Those life-saving hands


There is something arresting about doctors’ hands. Whenever I meet a doctor I am always drawn to look at his/her hands. They look so clean, so well-washed, nails so neatly trimmed. The best doctors wear the minimum of rings and things!

One of my childhood memories is the sight of our family doctor, Dr Vaidyanatha Iyer washing his hands after a visit. After examining the patient, the good doctor would come out of the room to find our servant standing by with a shining bell-metal ‘kindi,’ a vessel with a long spout, filled with water, soap and a clean towel. He would stand near the steps, soap his hands carefully and holding his hands out under the spout, wash them well. He did this after every visit, irrespective of whether the patient was suffering from something contagious, or not.

Dr K N Pillai, who looked after my parents-in-law, my husband and me and our children was a doctor of the old order. He was a gifted and witty raconteur who would make us laugh with his stories. He would also tell us about the many true stories of coming out successful after wrestling with difficult deliveries.

“There I would be, miles away from hospitals, operation rooms or modern equipment of any kind. All I would have were a couple of kerosene lamps, plenty of boiling water and these, my two hands. There was no question of taking the patient to the nearest hospital as it was miles away. I would send a quick and fervent prayer to the almighty and proceed. There were astonishingly few tragedies. These, my two trusted friends,” he would say, holding out his two gnarled hands “would probe, massage and pull... and the wonderful reward would be the lusty cry of the new-born. How I loved that moment. And the sound!”

And always, the doctor would say, “There would be, hovering in the background the small figure of the local midwife, unlettered and totally ignorant of any modern medical knowledge but rich in experience and common sense. What marvellous head nurses they would have made, given a minimum of education. But even so they helped, just being there and bringing gallons boiling water.”

I wish I had asked our dear doctor to hold out his hands so that I could have taken a photo of those life-saving hands, by now gnarled and not used in the heady exploits of those early days, but still so gentle in taking the pulse of tiny wrists.

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