One of my schoolmates who wished to become a doctor, which he eventually did, had a strange reason for his wish. According to him, doctors are essential commodities. We cannot live without them.
What he said was true, because from birth, or even before that, we come into contact with doctors. And that relationship may continue during infancy and childhood, adolescence and youth, middle age and old age and even up to death. And in some unfortunate cases even after death or, in other words, post mortem.
With an apple a day or without apple we cannot keep them away. They are part of our life. In fact for every part of our body there is a specialist doctor. Heart and brain, eyes and ears, skin and bones, liver, kidney, pancreas, our entrails! The list goes on.
Of the several scores of doctors we come into contact with in our lives it is only a few that we tend to like. We do like some and dislike some others. Our assessment comes from basically two things: how they treat our illness and how they treat us.
In the seven decades of my life, I too have come across several scores of doctors, many of them treating me or treating the rest of my family. How many of them do I like, or, in these twilight years, do I remember with love, gratitude or reverence? And is there any one or more that I dislike?
Thinking of the physicians and surgeons who, for a period of time, had a sway over my life, I feel that collectively they may be compared to flowers in a garden. Some flowers are attractive but have no fragrance. Some may not look great but have a fragrance that goes beyond the garden. Some doctors are good in diagnosis but bad in human relations. Some others may have excellent rapport with you but not make sense of your problem, still less solve it. Just as very few flowers have color, fragrance and nectar all together, very few doctors put you at ease with that uncanny healing touch, better expressed by the Malayalam term, kaippunyam.
The first doctor who came into my life or, to be more precise, who brought me into life, was a nun of a mission hospital in the pre-Independent days who delivered my mother in our house at Kanjikkuzhy, Kottayam. She was a “synonym of love and geniality and grace,” my mother had recalled. I do not have any recollection of that pioneer among the doctors in my life.
The earliest doctor I remember was an apothecary before whom I was taken by my father when I was in the primary class. My recollection of him is as a candy man. Whenever a child patient entered his room the first thing he did was to give a naranga muttai, a candy that was popular among the kids those days. A glass jar full of the candy was always kept on his table.
I came to Thiruvananthapuram in 1960 to join the Pre-University Course in the Government Arts College. That was the time when I met two iconic doctors in the city; both having popular clinics on the Statue Road. One was Dr Balakrishna Pillai whose clinic was close to the statue of Dewan Sir T Madhava Rao and the other was Dr Ramakrishna Pillai whose clinic was way down the Statue Road. Dr Ramakrishna Pillai had a reputed colleague also with him, Dr Thampuran.
I remember Dr Balakrishna Pillai for another reason also. He drove around a car that was the envy of many in the city. A beautiful, shining, light-green Morris Minor. The good thing about that car is that it can still be seen on city roads nowadays occasionally, with all its vintage beauty.
Meeting these doctors, as also another old time apothecary, Dr K N Pillai, who had a clinic in a building named Cooperative Home behind the Secretariat, was, for many like me those days, an unforgettable experience. They were all gentle souls, they never put on airs, they accepted whatever you paid them and they gave you a concoction prepared then and there that seemed to heal you in good time. Unlike the tablets, syrups and injections prescribed by the doctors now, the doctors of those days just noted down for the compounder the names and the quantity of various drugs in powdered form that should go into the ‘mixture.’ The pinkish or light crimson water called mixture was the panacea that cured many an illness then.
I got to know Dr K N Pillai more after my marriage. He was the family physician of my in-laws and whenever needed he would make house calls. Always dressed in starched, oversize white trousers and half-sleeved white shirt, the shirt tucked in a little below the armpit level, he would come in his own car carrying a briefcase that seemed to contain The Remedy. I have only fond memories of that gem of a man.
As I was living at Sasthamangalam after marriage, the hospital I used to go when needed was the nearby Sree Ramakrishna Mission Hospital whose chief Physician was Dr Kesavan Nair. In Thiruvananthapuram those days there were two reputed doctors with the same name Kesavan Nair. But there was no confusion for the local residents as they devised an ingenious way to distinguish between the two. One was called Valia Kesavan Nair, or Big Kesavan Nair, and the other, of the SRM Hospital, Kochu Kesavan Nair or Little Kesavan Nair.
