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Undergoing an operation for the removal of a cataract is like being the prime ingredient in a gourmet meal: time is taken in the preparation.

As with most such comparatively minor medical procedures which are necessary but postpone-able, I kept delaying it until I realised I could not drive at night without risking my own life and the lives of the shadows I could barely discern on the road.

I booked an appointment with my ophthalmologist to have my cataracts removed. He had performed a similar operation on my wife’s eyes some time ago. I know it had been successful: she could see my defects more clearly.

My procedure was scheduled for 4.00 p.m. in the afternoon. I spent most of the morning applying the prescribed eye drops, necessary to dilate my pupils and to disinfect my eye.

I arrived at the clinic on time and joined other patients who, like me, watched with one eye the one-sided T-20 semi-final match between Australia and Pakistan.

It took another two hours of waiting while eye drops were periodically applied to my right eye. Just before six, I was escorted into a sanitised pre-op room where I was joined by two other patients — one a patient old lady assisted by her son, and the other a middle-aged man who suddenly burst into tears, sobbing in spasms. I am too reserved to intrude into a stranger’s privacy. My wife had no such qualms. She offered him sympathy and support and a glass of water. He received all three gratefully, explaining that his wife had died of dengue some weeks earlier and as they were in the habit of doing everything together, he felt her absence too deeply for words.

It is at times like this when one realises how insignificant one’s own discomfort is in the face of another’s pain. I waited until my name was called.

The operating theatre was like the bedroom of a boutique hotel, with one narrow elevated bed upon which I was asked to lie down.

The ophthalmologist was reassurance itself. Gently he put a mask over my face. It had a single round aperture through which he could operate on my eye. He told me to look up and fastened my eyelids with a clamp. Within a second my vision was replaced by a single bright light in a hazy white glow.

I was suddenly reminded of accounts I had read of patients who had had near-death experiences when, on their return, all they could recall was a shining bright light and a feeling of calm well-being.

My thoughts were more mundane. I remembered instead the autobiography of Dr Henry Holland — Frontier Doctor (1958). In it, he narrates how in 1907 he took over the hospital in Quetta and gradually converted it into a model for ophthalmic surgeries.

The hospital had been founded by a Dr Sutton and expanded by his successor Dr Summerhayes. They practised the ‘extra-capsular’ technique of cataract removal, a method which was rendered obsolete by a Dr Col ‘Jullundhur’ Smith who innovated an intracapsular procedure, ie ‘removal of the lens of the eye complete with the capsule’.

Dr Henry Holland ran hospitals in Quetta and Shikarpur and frequently rudimentary eye camps (often in the face of myopic opposition), throughout the inaccessible reaches of Balochistan and Sindh. He cured hundreds of thousands of invariably under-privileged patients until his retirement in 1948.

I never met Dr Henry Holland but I was privileged to host his son Dr. Ronnie Holland when he set up his eye camp at the rudimentary clinic of our family textile mill in Gambat (near Khairpur).

During the week Dr Holland and his small but dedicated team stayed at Gambat, he performed umpteen operations on rustic patients who came from miles away. His wife Joan had contracted polio early on in their marriage. Although confined in a wheelchair, she assisted him despite her disability by maintaining the notes of each patient.

Two operating tables had been installed to enable Dr Ronnie Holland to alternate — operating on one patient while the other was being prepared. This mechanical oscillation continued throughout the day. At night, he would wake every two hours to turn his wife, to prevent her developing bedsores. Both of them were inspirational.

Now that I have had one eye treated, I can see the world through each eye differently. I see my future bright and clear, and my present clouded and opaque — not unlike our prime minister. He sees his own political future and that of his assisted crumbling coalition with clarity, and the darkened sins of his predecessors with a blurred opacity.

One is tempted to advise every politician to have their cataracts removed. They will see the 2022 elections with incisive sharpness.



[DAWN, 18 Nov. 2021]


18 November 2021
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