A Vincentian Surgeon’s Swan Song
Sir Cecil Cyrus has presented us with what he calls his swan song, his fifth publication, entitled “A Potpourri – The Swan Song of A Caribbean Surgeon”;
a publication to be cherished, a miscellany of reflections on his thoughts and experiences, not only as a surgeon but as one who has lived a truly fulfilling life. It is a reflection not only on medical issues and experiences but on life generally. Some of these have been touched on before, but as a nonagenarian he provides us with that extra richness, born of a life in which he not only participated fully but observed, reflected on, and has been sharing. He is indeed the embodiment of a Renaissance Man, holistic in the life he lived. His love of English Literature which he taught at the Boys Grammar School shortly after graduating from it, has stayed with him, and has enriched his writings as he is able to quote appropriately from some of his treasured pieces of literature. He writes like someone whose true field of study is Literature and Language rather than medicine.
He marvels at having written five books, but attributes that to “a phenomenally photographic, retentive memory that allows me to recall the minutest of details”. One of the hallmarks of his life is his discipline, his obsession with recording events and activities and taking photographs particularly of things that appeared unusual. When you are tempted to question some of his observations you can be sure that he either has a photograph to support them or jottings made at the time they happened. He prides himself on always having at hand, wherever he was, scrap paper and pen, ready to make his jottings. But even more he was meticulous at keeping records. He has bound volumes of 68 papers of every examination, class and professional, that he took during his years of medical studies. His 20 bound volumes of Squash data capturing the beginning and development of the game here, replete with photographs, allowed for St Vincent’s placement in the First Guinness Book of Squash.
So, what does his Swan Song, his Potpourri leave for us? As one might expect what we get is an “amalgam of medical and non-medical thoughts.” He begins by making references to the many lectures he gave to young people, to schools, incoming Offshore medical students and to institutions. Given the unanchored state of our society today, many of those topics are extremely relevant. They included self-control, integrity, self- analysis, friendship, health of body, dignity of labour, a code of living for youths and the power of the human mind.
Sir Cecil said that he has been accused of being married to medicine but if true he would be guilty of infidelity, of having two mistresses, gardening, and squash. He provides an account of his initial attraction to Squash and his role with his wife’s accompaniment in not only introducing it to St Vincent, but also over the years being pivotal to its development, in many cases using their personal funds to ensure its survival and encouraging wide participation.
About Gardening he might even be said to be a gardener by profession and a surgeon by hobby. Gardening was seen as relaxing and therapeutic. His section on gardening includes chapters on “Our Plants” and “Resident Animals.” The chapter on plants I found most fascinating. In fact, so appealing was it that I am considering paying serious attention to gardening. The description of his involvement in gardening and the plants that occupied his attention with the help of an assistant for over 50 years was for me pure romance.
He rightfully prides himself on using no artificial nutrients but rather utilised fully home produced compost, chicken, and cow dung. He observed his plants closely and became bewildered by plant life, seeing what many would not have seen. It might be said that he brought a surgeon’s touch to plant life. He convinced himself that some of the plants waved at him for as he approached them, without any wind they began to dance gently. From his dining table with the gentlest of winds they seem to do the Rumba, the tango, waltz, and quickstep. He drew strength from what he refers to as the ever present wonders of nature. His discussion of resident animals and birds is equally intriguing.
He can even be accused of ‘makoing’ some of the animals as on numerous occasions he closely observed their movements.
He was fascinated by battles between the chicken hawk and the pippereee. The bats pecking at the fruits and making way for the others to have their turn was something to behold. I broke with him however when he actually saved bats from the swimming pool. For me hideous creatures! The ant he considers one of the most fascinating of nature’s creatures as he looked at them carrying objects many times their weight. There was even some history thrown in as he remembers during the 1940s farmers taking their produce to the Market on donkeys, having them tied there and then passers-by listening to them as they picked up the chorus at 12 o’clock after one of them had started to bray.
Other chapters of the book are equally appealing. He describes matters that he considers inexplicable. Twins thousands of miles apart feeling the same pain, persons predicting death based on having observed some unusual happening, his dog reacting strongly to a piece of music being played, other incidents that he could only attribute to ghosts despite his disbelief in their existence. He describes what he labelled Inner Promptings where he responded to inner feelings to take a particular course of action that turned out to be very timely and fruitful. He provides examples of what he calls ‘Prescience’ where persons become aware of events before they took place. A very moving piece falls under the caption ‘Euthanasia’ where patients had pleaded with him to take their lives.
He provides advice to people of his age in their reaction to the slightest discomfort and dealing with the urge to urinate. His advice to school children is to have something sweet at break, remembering that as a vehicle runs on petrol or diesel so does the brain function on glucose. He pays tribute to his wife, accepting the role of fate in their meeting. He continues his praise of women’s reproductive role since “having a baby is the greatest, the ultimate achievement of a woman.”
He ends with the hope that his experience “has challenged and stimulated you to ponder, however briefly, some of the miscellany that has been harvested to produce this potpourri. There is so much to wonder at in our daily lives if we could but spare the time to do so.” His life he considers rich and rewarding. His 90th birthday last year was a grand occasion since, two months after he was bestowed a Knighthood.
Sir Cecil’s swan song is well worth reading. It leaves us with much to think about and to treasure and to observe what we previously took for granted.
Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian