The surgical serendipity

On a work trip to foreign shores, encounters with familiar faces—and one’s impact on their lives

“Why are you shouting so much?” I interrupted a girl of about 25 in a grocery store in Dar es Salaam. She was yelling at the store owner over an issue that I didn’t fully comprehend but found disrespectful that a young girl would raise her voice to an elderly gentleman in that manner. She was dressed stylishly in a blue sleeveless top and a pair of flowing pyjamas. She wore several chains with African symbols around her neck and carried an indigenous handbag, typical of many of the youth in Tanzania. “It’s a generation gap problem,” she told me. “He’s my father, so we argue all the time,” she confirmed, appeasing my anxiety. I couldn’t tell if she was a local or tourist. She looked Indian but spoke with an American accent, rolling her R’s and slurring the rest of her words. I almost thought she was stoned.

I was out for lunch in a local restaurant close to the hospital where we were conducting a medical camp and had popped into the grocery store to buy the toothpaste I had forgotten to carry. “Be gentle with your folks,” I told her tenderly before getting ready to leave. “They are old and need to feel relevant.”

“Hey!” she stopped me. “Why do you look familiar to me?” she asked.

“Maybe because I’m famous!” I replied.

“No, I’m serious, I’ve seen you somewhere!” she tried to recall.

“I just got here this morning,” I told her.

“Are you a doctor?” she asked spookily.

I rolled my eyes and looked around at my colleague, wondering if this was some sort of a prank. “Yes, indeed I am,” I acknowledged, “and that too a real one!”

Her next question freaked me out. “Are you Dr. Mazda?” I had a grin of disbelief on my face, wondering if I was really that famous that a random person would recognize me on the street in a foreign country. I nodded as her father stood up from the checkout counter and her mother walked out from somewhere inside.

“You’re my freaking neurosurgeon and you don’t remember it?” she chided, almost swatting me away.

Several scary thoughts came to my mind almost instantly. Did she have a brain tumour which I operated upon and made worse, which is why she’s lost her inhibition and talking this way? Did the surgery cause any change in her personality, which is why she’s aggressive with her parents?

“I’m Shreya, Shreya Patel,” she smiled at me, with both her parents donning wide grins on their faces. “I was in a coma for three months,” she reminded me. And suddenly, everything flashed back in an instant.

Four years ago, Shreya had met with a horrific jet ski accident and was unconscious for several weeks. She was treated at a local hospital in Tanzania for three months and came to Mumbai for further treatment once she was off the ventilator. When I saw her, she was in a wheelchair with tubes coming out from every part of her body. She could barely speak, and her entire left side did not move. I remember not operating on her because she didn’t warrant it but guided her on the appropriate rehabilitation that she needed, with her parents being in touch with me for the entire year that she was in Mumbai. Every few months that year, she came to me and I monitored her progress. I didn’t hear from them after.

And here she was, sprightly as ever, making her mark in the world. She’d started her business of customizing gifts and making events memorable. Her parents were eternally grateful to me for guiding her in the correct direction and gave me free toothpaste.

“What are you doing tomorrow morning?” she asked. “We’re seeing patients all day at the camp,” I told her. “What time do you start?” she enquired. “9 AM sharp,” I said to wiggle my way out of any dinner she might have wanted to invite us for. “Well, I’m going to pick you up at 5 AM and we’ll go somewhere. You’ll be back at your hotel by 8 to get to work by 9 AM. Bring your colleagues along too!” She didn’t allow me talk and didn’t give me an option to say no as she hugged me and left.

As I started seeing patients post lunch, a six-year-old child walked in with her mother. “Surprise!” she waved her hands wide open in the air and came to give me a hug. Unlike Shreya, I recognized them in an instant. I had operated on her for a brain tumour half the size of her head 2 years ago, when she was 4. She had an exceedingly stormy postoperative period due to fluctuation of her sodium levels in the ICU, but she was eventually discharged on a laundry list of medication. “She’s back to school, doing everything children her age can do and much better,” her mother said with an indescribable glee. “Her vision, which she had lost before surgery, is almost back to normal,” she confirmed, asking if she could take a selfie with me. “We found out you were coming and drove 400 km to see you,” she said, welling up. “Thank you,” I stood up and gave them both a hug. “You don’t know how happy I am to see you doing so well. Thank you for allowing us to treat you,” I reiterated.

I went through the list of patients I was supposed to see when someone familiar looking walked into the clinic with his wife. “Remember me?” he asked. Today is an unpredictable day, I told myself. When patients surface after a prolonged absence, your first thought is if they are back because something’s not right again. I attempted a 3-second recall and jumped out of my seat when I made the connection. “Mohammad!” I said in disbelief. Both he and his wife were overjoyed that I had guessed correctly. “You’re walking?” I asked in amazement. “I told you, when I see you next, I’ll come walking all by myself!” he said proudly. We had operated on him a year ago for a ghoulish spinal infection that had made him paraplegic and bed bound. He had uncontrolled diabetes, which made things worse. We were unable to identify the source of the infection, but he needed two spine surgeries to wash it out and I had discharged him after 6 weeks of antibiotics. When he left the hospital, he had started moving his legs in bed but was still unable to stand. He reminded me that I had told him he would walk in three months. “Your prediction was spot on,” he confirmed.

