Can Surmount: An Inspirational Account of a Battle With Cancer and Blindness

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Three episodes of cancer. One, a near miss. Blind twice, five corneal transplants with one more coming up in 2018. Cardiac bypass. Two surgeries for glaucoma. Battling diabetes and hypertension. Here is an excerpt from 65-year-old Parimal Gandhi’s unbelievably inspiring book Can Surmount.

I was born in Ahmedabad.

All through my youth, many professions attracted me. The air force, aeronautical engineering, journalism and so on. I am a nationally ranked Science Talent Search Scholar and almost became a Research Chemist. But, I finally chose to study Chemical Engineering at Vadodara (Baroda), leaving home for the first time at the age of 17.

It was the second year of the course, and a typical hot March day in 1974. I was perched at my desk in the Engineering Design Hall of the Maharaja Sayajirao University. The lecturer’s voice could be heard over the murmur of students discussing the design problem at hand. As usual, the teacher wanted more neatness and attention to detail. The whirling fans battled the summer like heat valiantly, but in vain.

And then it happened.

I thought something had fallen into my eyes. I could not keep them open. I splashed water into them. Some friends blew air and others warmed a handkerchief and put it on my eyes. Slowly but surely, the pain became unbearable. It was as if someone was sitting on my eyeballs and rubbing them with sandpaper.

My friends Heta, Geeta, Nina, Prashant, Ashok and three others accompanied me to the eye doctor, filling up his waiting room. He must have been delighted to see so many patients! Later, he remarked wryly that he had never seen 8 people accompanying a single patient. He diagnosed corneal ulceration in both eyes, put in ointment, bandaged both eyes and told me to rest for a month. My friends and I were shocked. I lived in a student hostel. How was I to manage?

My parents arrived and took me to our home in Ahmedabad. More visits to ophthalmologists, as many opinions, eye drops, ointments and bandages later, I found myself at a well-known government eye hospital. Dr. R. P. Dhanda diagnosed me as having bilateral corneal dystrophy. There had been extensive deterioration and the corneas of both eyes were becoming opaque. An eye MD had seen the condition when I was 12 years old, had drawn it on my chart but had omitted to alert my parents or me. My vision had already reduced considerably, and the condition would continue to worsen until both corneas became totally opaque. I was then 21 years old, and had most of my life ahead of me. It seemed as if I had only increasing darkness to look forward to.

On Dr. Dhanda’s team was Dr. Vasudha Kalevar, a pretty ophthalmologist. She carried out a number of the eye exams using a slit lamp. To examine different parts of my eyes, she would point at her left or right ear and ask me to look at it. The earrings kept changing and had been very aesthetically selected! They were a wonderful distraction from the pain of powerful beams of light shining into my sensitive eyes!

No, my reading habit had nothing to do with my eye problem. It was genetics. But then no relative on my father’s or my mother’s sides of the family tree had suffered from an eye problem. So why I have this problem which has dogged my footsteps all through my life remains a mystery.

I remember my only major regret at that time. If I lost my vision, I would not be able to read. Someone was very cruelly locking my window to the world.

There was a silver lining, though. I could undergo a corneal transplant. A number of patients who undergo this surgery regain their vision and can lead their lives comfortably and normally.

Corneal transplants are not without risks. But my vision was so low that I had nothing to lose. The risk-reward ratio was in my favor.

So there I was, in the Ahmedabad Civil Hospital, waiting for some generous soul to leave me a gift of vision. This happened after a week – a long wait indeed, considering that hundreds of people die every day and have no further use for their eyes. An accident victim left me his cornea. I wanted to thank his family but, as in the case of blood donation, donor and beneficiary never learn each other’s identities. May God bless all organ and fluid donors!

Once again, all my friends and many members of my family came for the surgery, filling up the ante room to the operation theater. They assured me that all would be well and wished me luck.

It was in this unlikeliest of locations that my first ‘God in a Machine’ lowered herself onto the stage! A Goddess actually. More on Gods and Machines later.

Amongst the visitors was Jagruti. Both of us were students in Baroda and had been meeting quite often over the past few months, becoming increasingly close to each other. As I lay on the prep room bed with my eyes closed, she sat down beside me and held my hand, a bold gesture in those times. She was unconcerned about the twenty pairs of eyes watching her every move with great interest! She had her finger in my right palm and was making designs in it. On focusing my mind, which was full of thoughts about the impending surgery, I realized with a start that she was repeatedly scribbling, ‘I love you’ into my palm.

I had been feeling pangs of anxiety about my future and here was someone offering me her ultimate support. Before I could figure out how to respond, I was wheeled into the Operation Theater! She visited me often in the hospital as did her sister and mother. She made sure all through the next months that I never lost hope or felt demotivated. We got engaged that year and got married 3 years later.

As I look back, I realize that no girl in her right mind would have chosen that particular moment to declare her feelings. By all accounts, I was about to go blind and who wants a potentially blind husband? But if it is ‘practical’ and calculative, it is not love. All she knew was that she loved me and I needed her support.

The accident victim’s cornea was grafted into my right eye – a reasonably painless affair with the anesthesia hurting longer than the surgery. But, I was kept in the hospital six long weeks and before I was discharged, the stitches were removed. Afterwards, I used to visit the hospital periodically for checkups. There were no restrictions worth mentioning. The left eye was “not yet bad enough to do.”

Today, you can walk into a modern eye clinic, get a corneal transplant and walk right out in three hours. No stay is needed. It is all done under local anesthesia. Of course, you do have to wait for the cornea to become available.

For the first few days, a blood-spattered man in white would appear in my dreams and ask me for something incoherently. The second night this happened, I realized that it was the accident victim asking me to return his cornea.

I was shocked and told my mother about my dreams. She wisely asked me to thank the man with folded hands, tell him that I would take good care of it and ask his soul to go on with its journey. I did just that. It worked and the soul never returned. Only my gratitude remains.

(You can buy Parimal Gandhi’s book by going to his website cansurmount.com or on Amazon.

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