My 50 years in surgery


Originally Published: March 20, 2011

At the end of the interview, the jovial octogenarian slowly gets up from his chair and removes his lab coat.

With a smile which can only be rivalled in size by the rather large, and old-fashioned spectacles he is spotting, he politely inquires:

“Could I have some of the photos you have taken? It’s my wife you know. She likes keeping these things.” “I know nowadays everything is done in soft copy so I’ll give you my email address,” he offers.

It may be a cliché that doctors do seem to have the worst of handwritings but this particular doctor furthers it. It cuts across five ruled lines and curves back inward towards the end.

His handwriting may be disorderly, the complete opposite of his life: Linear. Orderly. Focused. And his life has, rather stubbornly, stayed that course for the 50 years he has practised as a surgeon.

Along the corridors of Nairobi Hospital, where his private practice is located, Yusuf Kodwavwala Dawood cuts the shape of a man at ease and content with whatever life has thrown his way.

If the wrinkles on his slightly angular face, pronounced ears and laughter lines around his mouth do not convince you that he has been around the block for some time, then his 31 years as a columnist for the Sunday Nation will. If these two don’t impress you much, then his half-century in active surgery will.

He traces the first flames of his intricate love affair with the scalpel under the Nairobi sun to one wet cold morning on March 20, 1961. He had just accepted the position of resident surgeon at the Aga Khan Hospital.

“We had heard so much about this British colony. However, we didn’t know what to expect. The weather somewhat dampened our spirit until we were told that, in this part of the world, rain is a sign of good tidings,” he says. True, over the years he has practised, there has been an element of luck more than once in his line of work.

His first memory of the colony was the unusually long murram track that connected the airport to the Princess Elizabeth Road (Uhuru Highway).
“The other thing was the numerous wild animals that seemed to dart across the road from all directions. Zebras were grazing to as far as the eye could see,” says Dr Dawood.

It is at this point that their chaperon, Robert Beaumont, told him of the old adage that safari goers and wildlife lovers have come to learn by heart: “In this part of the world, animals have the right of way.”

However, even though from an early age he had learnt to put a smile on his face, some experiences were turning him up inside.

Dr Dawood came to Kenya at a time when history too was knocking to gain its rightful place in the East African colony.

Though he did not know it at that time, he would be part of the change that was coming this way.

“Life in Kenya was like a three-tiered cake. There was the cream and icing, the marzipan and nuts and the flour at the base,” he says.

The cream represented the Europeans, the middle represented the Asians and the base represented the sons of the soil. The labourers.

As he recounts the old days, there is some bit of nostalgia in his eyes. There is fondness, attachment and sadness in his voice as he talks about the good old days.

Fondness from the simplicity of the times. Attachment, since that was a period during which he made friends who lasted a lifetime and sadness because, through natural attrition, he has come to lose many of those he knew then.

Despite the fact that he formed part of the cake filling, his colour and background ensured that he, too, could not be shielded from the obvious class segregation.

“On my first day at work, the chief surgeon, a Dr Barber, took me around the hospital. As we concluded, he took my hand, looked me in the eye and said: ‘Doctor, welcome to Kenya. But let me tell you, Mr Macleod is not very popular here.’ ”

Iain Macleod was the British colonial secretary at the time. Despite the fact that he was a conservative, Macleod strongly believed that the time had come for Britain to let go of her colonies. A view that did not sit well among a majority of the European population.

“From the word go, he wanted me to know where his loyalties lay. There were his people, and the rest of us,” says Dr Dawood.

The surgeon says he was only one of two non-European specialists at that time. Nevertheless his being Pakistani and highly educated came with some perks.
Many thought he was an emissary of the Aga Khan himself. So once in a while, he rode on the assumptions of the staff and the patients as well.

He adjusts himself on the office chair, fiddles with his spectacles, clears his throat, breaks out into a wry smile and, in true storyteller fashion, narrates:

One morning, his superior, Dr Barber, called the hospital and notified him that he was held up and could not make it on time for any other appointments that day. The instructions were to send everyone on his appointment book back home.

So, as he made for the waiting room, an Asian family – a son and his parents – accosted him. Before the surgeon could tell them Dr Barber was not in, they quickly told him what had brought them to the hospital.

The parents didn’t understand English. Assuming the good doctor was at sea on matters Gujarati, the son acted as the translator. So the mother would narrate her symptoms to her son who would, in turn, translate them into English to Dr Dawood.

Son: She says she has a lump in her breast. Dr Dawood: Tell her we need to take a bit of it out for examination. It is only then that we will know what to make of it.

The son translated the news to his parents. After a long pause, the father asked the son (in Gujarati) if he was sure the man in front of them was a specialist.

The son said he wasn’t sure, so the father, still in Gujarati, told him they’d rather wait until the dholya, derogatory for white man, was available and seek his opinion.

All the while, he was following the conversation without betraying his understanding. After several minutes the son looked back up at the surgeon and said: “My father thanks you very much. But he says we must consult the rest of the family.”

Despite the fact that racism was rife, there had been so much negativity going around that Asians and Africans could not, in their wildest dreams, believe that they were as good as the Europeans at anything.

“But even with these inequalities we coexisted peacefully. We were a rainbow nation way before (Nelson) Mandela made that phrase cool,” he says.

He is a man with a one-track mind. He says he is terrible at multitasking. He cannot type on his computer and listen to music at the same time.

He cannot read a book while watching TV. But, in his life, he has managed to successfully juggle and maintain cordial relations with his four wives. The secret?

“When I am with one, I dedicate my all to her,” he says. But this could not have been possible were it not for the patience of his first wife Marie, who he married in 1958.

