SURGEON’S DIARY: My mother, while she lived, was hands-on with everyone

Sunday February 17 2019

Accordingly we boarded a train to Bombay, en route to Bantwa, one afternoon.

Accordingly we boarded a train to Bombay, en route to Bantwa, one afternoon. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGA 

Yusuf K. Dawood
By Yusuf K. Dawood
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I don’t remember much of my early childhood in Bantwa, but one place I do remember is the nursery I attended before I joined the madrassah for my primary and secondary education.

The nursery was located in the mosque where I was taught to read and recite the Holy Koran, elementary numeracy and literacy. The practice of corporal punishment like caning and slapping hard on the face was quite common. One teacher was particularly bad-tempered and positively vicious; as a result, when he called one to mete out punishment, the poor little mite would ‘relieve’ himself before he reached the teacher’s desk!

In the last instalment, I talked about my father, so in this one I intend to concentrate on my mother to restore the balance.

She was the ultimate nurturer

One thing I clearly remember is her easy version of human anatomy which conflicted with Gray and Cunnigham, two great anatomists of their time.

It was manifested in her advice to me after I had ingested a glass of milk after dinner at her insistence. “Now stand up and walk so the milk can flow down your legs and make them stronger.” She said. She obviously thought that there were hollow passages from the stomach to the limbs!

Another incident, I remember when George the Fifth died. After reading the news from ‘Mumbai Samachar’, a daily Gujarati newspaper when my father informed her, she asked. “Who is he?”

Despite my father’s various explanations, he could see that she did not know who he meant. He had a brainwave and brought out a rupee coin out of his Godrej safe with the dead king’s head imprinted on it and showed it to my mum. Her response, “Oh him!” She remarked wryly.

She was the family ‘doctor’

Another episode I remember concerns both my parents and has implications for me as a surgeon, who has operated on many patients under general anaesthesia. During my stay in Mangalore, I developed an abscess on the inner side of my right arm which was throbbing all the time and my parents took me the nearest hospital in Kankanady, a suburb of Mangalore, where our factory and home were located.

It was known as Father Muller’s Hospital, named after its founder, run by Catholic priests. The doctor examined me and advised my parents that it needed lancing under general anaesthesia. My parents got frightened when they heard of the need to administer a ‘general’ because they were not sure if I would ‘come back’!

General anaesthesia in those days was administered by pouring ether or chloroform over a mask, while the patient’s resistance was curbed by two strong male nurses and was otherwise known as ‘rag and bottle’. My parents refused to sign the ‘consent form’ and took me home against medical advice. There my mother took charge of the patient and applied hot turmeric paste every day to the abscess.

Lo and behold, one night the abscess burst, followed by a great celebration to signify the triumph of herbal treatment over surgery. It vindicated my parent’s decision to refuse anaesthesia, fraught with danger that I might never return from oblivion! Abscesses don’t heal in an aesthetic fashion when they burst and I have a craggy scar on my right arm as evidence of this incident.

Thank God people’s fear of general anaesthesia has diminished since anaesthetic science has moved from the era of rag and bottle, otherwise I wouldn’t have had much of a ‘business’!

She gave the ultimate sacrifice

In the last column I referred to the tragedy which struck us at the end of our stay in Mangalore; it was my mother’s death after childbirth. As the priest said at her funeral service, she was destined to be buried in the red soil of Mangalore. He said so for a good reason.

A few months earlier, my parents decided that my mother with the children must return to our roots to find spouses for my eldest brother and only sister because they had reached puberty and therefore the age of marriage, as per the community custom. My father would join close to the wedding date. Accordingly, we boarded a train to Bombay, en route to Bantwa, one afternoon.

My father came to see us off and as the train left the platform, my mother saw him fluttering his solitary white handkerchief. She said to us all, “He has lived with his family for the last three years and now that he is alone, he will go mad.” This moaning continued passively until we reached Tirur, a small station late that evening where she alighted from the train. It was quite out of character for her, so we threw our luggage out of our compartment and joined her on the platform. We found mosquito and bug infested lodgings for the night and could not sleep a wink. We travelled back to Mangalore the next day. We did not realise that my mother was five-month pregnant, an additional reason to return home.

Four months later, she delivered a boy in the morning and sadly died of a post-partum haemorrhage the same evening. I vividly remember my father entreating the Anglo-Indian female doctor with her white dress perilously stretched around her corpulent waist to save the life of his wife and she replying. “Your wife needs blood and there is no blood in the blood-bank.”

My father rolled up his sleeve and pleaded. “Take as much blood as you like.” To which she replied without an iota of compassion. “I don’t think your blood will match.”

The boy is a survivor because he lived to become an eminent chest physician practising in Karachi. With hindsight, as a doctor, I realise that her life could have been saved by a couple of pints of blood and surgical extraction of the placenta which was stuck to the wall of her womb and was bleeding as a result!