Dr Mathew Varghese: The polio warrior who wants his ward empty
India’s eradicated polio seven years ago — the last case was reported on January 13, 2011 in the Howrah district in West Bengal — but millions who survived it live with the scars.delhi Updated: Jan 14, 2018 17:44 IST
Microsoft-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates has called him one of five “heroes saving the world” who inspire him in GatesNotes last week, but Dr Mathew Varghese, an orthopaedic surgeon who runs India’s only polio ward at St Stephen’s Hospital in Delhi, has not read the post.
“I rarely read anything online. I just use WhatsApp to look at x-rays,” he says.
His one dream is to see the polio ward empty, but fears his wish may not come true in his lifetime.
India’s eradicated polio seven years ago — the last case was reported on January 13, 2011 in the Howrah district in West Bengal — but millions who survived it live with the scars.
In early-90s, polio crippled more than 50,000 children each year. “There are many polio-affected people out there who can lead a more normal life with the orthopaedic surgeries. It will take another 50 years for the devastating effects of polio to not be visible,” said Dr Varghese, who refuses to disclose his age but flaunts 30 years of work experience surgically-correcting and rehabilitating people affected with polio.
His ward this week has eight women in plaster and traction, all in different stages of recovery after undergoing surgeries to straighten their legs or spine. “Do you know why there are eight women in the ward now?” he asked. “It’s because it’s exam time and most men are busy studying. Only women who are not in school or college get surgery done at this time of the year,” he said.
Dr Varghese’s first close encounter with polio was three decades ago OPD when, as a senior resident at Maulana Azad Medical College, he started going to the Sanjay Amar Colony slum with a group of other doctors every Saturday to treat the poor. “Several patients had deformities caused by polio and I decided to help them ,” he said.
Over the decades, he’s touched and changed many lives. “Most patients with this condition say that they do not believe in god. Why should they? They do not deserve life-long suffering,” he says.
He does his bit to mitigate the suffering. St Stephen’s cross-subsidises treatment for needy patients and offers surgery, physiotherapy, supportive devices and hospital stay free to all polio patients admitted to the hospital. Since 2001, the polio programme is aided by Rotary India.
Treating people is extremely humbling and for Dr Varghese, learning never stops. “Once on my door-to-door rounds in a Haryana village, I saw a child I had put on callipers (a supportive frame to help a person walk) walking around without them. I started scolding the mother, telling her that her carelessness would lead to his leg getting twisted again and his needing surgery,” he said.
“When I paused for breath, the mother calmly explained that the child has outgrown his callipers. ‘We took him to the hospital to get new ones, but were told he’ll get new a new one only after two years. We don’t have the money to buy them, so he does without,’ she said. I was ashamed,” he said.
Dr Varghese is at the ward before 8am each day and tries to treat everyone who reaches the ward. “Most orthopaedic beds in government hospitals are occupied by accident victims, there are no beds for polio patients. I try to admit outstation patient immediately to save them travel, and if a patient is from Delhi, reschedule them for a day when a bed is free,” he said.
Polio cases are far from easy to treat and the complex surgeries need extensive planning. “The surgeon must have thorough knowledge of all the bones and joints as polio can paralyse any part of the body. “I thought if no one can do it, I should be extremely good at it,” he said. “Even today, we avoid giving polio cases to residents for practical exams, knowing well they would flunk the test,” said Dr Varghese.
An avid photographer, he captures his memories on a camera he carries around with him wherever he goes. Each photograph in his slide-show of more than a hundred pictures has a story that he narrates in a small basement full of books, files and souvenirs.
Among his prized possessions are paintings made by his patients, including his large life-like portrait on the wall opposite the door of his office. “I tell my friends that they will not have to look for my photograph after I die, it’s already here,” he said.
Dr Varghese encourages patients to use their time in the ward to learn and create. And they do. Kiran Bhardwaj, 27, a postgraduate who has been living in the ward for 10 months for four corrective surgeries for her spine and legs, paints when she is fit enough to sit up after surgery. “This time, I will leave on my feet,” she said.
Now that India is polio free, what keeps him going? He look at the happy faces of his patients and smiles widely, “Do I really need to tell you?”