“She was willing to create space and accommodate the other three,” he says. Every day, he has to spend quality time with each of them – first wife Marie, second wife Surgery, third wife Writing and fourth wife Rotary.

“This variety in my life keeps things fresh and interesting,” he jokes. It was his second wife Surgery who provided the key to the doors of the who-was-who in society.

This had its advantages. One, it helped him keep tabs on the political change that was happening in the country. Plus, it also built his credibility as a surgeon.

In 1961, he successfully operated on a client. Little did he know that the patient was a close relative of Jan Mohammed, a political activist and the only Asian to have ever served in the Kenyatta government.

Pleased with the handiwork, he asked Dr Dawood to accompany him to a political rally in Machakos. It’s from that meeting that he says he witnessed first hand the charm, wit and popularity of one of Kenya’s most eloquent politicians – Tom Mboya.

“At first glance, the thing that struck me most was how handsome he was. He had a chubby boyish face and was in a well-cut European-style suit.

“But when his time to address the crowd came, he was nowhere to be seen. Murmurs started going around the stadium then, suddenly, he appeared on stage,” says Dr Dawood.

He recalls Mboya dressed in what looked like Roman robes and a beaded cap. Ever a student of literature, in his mind, Mboya looked like Mark Anthony from Shakespeare’s classic, Julius Caesar.

Then in anticipation, the crowd shushed. Surveying the multitude before him, Mboya finally raised his hands pointing to the back left of the crowd. “Look,” Mboya said. As if on cue, the whole crowd craned their necks to that direction.

“Do you see the rotting fruit on that tree? That is colonialism. And just like that fruit, colonialism will fall off and get buried in our African soil.”

That was enough to send the crowd into a frenzy. Two years later, and after colonialism had fallen off the tree that was Kenya and buried away, the surgeon was at Uhuru Gardens amid the pounding rain to witness the birth of a new nation.

As the Duke of Edinburgh handed over the instruments of state to Kenyatta, he whispered something to Jomo. What he said to the Prime Minister may never be known.

But among the settler community, a joke was doing the rounds that the Duke asked Jomo whether the events of the day had not made him change his mind and leave the colony under the British protectorate, and whether he was absolutely sure that he wanted to take over the reins of the country.

In his opinion, this was the reason Kenya has enjoyed a comparatively cordial relationship with her former master. Midway through a laugh, he recalls another incident. This was at the farewell party of the then Governor Malcom McDonald.

During his speech, the governor said marvellous things about Jomo. Then after the speech, he walked over to Jomo and said: “Oh my, I had no idea you were here. If I knew it, I’d have said some awful things about you!”

Dr Dawood was standing right there. Later on, he was to consult or operate on a host of others bearing the Kenyatta name.

That was the era of slogans such as ‘‘harambee’’ that could marshal the whole country behind an idea. An era of hope and possibilities. An era that was followed by a brief period of hopelessness and despair.

“The thing that messed us up was bad politics and corruption. Look at where the Asian Tigers are? It is difficult to imagine at one point in history, we stood toe-to-toe with them,” he says.

As the economy went south so did government services, in particular, the health sector. “Inasmuch as access to basic health care is a human right, as a country we simply cannot afford to provide it to everyone.

“Even if we seal all leaks in revenue collection it will not be possible. A balance needs to be struck to provide the best we can,” he says.

Although he has been a private doctor, he has volunteered his services at Kenyatta National Hospital for free both as a surgeon and as a teacher.

He is, however, hopeful things will change. He has seen medicine grow from being an exclusively white field to a predominantly black field. “That can only be good for us,” he says.

He has stitched up many wounds and is the cause of hundreds of scars but, when he looks over his shoulders, one stands out from the rest.

It had been a long year and he had just taken a break to go on holiday with his family in Mombasa. One morning, he got a call from his younger brother in Karachi.

“Our older brother’s health was deteriorating and he had requested to see me,” he says. He got on the first flight available to Pakistan.

“Something kept telling me that maybe the surgeon who had operated on him before missed something. I requested him to book my brother for another surgery,” he says.

There was a problem: Dr Dawood did not have a licence to practise in Karachi. So the other doctor had to be the lead surgeon.

They both scrubbed in with the understanding that the visiting doctor would only assist. But once in the OR, the resident doctor abandoned the lead role.

“I had my brother’s life in my hands. What if something went wrong and he failed to wake up from the operating table? Would I forgive myself? Would my family forgive me? Plus it was criminal,” he says.

Luckily, everything went well and it was discovered that his brother had a liver abscess which needed draining.

With all the advances in science that have been made since he first set out as a surgeon, he believes he still has what it takes to continue.

His sun is yet to set. “I read a lot, I go for trainings and I have come to know the limits brought about by my age,” he says.

He doesn’t take emergency cases any more, he selects the kinds of surgery he performs. But, he says, once his peers come to him in confidence and tell him that from their evaluation, his skills have deteriorated, then he will sit back and let others do the heavy lifting.

Just like any battle-hardened soldier remembers moments in which he should have fired and those during which he should have lifted his finger off the trigger, the 81-year-old has his regrets.

“If given another chance I would have wanted to go full time into teaching surgery. Private practice was forced onto some of us because that was the only source of a comfortable income,” he says.

His tenth book, Eye of a Storm, has just been published by the East African Educational Publishers. None of his two children, a daughter and a son, went into writing or medicine.

“Maybe the interrupted holidays, the calls in the middle of the night and the long hours away from the family finally got to them,” he says.

His daughter is a computer specialist with IT firm IBM, while his son has his own marketing company in London.

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