A Ringside Seat - 2

 A Ringside Seat - 2

Dr.Ravin L. Thatte

Before I became a full-fledged consultant and was yet to start private practice on my own, I spent some months in the then vigorous family planning campaign of the Union and State Governments. Vasectomy operations were then being conducted at Dadar Railway Station on Platform Number 1, Western Railway. It used to be said that people could alight from a train, have a vasectomy done and catch the next train home. It was that simple! Though I heard reports of occasional malpractice, I was not witness to any. What was bothersome, however, was the disbursement of money to those who underwent that simple operation. A total of Rs 130 had to be disbursed among the willing patient, his sponsor, the nurse, the ward boy and the surgeon himself. The surgeon was entrusted with the task of payments and a lot of paperwork was involved. In between operations, I had to change my gown and gloves. So, in order to expedite the work, I arranged for an assistant to handle the cash. This was a man called Chandan Singh who claimed he was an ex-Serviceman and was a useful handyman to have around. He appeared to be honest and trustworthy and would often come to see me at home. However, one particular day, both my luck and his integrity took a nose- dive. Chandan Singh disappeared with Rs 600. I felt bad, cheated and somewhat foolish. It was nearly five years later that the second part of the drama unfolded. As I stepped into my Consulting Room one day, I was surprised to see several Arabs sitting in the waiting room. They trooped in one by one for correction of minor surgical conditions. I had never an Arab patient before and I had to face a language barrier. Even as I was wondering what to do, who should walk in but a tall man with a long beard and dark glasses. Before I could say anything, he started to act as an interpreter between me and the patients. In those days, I charged thirty rupees as consultation fees and for the three Arabs the total came to ninety rupees. The bearded intruder, however, asked the Arabs to shell out seven hundred rupees which they promptly did. The man thereupon handed the entire amount to me. When the Arabs left, this man proceeded to remove his dark glasses and reveal himself. It was — yes-Chandan Singh, no other! Even as I gasped with surprise Singh said: "Sir, sorry for that day! Now I have returned your money with interest! Forgive me, good-bye!” And before I could reply, he stalked out of my room, never to be seen again. I suppose that is life!

My brush with law, abroad, has been equally interesting, though a trifle more unnerving. In the latter half of 1971, I served as Senior Resident in a large County Hospital in Chicago which had one of the biggest burn units for civilian burn cases. It had its own mix of patients, including innocent children, firemen hurt while on duty, a fair section of older citizens and others. Among the "others" were criminals who had been hurt in assorted violent incidents. About midway through my tenure, a man was brought in with nearly 40 per cent deep and superficial burns. He was drunk. Let me call this gentleman 'M'. After he recovered a bit from his intoxication (not from his burns which took more than six weeks), he told me an extraordinary story. He had pulled into a gas station to fill up his car and had got out of his car to make the payment when the pump suddenly exploded and caught fire. Thus it came about that 'M', an innocent citizen, suffered a grievous injury. The policemen came in soon afterwards, but were totally unconvinced with M's story. They probably knew what had really happened and pestered me to let them record his statement. I was reluctant to do so for two reasons. For one, M was very sick and was being treated for shock. He was also not really coherent and would need sedation from time to time to keep him under control. There were times when we needed Demerol (200 or 300 mg) just to keep him quiet. The police tried desperately to talk to him and ultimately succeeded. I was coming out of the Operating Room when the policemen emerged from the wards and thanked me for having allowed them to record M's statement. "Did he sound all right?” I asked them. "Oh yes, indeed” said one of the cops, "he was lucid and he sang", by which, of course, he meant that M had said what the police wished him to say. M must have been faced with enough incriminating material for him to tell the full truth and nothing but the truth.

Visitors to M looked thoroughly unsavoury. They were a source of unending trouble to the hospital staff until the Head Nurse, Caroline Shorr finally convinced me that they needed to be checked. I spoke to M's mother (there apparently was no wife) who ultimately admitted to me that M was good-for-nothing and had been nothing but trouble ever since he was a boy. Slowly but surely M recovered, through a series of skin grafts, blood transfusions, antibiotics and high protein food and as he recovered, we lost interest in his social background. In due course of time, he was discharged.

It was nearly a year later that M sprang back into my life. I had finished my assignment in Chicago and was training at the Waine State University in Detroit. It was late at night and I was on call. So, when the phone rang, I thought it was from the hospital. But what I heard on the phone was a heavy voice, rather curt and admonishing. It said that he was a lawyer fighting M's case. M had been arraigned for setting fire to a petrol pump and an attempt to hurt the pump attendant and I was to proceed to Chicago as an expert witness on behalf of the defence. I was also told that I would be paid a fee to appear as a witness and would also be paid my to and fro airfare. The conversation was one-sided, intimidatory and it frightened me. Before I could put in a word, the line went dead. I made enquiries the next day with some American friends and the general view appeared to be that though I could protest and delay my going or ask for a better fee for my appearance it would be prudent not to refuse. Obviously they too had realised what sort of people I was dealing with.

I was duly flown to Chicago and was met at the airport by a group of men who did not look exactly like gentlemen. They wore white shoes and had scars on their faces and one of them carried a gun. The car they drove me in was old and had seen better days. But the car that followed us was a brand new one in which sat a man wearing sinister-looking dark glasses. Soon after, I was ushered into a court, sworn in, and asked a single question. "Would a man who had received 200 mg of Demerol in the preceding two hours be always lucid and coherent?” The answer of course, had to be in the negative. That finished my testimony. For a moment I thought I saw a sense of relief even on the face of the judge and the steno-typist. Then I was quickly ushered out, given lunch at a rather expensive restaurant in downtown Chicago, paid my fees for my appearance and put on a plane back to Detroit. Before I left Chicago, I phoned my wife to say that I was safe and sound and would be home for dinner.

Compilation of professional reminiscences of specialists - edited by M.V.Kamath and Dr.Rekha Karmarkar