Friday, October 24, 2008

Eternally vigilant

Dr Thomas Sebastian, the oldest practicing anaesthetist in Kerala, was conferred the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Indian Society of Anaesthesiologists

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1985, a two-year-old girl Abida (name changed) was brought for a cleft lip surgery at the Specialists’ hospital at Ernakulam. At that time the anaesthetist was Dr. Thomas Sebastian. The operation was done successfully and the girl was able to lead a normal life.

She grew up, got married and had a baby girl. Surprisingly, the baby also had a cleft lip. In 2005, Abida brought her daughter to the hospital for a similar operation. The anaesthetist? It was Thomas once again.

Today, at 73, Thomas is the oldest practicing anaesthetist in Kerala. So far he has done a few thousand operations in his 38-year career. And in view of this the Cochin branch of the Indian Society of Anaesthesiologists (ISA), conferred on Thomas a Lifetime Achievement Award on October 16, World Anaesthesia Day at a well-attended function at the Grand Hotel.

Thomas, who was born in Changanassery, is the fifth child of the late P.J. Sebastian, Pullamkalam, the freedom fighter cum socio-political leader.

After college he did his medicine at the University of Padua in Italy. However, the initial days at Padua were not easy since he did not know Italian. But thanks to a few senior Malayali students who were already there, he was able to pick up the language soon.

It was while in Padua that Thomas was able to solve a problem that would have affected his career.

“For several years I had been suffering from hyperhidrosis,” he says. “This is an ailment where my hands and palms would sweat profusely. I realised this would be a handicap especially if I had to interact with patients and needed to touch them.”

So he consulted a neurosurgeon in Padua who, in an operation, cut the nerves in the spinal cord that led to the hands. “As a result the sweat glands did not receive any nervous energy and stopped sweating,” says Thomas. “This saved my career.”

From Italy, Thomas went to England and did his house surgency at Maelor General Hospital, North Wales. It was while working at the anesthetist unit that he decided to become one.

In 1971, contrary to all expectations Thomas returned to Kerala and joined the Malankara Medical Mission Hospital at Kolencherry as a consultant anaesthetist.

“I always wanted to come back and serve my countrymen,” says Thomas. “And I have no regrets about it. I have had a good life and career.”

Interestingly, his younger brother Jacob, who also studied in Padua and became a gynaecologist, settled in Chicago, USA.

In 1984 Thomas moved to Ernakulam as a freelance anaesthetist and has been working with several hospitals, including the Specialists’ Hospital, since then.

“An anesthetist is known as an artificial doctor,” he says. “We provide artificial sleep, respiration and relaxation. Our motto is ‘Eternal Vigilance’. We are the first to come to the theatre and the last to leave.”

He says the anaesthetist provides a serene atmosphere for a surgeon to work in because it is an ‘apparently dead’ person that the latter is dealing with.

To make a patient, ‘apparently dead’, anesthesia is given intravenously. “It takes five seconds for a person to lose consciousness,” he says. “Once he or she sleeps we administer all the other medicines necessary for a safe surgery.”

The end result is that the patient has a painless experience in the operation theatre. “When he opens his eyes and says, ‘Is the operation over, doctor?’ I know the anaesthesia has worked perfectly,” says Thomas.

As a result of doing a good job for so many years he has earned the respect of his peers and juniors. “Some people find job satisfaction as a means to avoid burnout in life,” says ISA Cochin branch President, Dr. Mohan Mathew. “Thomas is one of them.”

He lauded Thomas’s honesty and his friendliness with staff and colleagues as the primary reasons for his long and enduring career.

Says anaesthetist Dr. V. Chandra Bhanu of Specialists’ Hospital: “Thomas can be trusted 100 per cent to do the job perfectly,” he says. “For my own wife’s operation I preferred that he be there rather than me.”

Nowadays, Bhanu says, Thomas is offering his services for free especially for those who come from financially-strapped families.

It has been a blemish-free career but in his personal life Thomas experienced tragedy when his wife Kochamma died of breast cancer on March 5, 1992, leaving him to look after four daughters on his own.

However, the pressure was relieved to a great extent when he got married to Mariamma Ambooken on January 2, 1995. Now all the children are married and well-settled in life and Thomas has seven grandchildren. But he continues his job as an anaesthetist.

“He loves his job and I don’t think he will call it a day,” says Bhanu. Thomas has a slightly different view. “I want to carry on as long as my health permits,” says the doctor who listens to Mozart, Bach, Vivaldi and Beethoven during his spare time.

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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