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How Gordon Brown’s Indian doctor saved his sight twice

Hector Chawla, an Indian-origin eye surgeon, saved former British premier Gordon Brown’s right eye after a rugby incident and later advised him against eye surgery in 2009.

world Updated: Oct 30, 2017 23:33 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
Former UK prime minister Gordon Brown speaking at an event at the London Zoo in July 2017, with industrialist Swraj Paul (centre) and Indian high commissioner YK Sinha (right).
Former UK prime minister Gordon Brown speaking at an event at the London Zoo in July 2017, with industrialist Swraj Paul (centre) and Indian high commissioner YK Sinha (right).(HT Photo)

Hector Chawla, an Indian-origin eye surgeon who saved former prime minister Gordon Brown’s right eye after the left went blind following a rugby incident when he was 16, came to the rescue againwhen his famous patient was in 10, Downing Street, in 2009.

Brown recalls in his memoir, to be published next week, how he sought his “old friend” Chawla’s second opinion when he had problems in the right eye and was about to go in for surgery in London. The Edinburgh-based eye surgeon, now in his late 70s, was consulted.

Prime minister from 2007 to 2010 and chancellor of the exchequer from 1997 to 2007, Brown was one of the architects of the “New Labour” that came to power in 1997 and won three successive elections under the leadership of Tony Blair.

In extracts released before the publication of the memoir titled My Life, Our Time, 66-year-old Brown dwells on various aspects of his political career, including the challenges facing politicians in the age of the internet and social media.

"When I woke up in Downing Street one Monday in September (2009), I knew something was very wrong. My vision was foggy. That morning, I was to visit the City Academy in Hackney to speak about our education reform agenda,” he wrote.

"I kept the engagement, doing all I could to disguise the fact that I could see very little - discarding the prepared notes and speaking extemporaneously."

After the event, he was driven to the consulting room of a prominent surgeon at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London.

Brown wrote: "To my shock, in examining my right eye, he discovered that the retina was torn in two places and said that an operation was urgently needed. He generously agreed to operate that Sunday."

On his way out, Brown asked if his “old friend“ Chawla could be invited to give a second opinion. He saw him the day the operation was due to take place.

He recalled: "I was already prepared for surgery when he examined me and said he was convinced that the tears had not happened in the past few days. They were not new but longstanding.

"His advice was blunt. There was no point in operating unless the sight deteriorated further. Laser surgery in my case was more of a risk than it was worth," he wrote, adding he feels "lucky beyond words" that the retina has continued to hold.

Known as a dour, no-nonsense politician, Brown’s memoir reveals dismay at not being able to communicate with the electorate in the age of social media. He candidly admits not being able to keep up with the new age of political communication. Labour lost the 2010 election under his leadership.

Brown writes: “I fell short in communicating my ideas. I failed to rally the nation. We won the battle – to escape recession – but we lost the war – to build something better.”

According to him, today’s politicians, unlike those of the past, are expected to show their feelings and reveal aspects of their personal lives, something he found particularly difficult. “The modern version of ‘connecting’ seems to increasingly include a public display of emotion, with the latter – authentic or not – seen as evidence of a sincerity required for political success.”

He added, “In a far more touchy-feely era, our leaders speak of public issues in intensely personal ways and assume they can win votes simply by telling their electors that they ‘feel their pain’. For me, being conspicuously demonstrative is uncomfortable.

“I am not, I hope, remote, offhand or uncommunicative. But if I wasn’t an ideal fit for an age when the personal side of politics had come to the fore, I hope people will come to understand this was not an aloofness or detachment or, I hope, insensitivity or a lack of emotional intelligence on my part.”

Born, as he put it, “40 years before the world wide web”, Brown wrote: “The internet often functions like a shouting match without an umpire. Trying to persuade people through social media seems to matter less than finding an echo chamber that reinforces one’s own point of view.

“Too often, all we are hearing is the sound of voices like our own. The turnaround is so instantaneous that, for the luxury of sounding off, we often forgo the duty to sit and think. And because differentiation is the name of the political game – showing what divides you from your opponent, not what you have in common – achieving a consensus in a wilderness of silos is difficult, if not impossible.”