Thursday, 29 May 2014

Conqueror of Maladies

(An excerpt from the speech given by Dr Mikhail Solzhenitsyn on accepting the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on ‘Selective genetical eradication of Cancer cells’)

….Whenever I walk past his room, I remember him and those days that changed my life. It was 1979, I was a fresh faced doctor whose excitement for medicine was replaced by disillusionment after a few months at the hospital. Those days I longed to get out of medicine, to get out of Russia, to get out of this humungous gulag of a country, to jump over those 10 feet tall electric fences and dash for greener meadows.

The first time I saw him he was already beyond hope, we had told him that, his 16 year old body under his pale skin was devouring itself in an unstoppable cancerous rage. The only thing we could do was give him painkillers. All I wanted to do when I stepped into his room was to check his pulse, give him painkillers, and go home as fast as I could. But then I noticed that he had a book with him. At times he would read it at, then write something on white paper with his frail shivering hands, sometimes he would stop and watch the snow falling in Moscow, perhaps thinking about what he had just read. I was curious and asked him what he was doing. ‘I’m learning how gravitation works’, he said, smiling. I didn’t think much of it then, perhaps I attributed it to the ramblings of a mind condemned to a premature end, you heard a lot of that in the cancer ward. But I kept going back to his room, sometimes for no particular reason, and he would still be at it, propped up in his bed, battling with the equations of space and time. We would talk for a long time and sometimes I would ask him how his book was going. He would tell me that he just finished learning the tensor notation or that now he knows how the space time is represented or something of that sort. I never understood what he meant by all that, but when he talked about gravitation there was a gleam in his eyes, a gleam that was almost never seen in cancer wards, or even outside cancer wards.

His condition kept worsening, his body became frailer. Sometimes I thought I should tell him that he had at most two weeks to live, and learning gravitation with a mind numbed by painkillers was no way to spend it. I couldn’t tell him that, because I knew he wouldn’t listen. Then we decided to stop wasting painkillers on him. I saw him for the last time that day, the first time without his book, a skeleton with skin, he smiled at me and asked ‘How are you doing doctor?’ he asked with a smile. I just nodded and said I was fine, and I asked him how his book was going. ‘I finished it”, he said, his eyes wide in their black sockets, ‘It’s simple really, matter tells space-time how to curve, then the curve tells matter how to move’. He pointed to a 3 inch long equation written on a paper near his bed. ‘It’s beautiful, is it not?’, he asked me. I couldn’t say a thing, in my chest I felt a pain I had never felt before in my life. I looked at his face, a face that was the reflection of an inner state that we all long for.  A state I realized I could never achieve by worrying about how much I made at the hospital or how fast I could go home after this patient. In his face I could see the joy of doing what he loved doing.

The next day the room had a new tenant, but this time I went in not worrying about the time after which I could get out. 

- AJ

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