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TBI Blogs: This Wheelchair-Bound Doctor Pioneered Spinal Cord Injury Treatment & Rehabilitation in India

Dr. Mary Verghese was among the earliest pioneers of physical medicine and rehabilitation in India. Even today, her work and spirit continues to inspire generations of rehabilitation professionals.

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May 26th is the birthday of Dr Mary Verghese, who pioneered India’s first specialised facility to rehabilitate persons with spinal cord injury. Quality Rehabilitation is still the only way out, as there is no cure for spinal cord injury anywhere.

Dr Verghese’s vision for rehabilitation in India was inspired by her experience with spinal cord injury, that imposes multiple disabilities at one stroke.

When Dr Verghese had a glimpse of what Quality Rehabilitation could do for a person with spinal cord injury in Australia in the late 1950s, her thinking was limited to what it meant for her life. This rehabilitation experience in Australia sparked the vision of a specialised rehabilitation facility in India, when none existed at the time.

Dr Verghese was well-placed to pursue her ambition of becoming a gynaecologist, having completed her MBBS in 1952 from one of India’s highly rated colleges, Christian Medical College (CMC), Vellore.

Her life took an unexpected turn following a spinal cord injury sustained in 1954 in a road accident, just as she was about to embark on her aspiration.

Dr Mary Verghese
Dr. Mary Verghese

As doctors who had devoted their lives to the needy were around her at her alma mater, she received good basic care. The motivation provided by Dr Paul Brand, globally renowned as the pioneer of tendon-transplant operations that restore functioning of hands and feet in persons with leprosy, gave Dr. Verghese a break, though she was initially startled by and skeptical of his view on available possibilities.

She started doing surgery from the wheelchair for leprosy care, and soon started to restore eyelashes for persons with leprosy. This helped partly remove a visible stigma for them. Dr. Verghese was perhaps the first doctor in India to do clinical/surgical practice from a wheelchair.

Once she made up her mind to set up a specialised rehabilitation facility in India, she pulled out all stops to equip herself with expertise and resources. She completed her Fellowship in Rehabilitation at the Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, New York, the world’s first institute for training in rehabilitation. It is now known as the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine, named after the pioneer Dr. Howard Rusk under whom Dr Verghese trained.

As a qualified physiatrist – a doctor who specialises in rehabilitation – Dr Verghese embarked on executing her vision for a holistic rehabilitation facility adapted to ground realities in India as an integral part of Christian Medical College, Vellore. Her relentless focus was on making sure the services were of quality, yet affordable.

In less than 10 years, Dr Verghese had started courses in Physiotherapy, Occupational Therapy, and Prosthetics & Orthotics to ensure that a well-trained team was available, as Quality Rehabilitation involves diverse skills.

Sports, community follow-up, vocational training, caregiver training, and low-cost mobility aids – she had these covered too.

Jayakumar, who is paralysed neck down and has marginal use of his hands, uses his training at the rehabilitation centre to full effect in school.
Jayakumar has paralysis neck-down, and marginal use of his hands. But he uses his training at the rehabilitation centre to full effect in school.

Persons with the privilege of observing her work articulate the view her work was magical. She never had to tell patients that life is possible after a spinal cord injury. They could see she was diagnosing, treating, and also operating on them from a wheelchair.

Even after more than 50 years, the rehabilitation facility started by Dr Verghese serves as a role model in India, which still has acute shortage of rehabilitation capacity.

Experts placed the number of new cases of spinal cord injury every year anywhere between 15,000 and 25,000. (The US had 17,000 cases in 2016). No more than 1,000 a year can secure Quality Rehabilitation in India now.

Her biography Take My Hands: The Remarkable Story of Dr. Mary Verghese by Dorothy Clarke Wilson, a renowned author, is a must-read.

Peer mentoring is a vital part of rehabilitation. Shailesh Kumar takes best practices of rehabilitation across India.
Peer mentoring is a vital part of rehabilitation. Shailesh Kumar takes best practices of rehabilitation across India.

Her friends fondly recall Dr Verghese, “Her courage is the most abiding memory. She was a lady, and in the 50s when she had her accident, women were becoming more independent, but still had a restricted role in society. Despite her physical challenges, she took on a leadership role, and did it so well. She had the ability to inspire.”

In honour of Dr Verghese, May 26 became the Founding Day for The Spinal Foundation, inaugurated at the Mary Verghese Trust in 2014. The Spinal Foundation is a pan-India Self-Help Group that focuses on networking, advocacy, peer mentoring, and enhancing quality of life of persons with spinal cord injury.

“I asked for feet. I have received wings.” That’s how Dr Mary Verghese thought. Her life continues to inspire many battling with acute disabilities, and generations of rehabilitation professionals.

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About the author: S. Vaidyanathan is co-founder of The Spinal Foundation and an alumnus of Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore. He had his experience of Quality Rehabilitation in 1990 at the facility started by Dr Mary Verghese.

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The Spinal Foundation is the pan-India Self-Help Group for Persons with Spinal Cord Injury. (Toll-Free Number: 1800 425 1210)