The healing touch
N J Ravi Chander
My maternal uncle, M D Umapathi, recalls a time in the 1950s when the life-threatening Typhoid struck him in Bengaluru. The bacterium spread through contaminated food or water, and symptoms included prolonged fever, fatigue, headache, nausea, abdominal pain, and constipation or diarrhea. Severe cases led to dire complications and even death.
The uncle, then a chit of a boy, recollects that the family always turned to Dr. Fernandez, a respected general practitioner in the area whenever somebody took ill. There were a couple of government dispensaries too, but the clan rarely sought them out.
The doctor lived next to an ancient cemetery, behind the railway line, that snaked through the town. A cheerful person and an eager beaver, Dr Fernandez, could induce relief in patients with a mere touch of his hand. People often spoke of him in the same breath as the proverbial saviour!
When the uncle’s health took a turn for the worse, the family once again counted on the ‘good old doctor’ to rescue the patient from the infection and restore him to health. The doctor’s confirmation that it was a case of Typhoid fever set off alarm bells among the family elders.
Years prior, two devastating losses – the death of a son and daughter – had upended my grandparent’s lives. Losing another child at this stage could have been the final straw. But the doctor’s calm demeanour and soothing words for the family made their fears evaporate. He also listed out the dos and don’ts, including washing hands with water and soap after using the lavatory.
The family observed the doctor’s instructions to a T, feeding the patient only porridge during the 14 day incubation period and giving him his daily dose of antibiotics. The parents spared no effort to hop to nearby shrines and pray to the Almighty for the lad’s speedy recovery.
My uncle in jest recollects how, recuperating from fatigue, he found it hard to squeeze his eyes shut while falling asleep. The condition so alarmed his mother, Logambal, that she often resorted to shaking him out of his slumber to find out if he was alive.
The uncle snarled at the daily servings of porridge offered to him and longed for the spicy, home-cooked fare. But the kin never budged and stuck to the doctor’s rule book. Unable to control his craving for traditional meals any longer, the uncle decided to chance his arm. One day when his parents drove out to the market and left him in his sister’s (my mother Padmavathi’s) care, he tiptoed into the kitchen and gobbled down a hearty meal of rice, curry and other accompaniments. But the ploy boomeranged!
On returning home, the concerned mother discovered that her son had an upset tummy and something was amiss. Alarm bells began to toll yet again, and the bewildered parents wasted no time in summoning the doctor. Not the one to tolerate nonsense, Dr Fernandez’ searching glare was enough to scare the daylights out of the kid and prise out the truth. Admonishing the erring lad for flouting rules, the doctor stretched the quarantine period by another fortnight.
This time around, the typhoid-stricken Umapathi did not dare throw caution to the winds. Having paid for his folly, he refused temptation and stuck to the ‘Doctor’s recipe’ like the fabled good boy. The family also did not falter this time around and took more than ordinary care in nursing the ailing child back to health. The old warhorse who emerged triumphant in the battle against Typhoid in the middle of the last century is 80, going on 81!
(The author is a former banker. He writes for the Deccan Herald, The New Indian Express, The Tribune, The Hitavada, The City Tab, The Hans India and Kashmir Vision)