Dr F Ghadially, Founder of the Burns and Plastic Surgery Unit

In my article of last week (Nari Shakti – ‘Woman Power’) I narrated an incident told to me by Dr F Ghadially when we were working together at PMOC in the 1980s. This sent me thinking about this unassuming but remarkable man who did so much for the people of the island that he made his home, an unsung hero who worked away quietly saving lives and restoring dignity to so many others through his surgical skills.

These thoughts came to me as I was listening recently to the stories of two persons who were born without upper limbs. One was an American lady who at age fourteen decided to discard the artificial limbs that had been fitted to her, each weighing nearly 10 kgs and which she felt were a burden. She wanted to be her ‘natural self’, and felt greatly relieved on thus freeing herself – and she went on to become the first woman pilot to fly a plane with her feet!

The other was an Indian boy in Kashmir, whose parents did not think there was any use for him going to school where he would be ostracized. One day on the cricket grounds he and the others present discovered that he could bat remarkably well with his feet – and that became his trademark as a cricketeer.

It a well known phenomenon in medicine that the body has remarkable compensatory capacities, as these two cases illustrate. They are the more outstanding ones no doubt, but there are many other such persons, handicapped either at birth or afterwards from injury or disease, who develop functional adaptations that make them become autonomous and allow them to lead practically normal lives.

Many of the patients that Dr Ghadially had treated similarly had problems which limited their physical capacity and social acceptability, and his interventions helped to put them back on track to pursue their lives as useful members of society.

Dr Ghadially was born in India, and was a Parsi. The Parsis originally came to India fleeing from Persia after the Muslim conquest, and were welcomed to their adopted land, where they became well established in education, trade and business, like the Tatas and Godrejs. Today they are a dwindling tribe, numbering only in the thousands, and this is a matter of concern to them.

Anyway, as far as Dr Ghadially is concerned, he left Mumbai for London shortly after the Second World War, along with another fellow Parsi, Dr Antia, to pursue specialist studies. Dr Ghadially took up Orthopaedic Surgery and Dr Antia trained in Plastic Surgery, after which he returned to Mumbai and became a leading Plastic Surgeon there. A procedure for repair of cleft lips is known by his name.

Dr Ghadially, on the other hand, had married an English lady, and stayed on in England. Sometime in the mid-1950s, there was an opening for an Orthopaedic Surgeon in Mauritius advertised by the Colonial Office. Sir James Seddon, an Orthopaedic Surgeon whose book ‘Peripheral Nerve Injuries’ is a classic in medical literature, urged Dr Ghadially to take up the position, a contract of one year.

It is worthy of note that Sir James Seddon was the expert who was delegated by the Colonial Office to make a survey of the post-polio epidemic situation in Mauritius after the war, and it was following his recommendation that the Polio Hospital was set up at Mangalkan – more well known during our childhood days as ‘l’Hopital Mangalkan’. So he was familiar with Mauritius and its orthopaedic needs.

Dr Ghadially accepted the challenge, and that’s how he arrived in Mauritius shortly after the newly-opened wing was inaugurated by Princess Margaret – hence the name Princess Margaret Orthopaedic Centre or PMOC. The ‘l’Hopital Mangalkan’ was closed down, as there were only a few remaining patients, and the wards at Victoria Hospital that made up PMOC retained the nomenclature by which they were designated at Mangalkan, eg G7, H3, etc.

I heard about Dr Ghadially for the first time shortly after he had started working at PMOC: a cousin of mine was born with a very severe birth defect of the lumbar spine, that left her paralysed in the lower limbs, with incontinence of the bladder and bowels. She was operated upon by Dr Ghadially, and lived for a couple of years. At that time, death was certain within a couple of weeks of birth if such cases were left untreated, and after operation most of them lived only a few years, and that too with severe deformities of the lower limbs besides the bowel and bladder problems. Death was in fact considered, at least in medical circles, to be a relief for these poor souls.

Little did I know then that one day I would have the privilege and honour of becoming Dr Ghadially’s working colleague. For, in fact, he stayed on in Mauritius for the rest of his life, till he passed away in the late 1990s – I don’t remember the exact year, and unfortunately I was abroad when he died.

In the course of his practice, he realized that there was were no proper facilities for the treatment of burns, especially major burns involving large areas of the body surface, as well as neglect of cases requiring plastic surgery, such as hare lips and cleft palates, deformities of the ears and face, of the hands, and so on. None of the local surgeons had trained in burns and plastic surgery.

That’s how he decided to undergo such training during his periods of overseas leave in the UK, which used to be of six months’ duration, and acquired the skills and competencies needed to deal with these complex cases. Thus, in addition to being an Orthopaedic Surgeon, by force of circumstances and, of course, his interest, he became also a Plastic Surgery and Burns Specialist. As such, he set up the Burns Unit in 1969, comprising a male and a female ward, while the Plastic Surgery cases were accommodated in the Orthopaedic wards. This was the situation when I took over from him in 1984, when his contract came to an end.

Nevertheless, we maintained a close relationship as he continued in private practice. The measure of the man is revealed in the course of a visit by the Interplast Team from Australia, probably in 1991, led by Prof Harold McCoomb, doyen of Plastic Surgery there. I was the coordinator for that visit, and naturally I contacted Dr Ghadially so as to arrange a meeting between these two stalwarts, who belonged to the same generation.

Dr Ghadially had brought pictures of a case that he had operated upon: a child born with what we call a ‘black hairy naevus’ that covered all his face, which looked furry like that of a bear. I remember Dr Ghadially asking Prof McCoomb whether he had done the right operations. The latter’s reply was, ‘Sir, it is you who have to teach us what to do!’

I am equally privileged to have in my possession some of the classic textbooks of Plastic Surgery, that is those authored by pioneers in the field, which have belonged to Dr Ghadially. This happened when I was contacted by a lady custodian of his belongings after his demise, about what to do with the materials he had left, which comprised books and specialised magazines in Orthopaedic and Plastic Surgery, as well as his surgical instruments.

I consider myself very fortunate indeed to have been mentored by such a great surgeon, who besides was a very humble and warm-hearted person, with a nice sense of humour too!

One Saturday morning at PMOC, Dr Jackaria who used be his Anaesthetist for the morning list, was waiting for Dr Ghadially to turn up. And usually on Saturday mornings we put up what we call ‘minor cases’, that is the simpler ones. As he entered, Dr Jackaria said, ‘Good morning Ghad, I hear that on Saturday mornings you only do tits and bits?’ With a twinkle in his eyes, ‘Ghad’ replied, ‘Actually, we leave out the bits!’

And we all burst out laughing as Dr Ghadially proceeded to change into Operation Theatre wear…

*  Published in print edition on 18 March 2016

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