She chose hand surgery because she could perform that sitting, confined as she was to her wheelchair. The Sitting Surgeon would go on to give wings to many.
Dr Mary Verghese was keen to study obstetrics and gynecology. An accident shattered her dreams and left her a paraplegic. After that she underwent multiple excruciating surgeries so that she could get better at being a surgeon, who could not stand.
In Take My Hands Dorothy Clarke Wilson tells The Remarkable Story of Dr Mary Verghese of Vellore. Here are some extracts from the book that reveal what a struggle it was for Dr Mary to recover from two spinal surgeries.
The [first] fusion operation was performed on March 14, 1955. Bone chips taken from her hip were inserted between five lumbar vertebrae, in order to effect rigidity.
[After the surgery] body encased in two slabs of plaster, either one removable, Mary was again placed on a revolving bed. Twice each day she was turned. In the morning, the nurses would remove the top slab and bathe her. Then, turning her over, they would remove the other slab and bathe her back. For two or three hours she was left lying face down. The back slab was then replaced, and the bed turned to leave her again lying on her back. The procedure was repeated in the evening.
It was for the hours of greater freedom twice a day, lying on her face, that Mary lived. Head taped and pillowed, a book lying on a low table below the open bed frame, arms resting on the table, she could read or study. Avidly she read book after book [including] volumes on the causes of nerve paralysis.
Immobile, widening horizons
Not that the longer periods on her back were wholly wasted. She used them to pray for other people and to strengthen her own spiritual life. She enjoyed the visits of her many friends. She shared the problems of students and nurses, listened eagerly to news of all the latest romances and even tried to promote a few.
Friends brought flowers every day, and one doctor even fixed a pot of blossoms under her bed so she could see it when she was lying on her face. Dr. Rambo, the American eye specialist, brought a travel poster of the Jungfrau and fastened it to the wall. 'You need something to widen your horizons,' he told her with a smile. 'This will help.' It did.
How it did! It stretched the walls to include unbelievable vistas. The pinnacle of whiteness was like a glimpse of heaven.
Reflecting life around
Nurse Effie Wallace, as ingenious as she was practical, had attached a mirror to a bar over Mary's head, reflecting not only her face but the trays of food set on her chest, so she could feed herself normally, with her fingers. Even better, the mirror could reflect objects outside the window: the big tree, a bougainvillea bush, people passing along the path towards the leprosy clinic.
The second operation was for fusion of her lower thoracic vertebrae, utilizing bone chips taken this time from her leg. Back in her room, Mary began again the weeks of immobility and waiting: the imprisoning slabs of plaster; endless hours on her back; the two shorter periods of respite each day on her face, the open book on the low table beneath her, the pot of flowers a splash of brightness on the bare cement floor; the cheering visitors; the young nurses and student doctors dropping in for advice and gossip; the praying for the needs of others; the sounds of hurrying feet; the reflections of a tree, a garden, striding figures.
[Some years later, the aircraft was ready to take off as Dr Mary returned after her Fellowship at the Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, New York.]
The doors were closed, the seat belts fastened. The great plane began to move clumsily towards the runway, like a bird out of its proper element … or like a human being intended to run on swift limbs but doomed to lumber on wheels. It came to a stop, shuddered as if in mortal agony, then with a roar burst its bonds, mounted upward into freedom. Mary felt a kindred surge of triumph. She saw far below a huge city shrunk to incredible smallness, a blue expanse dotted with toy ships, then nothing but sunlight and clouds and infinite skies. She closed her eyes in wondering gratitude.
I asked for feet, she thought humbly, and I have been given wings.
The Mary Varghese Institute of Rehabilitation is part of the Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Department of the Christian Medical College Vellore. The Mary Verghese Trust that was started by her in 1986 continues to conduct vocational training programs for persons with physical disabilities. In recognition of her contributions to medicine, in particular, to the field of physical rehabilitation in India, Dr Mary Verghese was awarded the Padma Shri by the then President of India, Shri V.V. Giri in 1972. She died in December 1986 at Vellore.