We saw the rest of the patients scheduled for the day and headed for dinner. “It’s strange that we only remember the patients that don’t do well or whom we’ve hurt with an operation,” I told my colleague on the drive back as I thought about these three serendipitous meetings. “It’s not in our nature to cut ourselves some slack,” he reasoned. “But you’re right, we do need to give ourselves credit once in a while,” we laughed together.

Oblivious of where we were going, Shreya picked us up at 5 AM the next morning and took us to the beach sunrise party. Africans in scanty clothes were gyrating against local Indians to the latest Afro-Indian fusion music. Sardars were playing the dhol in one corner, while in another, colours of Holi were being sprayed in the air. An orange sun rose in the backdrop, galloping its way into the sky and turning crimson and then yellow in a matter of minutes, its rays falling on us, intermittently changing the colour of our skin to remind us that we are all one.


23 Comments on “The surgical serendipity
  • Kersi Naushir Daruvala. says:

    You have lots of beautiful memories, and you have every reason to be happy wherever you go .May Ahura Mazda bless you always with good eventful life.

  • Chanda says:

    The ‘Messiah ‘ is back
    Lovely feeling – even whilst reading.

  • Dr. Rafat Ansari says:

    So very true!! I do agree with u, V R ALL ONE! To b able to change someone’s life this way is an amazing feeling m sure!
    Stay blessed doc!

  • Vipul shah says:

    Dearest Dr Mazda …….

    Tanzania experience was really a memorable one …It is a matter of Great pride & Joy to see old patients fully recovered & remember you at their own soil …

    I wonder one day you will take East Africa citizenship one day leaving your Indian patients meeting in a camp 😳…..

    I request you to write a diary on daily basis about very brief descriptions of patients for future reference & past remembrance & for a biopic one day ❤️

    Keep on visiting Tanzania & Kenya for wildlife safaris too …..

    God bless sir 🌹

  • Khyati says:

    In the mid of reading this very article only word came to my mind was “SUN”.. and the article surprisingly ended mentioning the Sun..

    I thought u r “the sun” that touches each n every being and gives new day new life full of new opportunities..sun is never biased of cast creed culture so are you …sun who spreads light n life everywhere n makes the darkness disappear..

    May you always be blessed and find serendipity ..

  • Shweta says:

    Thank you for sharing your wonderful experiences Dr Mazda 😊🌻

  • T George Koshy says:

    Very nice

  • Dr BIPIN mehta says:

    Very heart touching. ❤️

  • Supriya Correa says:

    One day, Maz, your autograph will be auctioned at Sotheby’s

  • K.R. Dhebri says:

    Dear Mazda this is the gift, the reward, the award, the certificate, that we doctors and likes of you super specialists have the privilege to get.

  • Azmin Vania says:

    Dear Maz,

    Your accounts are so vivid, it’s as if we’re quiet spectators right there with you on your journey! You’re so inspiring and I guess, like us teachers meeting our alumni who share a class experience where we supported them/inspired them is forgotten sooner than a child you couldn’t help the way you’d envisioned. Thank you in more ways than one! You reassure humanity!

  • Narendra Gathani says:

    Thrilled reading your experience.its indeed a pleasure to be recognised on the unknown shores.such things make us proud to be medicos.

  • Dr hiten dadia says:

    we do need to give us credit
    very well said because we often don’t do that
    very nicely written
    thank you

  • Dr Maya Kirpalani says:

    God bless you Dr Turel for your healing skills. May you continue to do your blessed work more and more…

  • Rita singh says:

    U deserve only,good memories. U have a goldenheart and u always do your best for ur patients. Very well written and rightly said at the end of the day all men r same,no matter which country or creed.

  • Sushma Sowraj says:

    Incredible! Creating a compelling narrative ALWAYS! Specially your ability to convey the emotional depth of these encounters is truly admirable. Thanks for offering such a reflective piece.

  • MANOJ MALKAN says:

    MAZDA, how lucky you were on that day. You won not one, but 3 lottery tickets.

  • Bruce Blewett says:

    Hi Mazda I think that you have a lot of cheeky patients particularly those who have a new lease and live life to the full. A great article and it must give you a lot of satisfaction to see the excellent results of your work.

  • Setu Ram says:

    A trifecta for sure! What are the odds..
    Nevertheless great to see the Indian diaspora assimilate

  • Cusrow Sadri says:

    Brilliant article. Probably I know your Doctor colleague who was there on this trip with you 😜
    GOD bless you Mazda

  • Gloria Msampha says:

    It’s always nice to make a difference in someone’s life especially if they were incapacitated. Being appreciated is the best feeling ever.

  • Gool Kotwal says:

    You are truly blessed to make a difference in people’s life, to bring them to a normal life. Keep the good work going


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