Valia Kesavan Nair was a pioneer surgeon who had begun his medical career during the princely days. He was part of the medical lore of the state as the one who started the surgery department of the Thiruvananthapuram Medical College Hospital. He also had another claim to fame. He was the surgeon in the General Hospital who saved the life of Dewan Sir C P Ramaswamy Iyer when he was brought there after an assassination bid on him in July 1947. Sir CP was grievously injured on his neck, nose, jaw and fingers when the would be assassin hacked him several times with a hatchet during a Semmangudi concert at the Music College. The stitching of the wounds by Dr Kesavan Nair was such that, according to Sir CP’s granddaughter and biographer Shakunthala Jagannathan, American doctors found a few months later that there was no need at all for any plastic surgery as the Thiruvananthapuram surgeon had done ‘a magnificent job.’
I had occasion to meet Valia Kesavan Nair only once, but had consulted Kochu Kesavan Nair several times. Like many of his peers, Kochu Kesavan Nair was unassuming, gentle and affectionate in his disposition and thorough in his diagnosis.
One of the most revered names among the physicians of the olden times was that of Dr K N Pai. A teacher to most of the doctors practicing in Thiruvananthapuram then, his was the last word in diagnosis. His home at Poojappura used to be a beehive of activity every evening with crowds of patients from far and near thronging there.The doctor was always so gracious in his approach to the patients and those who brought them in and so unmindful of the consultation fee that some people who considered themselves clever would leave empty envelopes on his table and go. But Dr Pai was such a gentleman that he would never feel offended by such indiscretions of the patients.
Dr K V Krishnadas, a former Professor of Medicine in the Thiruvananthapuram Medical College Hospital, was another physician I met occasionally. He was meticulous in his diagnosis as also in the maintenance of records. At a time when computers had not invaded our offices and homes,the doctor had a peculiar system of data maintenance. He kept huge ledgers like the account books of business houses. After examining a patient he would enter every bit of information on a page set apart for him. The ledgers came in handy when the patients made a repeat visit.
It was from my middle age onwards that force of circumstances brought me into contact with various specialist doctors on account of serious ailments that my son and wife had. Paediatrician Dr T P John, physician and Cardiologist Dr K P Chandrasekharan and Cardiologist Dr Vijayaraghavan were among the several doctors consulted when my six-month old son was detected with a congenital heart condition. Of them it was Dr Vijayaraghavan who pulled me and my wife out of the desolate state we were in and gave us hope. He told us not to worry at all as the defect could easily be corrected when the child was about seven or eight. It was again his advice that prompted me to write to one of the world renowned thoracic surgeons, Dr Tim Cartmill of Sydney, Australia.
Dr Cartmill was in fact goodness and grace personified. In the first letter itself he agreed to do the operation in his hospital, but cautioned me that Sydney was an expensive city and I had to give serious thought to the financial side of the trip. He indicated the quantum of funds that might be needed for hotel accommodation and to meet hospital expenses. But what he did next was remarkable. Through a Malayalee member of his surgical team, Dr John Tharian, he arranged health insurance cover for my son to meet bulk of the expenses and, after the operation, waived the entire balance of the amount due towards surgeon’s fees etc. As for the operation, doctors back home were wonderstruck at the procedure done, which they described as a ‘classic case of correction’ of that complex defect.
When a year after my son’s operation my wife was detected with a brain tumor, I was again in turmoil and torment. Wrong diagnosis by a local neurologist, prolonged wrong treatment under him and a miscarried operation by a famous neurosurgeon in south India’s best known hospital in Tamil Nadu have all contributed to make life miserable to the utmost for my wife. Of all the doctors I have come across in my life, here was one surgeon whom I dislike to the core of my being. Not because of his failed operation, which could be justified for the lack advanced diagnostic tools like CT Scans at the time of the operation (March 1980), but because of the blatant lie he told me after the procedure. He told me that though one half of the cerebellum was sacrificed to reach the tumor (giving my wife a permanent, debilitating physical handicap), about 95 per cent of the tumor could be removed. A CT Scan taken some months after the operation showed that this was a hundred per cent lie as the entire tumor mass was still there and the surgeon had only scraped off a little bit for biopsy.
It was when all hope was lost that Dr M Sambasivan, then Professor of Neurosurgery in the Thiruvananthapuram Medical College Hospital, who later assumed the coveted position of President of the World Federation of Neurosurgical Societies, came into my life as a savior. He did what was considered Impossible with a capital I: Retrieving for me a life that was almost irretrievably lost at the Tamil Nadu Hospital.
What he did was not at all an ordinary tumor operation. It was much beyond that. Perhaps there was that God particle in the operation theatre. Or was God himself holding the scalpel through the hands of the surgeon?
For, without God’s grace the appalling failure of the previous operation could in no way be reversed.