Mary Verghese

Dr. Mary Verghese was born in Kerala in 1925 to a prosperous family. Her father was a respected leader in the church and community, and along with her mother, provided Mary and her seven siblings a loving familial environment. Mary was fiercely independent from the start, and determined to prove that she could be as capable of scholarly achievements as her three brothers. And she was a bright student, going on to study at the Maharaja's College, Ernakulam, and obtaining top honours in Chemistry. Despite family pressure to become a college teacher, she decided to become a doctor, and applied to the Christian Medical College, Vellore.

Mary was one of seventy five women invited to Vellore to attend the interviews which would select the best twenty five. She was sure she would not stand a chance in the face of such poised, confident women. She was also skeptical about the aura surrounding Dr. Ida Scudder, about whom her friends could not stop talking. But hearing the seventy six year old Dr. Ida speak in Chapel about that fateful night in1890 when she heard God's call was enough to change Mary's opinion - and then she was desperate to get in. To her dismay, she found herself first on the waiting list and was asked to stay in Vellore for a few days. One girl dropped out and Mary could hardly believe that she was a member of the Batch of 1946. Dr. Ida welcomed her with the prophetic words: 'I believe you have what it takes to make a good doctor.'

Her college days were full, with studies, friends and various activities. It was during her student life that she came to enjoy a deeper, more personal relationship with God. It was the beginning of an enduring, lifelong faith that awakened her to human needs in the clinics, the wards, and in the villages while on outreach visits. After graduating in 1952, Mary decided to specialize in obstetrics and gynaecology. Then came the day that marked the before and the after in her life.

It was 30th January 1954, and a holiday to mark the martyrdom of Mahatma Gandhi. Dr. Carol Jameson, the head of Gynaecology, planned an outing for the doctors who were either completing or joining their postings in her department. Soon a car full of young people was on the road, reveling in the joy of a day off. While overtaking a bus, the car hit a milestone and turned turtle three times. Two of the thirteen passengers - including Mary - were unconscious. In time everyone would recover, except Mary: the accident left her a paraplegic.

Mary's carefully patterned and ordained world was turned upside down. There she was, a woman in the prime of her life, disfigured and disabled. There she was, staring at life that she felt was coming to an end just as the best was about to begin. The torturous treatments and many surgeries were nothing compared to the battles in her mind, to the questions and shadows that beset her soul. How could one, who prided herself in her physical strength and independence reconcile to disability and utter dependence on others?

But pity was the last thing she wanted. There were small accomplishments- being able to sit in a wheelchair or tying a sari on her own - and as many remember her, she was always impeccably dressed. But what would she do with her medicine degree? Obstetrics and Gynaecology was out of the question. She was invited to join both Bacteriology and Pathology, but Mary wanted to work with people. That was when Dr. Paul Brand suggested Hand Surgery, since most of the surgeries could be performed sitting. Mary was incredulous at the suggestion, but nevertheless turned up for work the next day. Then she began learning and relearning things, techniques and procedures, working with leprosy patients, who saw in her a kindred spirit.

When Dr. Gwenda Lewis, a victim of polio, returned to Vellore from the Australian Rehabilitation Centre, Perth, with the scope of her activities widened, Mary was astonished. With her family's support, she was also able to go to Perth, where she spent months learning skills that made her increasingly independent. It was there that a seed of an idea began to grow - Rehabilitation in India? In Vellore?

Mary Varghese in Australia
Mary Verghese                        

Thoroughly enthused, Mary was able to secure a fellowship at the Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, New York, under Dr. Howard Rusk, a pioneer in the field. Going to New York, living, working, studying there - even learning to drive - are tributes to her faith, indomitable spirit and dogged determination. She cleared the exams that accredited her to head the new Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in Vellore, the first of its kind in India.

In 1966, her dreams came to fruition when the Rehabilitation Institute opened: a place of healing, restoring, and reaching out. She also started a fund to raise money for those who could not afford braces, wheelchairs and artificial limbs. Vocational training was an important part of rehabilitation. Today, outreach programmes at the Rehabilitation Institute involve communities and families in care and rehabilitation. In her lifetime, she received the highest honours for her pioneering work, including the Padma Shri in 1972. But far beyond the legacy she left - the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, the 83 bed Rehabilitation Institute or the Dr. Mary Verghese Trust - was her own courageous example of taking disability and its attendant baggage out of the closet. 'I asked for feet, and I have been given wings.'