In January 1938 Bethune joined the Chinese Communists led by Mao Zedong . In China, Bethune performed emergency battlefield surgical operations on war casualties and established training for doctors, nurses and orderlies. He did not distinguish between casualties.
Bethune had thoughts of medicinal disciplines and states: " Medicine, as we are practising it, is a luxury trade. We are selling bread at the price of jewels. ... Let us take the profit, the private economic profit, out of medicine, and purify our profession of Let us say to the people not ' How much have you got?' but ' How best can we serve you?'
Stationed in the midst of the Second Sino-Japanese War, Bethune cut his finger while operating on a soldier. Probably due to his weakened state, he contracted septicaemia (blood poisoning) and died of his wounds on November 12, 1939
It is ironic that the man who developed the technique of blood transfusion in frontline died of wounds in the battlefield.