Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Eyes Wide Open

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Yvonne talks about life with the noted ophthalmologist and Padma Shri winner Dr. Tony Fernandes

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo by Melton Antony

One day, Mabel Fernandes was talking to her neighbour Dr. George Joseph. She told George that her son, Tony, an ophthalmologist, had returned from London and was working in the Madurai Medical College. “He has a house to stay, and a boy to cook his meals, but he is all alone,” she said. “I think it is time for him to get married.”

George immediately suggested a girl he knew, Yvonne Collis, who was studying in the Medical College at Kozhikode.

Can you tell me something about the family?” said Mabel.

I don’t know much, but her father is the owner of ships in Ernakulam,” said George.

Oh, I know him, that's Freddy Collis,” said Mabel. “He is a distant relative.”

And so, after sending feelers, it was arranged for Tony to see Yvonne at her home in Ernakulam. When they met, Yvonne’s first impression was positive. “Tony was handsome and had curly black hair,” she says. “But I was worried about his height. He was just a little taller than me.”

Tony also liked her and so the families agreed to the marriage. It took place on July 6, 1966, at the St. Joseph's church in Thiruvananthapuram. After the wedding mass, Tony, 32, did something which Yvonne, 23, has never forgotten. “When we had to go to the office to sign the wedding register, Tony told me to lead the way,” says Yvonne. “That was so rare. It is always the boy who walks ahead, especially in our patriarchal society. I was impressed and thought, 'He is a nice man.'”

Yvonne joined Tony at Madurai a few months later, after she completed her house surgency at Ernakulam General Hospital. At Madurai, Tony had made a name through his cataract surgeries, plastic surgery on the cornea,   and the corrections of squints. “Many girls would come and get their squint corrected,” says Yvonne. “As a result, they could get married easily. Their parents were very grateful.”

After three years, Tony got a job at the Little Flower Hospital in Angamaly. He worked there for more than 40 years, established his name, did pioneering surgery, and won numerous prizes, including the BC Roy Award from the Medical Council of India, as well as the Padma Shri in 2008.

When asked to list her husband’s qualities, Yvonne says, “Tony considered me as his equal and always had a discussion before taking any decision. He is a good mentor for young doctors. He is a soft-spoken man who has a lot of sympathy for the poor. If any patient is in need, he would go even if it is in the middle of the night.”

In those times, it was difficult to get eyes. It was got from Colombo via Thiruvananthapuram. As soon as the eye arrived, Tony would do the operation, whatever be the time. “He told me that this is going to give sight to a patient,” says Yvonne. “So, there is no need to wait. I would tell him, 'Your first, second and third love is ophthalmology. It is only after that I come into the picture.'” Incidentally, Yvonne had been an anesthesiologist for several years, before she retired in 2008.

Sometimes, Yvonne would ask Tony to take their family – three daughters and two sons – out once in a while. “Once he agreed and asked us to get ready to go for a film at Angamaly,” says Yvonne. “At 5.30 p.m., we were ready. But he did not come. Then 6.30 came. Then 7.30 p.m. Then when he came at 8.30 p.m., he looked at us and said, 'I am so sorry. There were so many patients that I forgot.'”

Indeed, Tony's biggest drawback has been his absent-mindedness. On their second wedding anniversary, Yvonne bought a black briefcase and placed a letter inside it. When Tony rushed home and said he had to go for a free eye camp, at Rameswaram, Yvonne gave him the gift. Later, at night, when he opened the briefcase, and saw the card, he realised that it was their wedding anniversary. “The next day he sent me a telegram wishing me,” says Yvonne, with a smile.

For Yvonne, her most trying period came when Tony had a heart attack on October 1, 1989, at their home, near Aluva. And it was Yvonne, along with a neighbour, Gopinath, who rushed Tony to the Little Flower Hospital at 2 a.m.

After a while, the physician came out of the Intensive Care Unit and told Yvonne that the first four hours were very important. “You should pray,” he said.

Tony was 55, at that time, and at the prime of his life and the height of his fame. Yvonne was thinking, 'If my husband died now how will I manage? All my five children are studying.”

The eldest one, Sylvie, was doing her final year in dentistry. The second one, Freddy, was in his third year in medicine. The third, Sonia, had joined an architecture course. The last two, Tony and Sabina, were in school.

Anyway, Tony survived, but had to spend 22 days in hospital. And both spouses changed after that. “The heart attack deepened our faith in God,” says Yvonne. “We had many trying times, but we overcame it through prayers. My advice to all young couples is this: ‘A family that prays together stays together.’”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

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