Dr Sundaram Natarajan is a world renowned vitereo-retina surgeon who has been awarded Padma Shree for his excellence in the field. He has made two visits to Kashmir in the past 50 days to offer his services at SMHS Hospital where over 500 people with eyes injured by pellets have been admitted during the current unrest. This doctor has promised to keep coming every month for one year to do what he does best – repair retinas and help people see.
In an exclusive interview with Greater Kashmir Correspondent Zehru Nissa, he shares his experiences.
Do such injuries happen in other parts of the world?
No, its not there. I wish it was not here too.
When you met CM Mehbooba Mufti on your last visit, did you advocate that such injuries need to be stopped?
Yes. I told them. I want peace I said. I feel if there is peace, then nobody will get injured.
What did she(CM) say ?
She said they were all worried about it.
This time I did not get appointment (to meet her). For the last two days, I have been seeking appointment with CM through the Department of Ophthalmology and some personal friends also but no success.
Have you tried suggesting to the government that eye injuries are very grave and such injuries need to be stopped?
Even though I am a very positive man, I ask you, will my suggestions be taken? I have tried to meet Union Health Minister, Home Minister and J&K Chief Minister. I am not able to get appointment. I called the respective departments, and no one answers me from there. If they are not even ready to give an appointment, how will my suggestions be taken?
How has the experience of operating the injured here been?
I only want to spread happiness. Whenever I operate, I feel it is God who is operating through me. I am but an instrument of God.
Although I only go to the guest house to sleep and come back to Operation Theatre in morning but during these trips I am trying to understand Kashmir better. I am in a way satisfied that my skills are being used every minute. I am giving back to society what it has bestowed on me, that is my ultimate dream.
Do you talk to your patients when you operate?
Generally, I do talk. But here I do not talk because of they cannot communicate with me. Sometimes some patient speaks in English or Hindi. Mostly, they speak in Kashmiri. And they do understand my Hindi also, I think. But its ok. But it does not matter. I know they understand that I am an instrument of God.
Do they confide in you?
One of my patients said no one asks us what we want. So I asked him, what do you want? He said, ‘Azadi’ (freedom). (laughs) . I told him, what Azadi can I give you. I asked what Azadi do you want. He does not know.
They are all young people. And immature too. They do not know what they want. But they do want something.
What is that ‘something’?
The last patient I operated today, I asked him how he got injured, to which he replied, ‘stone’. I asked him what his problem was? He said he was a ‘slave’ here. I told him, I am also a slave, and a servant of God.
He ask me why I had come here for them? I replied, because there are patients that need me here. One of them asked, how did ‘patients’ become patients...because of the injuries inflicted by the forces. I said, correct. A problem has erupted and I am here.
My purpose and aim is to try my best to make it possible that everybody is able to see. Some many see less, some may see more.
I am not supporting or blaming anybody but I have a feeling that I am here as a healer. Nothing more, nothing less.
Is it taxing emotionally, the pressure of bringing back someone’s vision?
Someone asked me how I feel if after a surgery of two or more hours, the patient is not able to see. Yes, I feel upset. I do. But I operate on people whose eyes are badly damaged, due to diabetes, or an injury or something else. Who are almost blind, or completely blind.
If I am able to make them capable of eating their food or going to the toilet on their own, I feel it is a great service.
Medicine is not a predictive science, neither a calculated science. You have probability and statistics, and everything else that comes with experience. But still it is not possible to say which patient of mine will see how much and when.
Like for example, in the patients that came back from All India Institute (AIIMS), I was surprised that they were able to see the very next day. thank God!
Every time we operate, it cannot guarantee that a patient will be able to see.
And I am doing my best. Results, He gives.
What is the satisfaction?
Without being seen, I know I am getting dua (prayers) and blessings through this service. I tell my patients the same thing. Healing is about dawa (medicine) and dua(prayers). I can do the dawa part, they will have to do the dua part.
Last time you visited, this hospital had 211 pellet injuries. Now it has 460+. No respite in the number of fresh injuries and we have a backlog of people who need retina surgeries.
There are three trained eye surgeons here and fortunately they are happy with me. So I am also ready to come and have decided to come here every month.
I will come again next month. In the meantime they will do all the simpler cases. They are going to be in touch with me and I have asked for all the data. We have two more retina surgeons but they have insisted on the most experienced. I agree. They are right.
In spite of the best surgery sometimes, the vision is not restored. I think people do understand that. Eye is not like a limb. I have the maximum experience in the World, not just India in managing trauma. They are in safe hands but there is no guarantee.
What do you have to say about the eye surgery facilities here?
They are excellent.
I pray that peace prevails but I feel we need to create a Center of Excellence here at this hospital. I have spoken with Chief Minister, the Health Secretary and Borderless World Foundation about it last time around. The facilities are here but there are little things that need to be streamlined, consolidated.
We should have this institute here as an International Institute of Eye Trauma. I don’t want it to sound like we are creating an institute for pellets. Injuries happen all over the world, in our homes. Only yesterday I did surgeries on eyes of two kids who had had injuries happening in their domestic environments. Injuries also happen at workplaces.
I feel we need more doctors trained in retina surgeries. Infact every surgeon here needs to have training in retina surgeries.
How can we improve upon the facilities for eye trauma here?
As an academician, I am angry. I want that department should have been established here yesterday, not today. Regional Institute of Ophthalmology is given by GoI to upgrade an institute to receive more funds, more staff and then they can do more work. The funds will be transferred from GoI to state government.
The order for upgradation has come two years back, but it has not been done yet.
I am the President of Ocular Trauma Society and we have started Fellowships in Ocular Trauma. An eye doctor with MS or DNB can avail this fellowship. We could have an arrangement wherein for one year they work with me and for six months they train here.
My coming here should also be about sharing experience and knowledge. By teaching, I also learn.
About 500 injured and counting... Is it time to put our foot down?
Yes. But who will put the foot down. You as media have been writing about it, why no one is listening? We have to think out of box. We are not being heard.
If all of us pray collectively, perhaps this will end.