It’s amazing how medical technology has advanced. Half a century ago, for instance, cancer meant an almost certain death. Now, about a third of all cancer patients survive. Not all cancers yield readily to treatment, but there are new ways to detect cancer early, and to treat it successfully.
A little further back, in the early 20th century, pernicious anaemia meant almost certain death. Towards the mid-1920s, it became treatable. Its exact cause was discovered in the 1950s: a deficiency of vitamin B12. Treatment was simple, effective, and inexpensive.
There’ve been equally amazing advances in the treatment of diseases of the eye, for example. Sixty or seventy years ago, if you had a retinal detachment, the chances were that you’d go blind. Today, methods are so advanced that fixing a detachment is almost a matter of routine.
It’s not just technology: there are outstanding doctors who used some of these inventions to good effect. There’s Christiaan Barnard, for example, who did the first heart transplant back in the 1960s...
Doctors and technology have made huge differences to lives, but sometimes, in individual cases, there’s also the matter of luck, sometimes dumb luck. Let me give you an example.
It began in 1976, in Trivandrum, not long before my school exams. My parents were worried about the effect of all that swotting on my weak eyes: I’d used spectacles since I was 10, and the lenses got thicker every year. My parents thought that contact lenses would reduce the eyestrain, and decided that I deserved a pair, which was good news, because it meant a good excuse to bunk school.
The only place where you could check out contact lenses was the Government Ophthalmic Hospital, which we knew very well, thanks to those weak eyes.
Dad and I went there one sunny morning, and bumped into a technician he knew. He told Dad to leave me with him and not to worry, so I found myself alone in the large, crowded waiting hall, with just enough money to get back home.
Soon a lady doctor turned up, led me to a small chamber furnished with benches, put some drops in my eyes. Some 15 minutes, she inserted lenses into my eyes, and told me to wait awhile. With the lenses in place, I could see rather better, and I enjoyed that for a while. But then, I’d been up half the night reading a new Alistair MacLean thriller, and the waiting was making me unbearably sleepy. Some minutes after the doctor left, I lay down on one of the benches and dozed off.
When I woke, the world was blurred again. I had no idea what had happened to the contact lenses. I thought they might have fallen off while I slept, so I spent the next few minutes on my hands and knees, feeling the entire dusty concrete floor for those fragile bits of glass, and despaired when I couldn’t find them.
When the doctor returned I told her I’d lost the lenses. Perhaps she was new: she wasn’t quite sure what to do so, she fetched help in the shape of an older lady doctor. This new doctor found the lenses at the sides of my eyes and retrieved them gently, all the while giving me a lecture on my irresponsible behaviour.
When the lenses were safely out, she relented, perhaps because of my nerdy looks, and offered me a bit of advice: if I studied regularly, she said, I wouldn’t have to lose sleep over exams. She saw my heavy spectacles, and continued, “Hmmm! Let me have a good look at your eyes.”
She led me to a dark room with instruments with glowing lights and many handles and levers. After a longish inspection, she shut off everything and led me back to the room with the benches. “You need some minor surgery in both eyes,” she said, “but we can’t do it here. You’ll have to go to Madras for it... It’s nothing very serious, but you have to get it done. Come back tomorrow with your father. Ask for me. My name is Mary Kuriakose.”
Next day, she spoke almost exclusively to Dad. “Your son’s retina has weak spots,” she said, “but we can strengthen those. One Dr Badrinath in Madras will do it.”
“He’s got his exams coming up,” Dad said. “Can it wait until after that?”
She smiled. “It’ll have to,” she said. “You’ll have to wait at least two months for your appointment.” She handed Dad a letter referring me to Dr Badrinath. “Write to him immediately.”
Dr Badrinath, was a large, reassuring man with an American accent. He took the time to explain the problem to me, and not just to Dad, and the procedure went off smoothly. One round of treatment wasn’t enough, and, over the next few years, it was repeated several times. Meanwhile, technology kept progressing.
By the 1990s, retinal detachments could be treated with a good chance of success, much better than in the late 1980s.
And so, when I had a retinal detachment last year, fixing it was a routine operation, something that wouldn’t have been possible a quarter of century ago.
Then, earlier this year, my friend Dr Kamath found that the cataract in the good eye needed to be removed, and did so late in June. As this goes to press, I’m still recovering from this round of surgery, and, with any luck, won’t need any more.
So, I’m grateful to dumb luck. If I hadn’t gone to sleep in that waiting room nearly half a century ago, I wouldn’t have seen Dr Kuriakose, and would probably have had my troubles before they could have been treated so smoothly. I’m grateful to her, for starting this chain of events. So, from the bottom of my heart, here’s to you, Dr Kuriakose.