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Cecil Cyrus’ Odyssey of a Caribbean Surgeon

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Dr Cyrus’ latest book was difficult to put down. It is a rich piece of literature and filled with a wealth of medical experiences and opinions based on 37 years of practice, starting at a time when we did not even dream of political independence. It lends itself not only to those with an interest in medical matters but to all lay people. It is filled with humour, philosophy, history, and literature, as he quotes from Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, John Milton, Virgil, Tennyson, and others, and from the scriptures. Barbadian Dr Henry Fraser refers to the author, fittingly, as a Renaissance man and his work as an “intimate biographical ‘opus’ “.

This work and his previous works, owe much to his photographic memory, a phenomenal sense of discipline, and his painstaking recording of his experiences and practice through photographs and detailed notes. The Botanic Museum which he created with love, is not only unique but would remain a lasting testimony to his dedication and commitment. The chapters that I particularly liked are, Home Remedies, The Day I Died, A Hardy People, In the Consulting Room, Choice Descriptions of Symptoms, the Telephone and the Eye clinics.  I singled these out because of the fun and humour and the fact that they tell us so much about our people. I must confess that what I like about those chapters abound in all other chapters.

He writes about “bull-de-mash” and “maljo string” which I had heard about as a school boy. In his early years of practise he met persons who had contacted the “obeah” man before coming to him. I never knew what “maljo string” was but he describes it as, made up of blue stone, garlic, grains of maize and a half penny wrapped in a piece of red cloth with the two ends tied to two black shoe laces to secure it to the waist where it was worn.

Some of the old “treasure houses” remain. Many still believed that gonorrhoea or “clap” was caused from sitting on a hot stone. The penis was named “charlie”. One patient told him that she had a blister on her lip because “a spider pee in my mouth”. A stomach pain was likened to “a fish gill in a dog’s belly”. Another one indicated that her headaches were like a clock. I can well understand the confusion of the patient who said that when he closed his eyes he couldn’t see, for visits to doctors’ offices do that to you. But it becomes even more funny if not outrageous when someone phoned to ask if she could get pregnant if she had sex in her underwear. When reference was made about something that was as white as snow, his friend Shake Keane scolded him, reminding him that we had never seen snow. The criterion of absolute whiteness should therefore be cotton. Those married men who suffered because they operated outside their marriage vows he described as having “off-sided” or engaged in “private practice.” Mother Bakes that well- known character around town was mentioned and his photograph included. He had put a plaster of Paris cast on him, which “Bakes” later removed. This struck me because I remember seeing ‘Bakes’ bedecked in it.

Cyrus was struck by the number of persons who had been moving around with physical deformities that could have been easily dealt with but this was a reflection not only of the state of our hospital at that time but of the broader society where such things were taken for granted. Dr Cyrus made comparisons between patients he saw and treated in England and those at home. He considered those at home of “rock like hardiness”, “better able to withstand serious illness and surviving against all odds.”  He had to disobey some of what he learnt in England based on different environmental conditions and on genetics. Perhaps the most powerful chapter was on Motherhood. He has long considered “Motherhood” a miracle of reproduction and prayed for the time when most world leaders would be women for “women will use the heart more and the brain a little less in the ordaining of things.” He considered them more compassionate, understanding, forgiving, kind and loving. This is the stuff of which women liberation is made but I am sure will be seriously contented elsewhere.

Two final points must be made. First, because of his long experience treating persons who were frequent users of marijuana, his opinion would be invaluable in the current debate. Finally, a point about which as a layman I agree. He decries the tendency to rely on machines rather than clinical acumen and concludes that machines must complement not supplant clinical perception. I must confess to doing an injustice to this remarkable work for there is so much more that is rich and important that should be mentioned but the limitations of space have dictated otherwise.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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