Dad turned 80 this September. A milestone, yes, but a precious one as not two years ago, family members had to decide on a crucial spine surgery which would either help him walk or perhaps leave him confined to the bed for the rest of his life. A dilemma that consumed our every waking moment. “What if…” were the two words that left us distraught about the outcome of a surgery, either he would walk again or then face life with disposal bed pans, pressure relief mattress, food table, IV stand and adult diapers .
Come September, we sent a heartfelt prayer for the well being of this spine surgeon who breathed new life into an 80-year-old body. While most did advise the conventional route for treating a complex compression fracture of the lumbar spine, Sancheti hospital’s chief spine surgeon, Dr Ketan Khurjekar, helped clinch the deal for us. We opted for a spinal correction and two years after the surgery, dad can walk and even visit the barber for his weekly shave all by himself.
On Monday, a stunned lot woke up to the grim news of Khurjekar and his cab driver killed after they were hit by a speeding bus on the Pune-Mumbai expressway. Khurjekar was in Mumbai over the weekend to attend a workshop, give lectures on spine surgery and was looking forward to celebrating his 44th birthday with his family and patients on September 16. While returning from Mumbai on Sunday night, they had halted on the roadside to change a puncture when a speeding bus rammed into them. He was among the lot of spine surgeons to revolutionise the concepts of rehabilitation of spine surgery and instrumental in driving away fear about such surgery from the minds of several people. Most of his patients were road accident victims.
According to the Association of Spine Surgeons of India’s past president Dr S Rajasekaran at least 1.6 lakh people die on Indian roads every year. In Maharashtra, state highway safety patrol have reported over 600 fatal accidents along the Pune Mumbai expressway in the last five years. Road traffic accidents have become the biggest killer in the country with at least 30 major accidents occurring every three minutes. Any casualty department of large hospitals is likely to have trained surgeons handling difficult cases.
For Khurjekar, a personal connect with his patients always took the conversation to the next level, where he advised relatives and friends on the use of seat belts even while seated on car’s backseat. He was not only a good story teller with unending examples of how lives could have been saved, but also helped economically challenged patients cope by raising funds for them.
At the Association of Spine Surgeons of India, experts talk about the Indian spine revolution that took off in the mid-90s . Gone are the days when paraplegics and quadriplegics had to die a slow miserable death. Spine surgery progressed slowly till the 70s and very rapidly in the 1980s and spine surgeons in India have kept pace. The country has some of the best spine surgeons and spine surgery training centres in the world, writes R D Mulukutla of the Department of Spine Surgery, Udai Omni hospital, Hyderabad in the September issue of the Indian Spine Journal — official journal of the Association of Spine Surgeons of India
It’s a cruel irony that when our young surgeons are increasingly becoming capable of handling trauma and complex surgeries that a bad road takes one of the best among them. Trained in India and abroad, Khurjekar has been practising spine surgery for over 25 years and was a motivational teacher. His colleagues remember him as an innovative and skillful surgeon with the maximum number of surgeries, also performed on children and young adults suffering from a spinal disorder, scoliosis. Khurjekar was keen on a school-level screening programme to pick up cases of scoliosis (sideways curvature of the spine) — a medical condition that affects 10 million people in the country — at an early stage.
Rough estimates, according to the Pune Association of Spine Surgeons, indicate that an approximate 1,000 surgeries are performed every month to treat spine ailments across hospitals in the city; Khurjekar was among the most prolific surgeons. That he touched so many lives was evident when the family members of 97-year-old Bhanudas Deshmukh, who had a severely crushed spine and was operated upon or 71-year-old Maruti Sakhare, whose son was paralysed after an electric shock and was treated, call from faraway locations in Maharashtra desperate to get a final glimpse of their healing doctor before he is laid to rest.
While spine surgeons across the country have yet to come to terms with this huge loss, among the stream of patients, shocked and saddened at this doctor’s life being snatched away, is a face — my dad’s — that recollects being told, “Arre kaka mala ghari kadhi bolavata (Uncle, when are you inviting me home?)”.