Thursday, June 25, 2009


She did not allow the diagnosis of MS to intimidate her …Instead, she seemed to get on with life, as if MS were an incidental inconvenience.

A s a physician I come across several people every working day, each representing a certain aspect of the human condition. Few of these meetings leave in me a lasting impression and it is one such experience that I recount here. I was called to see M rs. Santha Narasimhan for the first time a few months ago. Diagnosed in the mid-1970s as having Multiple Sclerosis (MS), an inflammatory disorder of the nervous system, she experienced progressive disability from the mid-80s, resulting eventually in her becoming largely house bound. Wife of a captain of the publishing industry and a tennis player of some repute, she had in her hey day donned many an impressive avatar, with a wide circle of friends and relatives. This wide circle remained closely aligned with her, judging by the number of visitors anxiously hovering around, each time I visited. That she was widely loved and revered was clearly apparent in the devotion she inspired in her family and friends. What amazed me most about this lovely lady of over 80 summers, however, was the indomitable nature of her spirit.

She did not allow the diagnosis of MS to intimidate her. Instead, she seemed to get on with life, as if MS were an incidental inconvenience. She did not view herself as a patient; more as a host receiving graciously a stream of visitors, including medical professionals like myself. She did not take on the sick role. Instead, she remained, until the very end, independent in her choices — her home, her devoted staff, her furniture, its arrangement and her daily activities. She did not wither with the travails of her illness: pain, disability, dependence and incapacity, all of which can reduce greatly the dignity of the human condition. Instead, she seemed to accept her declining health with all the cheer she could muster, dignifying it and everything around her, in the process. Other patients would wait for me to ask “how are you”? With Mrs. Narasimhan it was always her asking me, first, how I was, and enquiring about my family. From insisting that her family was present for doctor visits, as a courtesy to the doctor; to ensuring that those who visited her were received and well cared for, no detail missed her unwavering attention. Indeed, when I last met her on Deepavali day, she insisted on giving me sweets to take home, despite having suffered a painful injury to her foot, which had just been dressed by my surgical colleague. Sadly, that was the last time we met.

We medical men are fortunate to learn many lessons every day, from the patients we have the privilege to care for. Mrs. Narasimhan taught me the most important lesson, by far, that I have learnt to date; the indomitable nature of the human spirit and its inherent capacity to triumph over disease and disability.