The unrepeatable Dr Varkey, RIP

Updated: 13 October, 2020 07:45 IST | C Y Gopinath | Mumbai

He believed that a good family doctor must help his patients live well but also when their time comes, guide them in passing on with grace and dignity.

Dr Cherian Varkey. Pic/C Y Gopinath
Dr Cherian Varkey. Pic/C Y Gopinath

C Y Gopinath

The story is told about a widower in Bangalore, in his late 80s. Money was not his problem but ill health and loneliness were. His worries were all cardiac — he had a pacemaker and had undergone a multiple bypass surgery. Several stents kept his arteries propped open. His anti-coagulants and anti-hypertensive drugs had affected his kidneys. Combined with hereditary diabetes, this meant spending a day every week in dialysis. His medical needs were so demanding that he employed several full-time nurses, working in shifts.

He was loved by his many sons, daughter and grandchildren, none of whom, alas, were in India any longer. He lived for their daily video conference calls where he would put on a brave face and tell them he was feeling very well.

But then he would feel a sudden twinge, a shooting pain or some other disturbance — and call his cardiologist, Dr Cherian Varkey. "Please come at once, doctor, I'm dying!"

Dr Varkey would come, always. But one day, after calming him down, he spoke to him softly. "You have lived an enviable life, full and rich. You have earned well, loved well and been loved well. But the way you are living now — is this a life?"

Holding his patient's hand, he said with the greatest kindness, "My dear friend, it takes wisdom to know when to let go. Your time has come to move on."

In a world where medicine is a thriving industry and doctors are advised to trust lab reports over their own intuitions or else be exposed to litigation, Dr Varkey's life is a moving reminder of what it means to be a family doctor and a healer. He believed that a good doctor does not merely help his patients live healthy lives; he must also make sure that when their bell tolls, they pass away as well as they had lived.

For a whole generation of Bangalore's physicians and cardiologists, Cherian Varkey has been a guiding star, modelling the very human virtues that make a doctor more than a mere physician.

"He was a legend to us," says Dr Ranga Nayak, his long-time friend and doctor's doctor. "From him, we learned to see a patient as a whole human being with feelings, not like a car with a defective part. He was a role model, a mentor, a friend, a fellow cricket lover, someone who cared for everyone he met. He moved beautifully from one role to another."

Dr Varkey understood that sometimes to heal a person you had to heal his family. His daughter Pervin remembers when he returned late after a difficult cardiac surgery for a first-time patient. The operation had been lengthy but successful. Dr Varkey came home to shower and eat, but then set out for the hospital again.

"Why are you going back?" asked Pervin. "You said the patient was stable."

"His family needs me now," her father replied. "They are tense and worried. They need to be comforted and reassured."

His skills of observation and diagnosis were legendary. Dr Varkey was one of that rare and vanishing species, the family doctor, deeply in touch with not just physiology but also psychology, heredity and ancestry. His son-in-law Ajit, plagued for months by a persistent headache that defied diagnosis, remembers how Dr Varkey reviewed the x-rays and instantly spotted something that a dozen doctors had missed.

"You have no time to lose," he told Ajit. The diagnosis was TB and treatment began at once. Ajit's headaches were gone in a week.

Dr Varkey's compassionate and incandescent soul has touched me in more ways than I can recount. When I found myself breathless at slight exertions, I flew to him in Bangalore. An angiogram revealed an 80% blockage in my left ascending artery, which was cleared and replaced with a stent.

Two days later, over a dinner he had prepared, the doctor had words for me. "Think of your body as a building 53 years old. What would you expect to find in its old pipes? Well, that's what we found in your heart. Now we've cleaned out the junk and you're good to go again. But Gopi, old buildings only get older. Live well, be moderate, don't overdo anything — but for God's sake, don't underdo anything either. Enjoy every moment."

His own time came last week. The 84-year-old physician's instructions had been explicit and detailed. His heart, where most of his problems lay, was not to be opened up and 'fixed'. No effort was to be made to artificially prolong his life.

Cherian Varkey passed away thus, at around 2.40 am last Tuesday, October 6. He left behind not grief and wails of bereavement but love, hymns and memories of the many lives he had enriched immeasurably during his life.

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at cygopi@gmail.com

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The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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First Published: 13 October, 2020 06:29 IST

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