While putting up a brave fight against a life-threatening disease and even losing his wife to discord, a young man ensured that he completes his PhD in time, reports Khalid Bashir Gura
“Life is what happens to us while we are busy planning for it,” said Dr Zubair Shanib Bhat, 37, a resident of Chanapora in Srinagar. A teacher at SKIMS, Dr Bhat was detected with a brain and neurological disease some years ago and is still fighting it.
On a cold grey autumn morning, he packs his bags to board a flight to PGIMER, Chandigarh to undergo radiotherapy as his brain tumour shows signs of recurrence after four years of surgery. A Senior Resident at SKIMS, Immunology and Molecular Medicine, he teaches microbiology to medical students.
Dr Bhat’s struggle began when his father went jobless for a long time and he was brought up by his mother, a teacher at one of the private schools in Srinagar. He expected his family’s struggle to end when his father found employment in J&K Bank but was unaware of the subsequent shocks life had in store for him and his family. Bhat was the last one to get married among his siblings – elder brother and sister – as he was pre-occupied with securing his career and pursuing research.
The plans for life ceased to make sense for him when on February 28, 2013 he suddenly lost his consciousness. When he regained his consciousness at a hospital, he was diagnosed with first motor focal epilepsy seizure episode of the left side of the body by a doctor.
Bhat was in Jammu along with his friends, pursuing PhD at CSIR, Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine (IIIM), and was supposed to undergo mandatory training at Jammu laboratory. Suddenly, he felt a tingling painful sensation in his left hand as if blade-slit his wrist and soon he fell unconscious. “I thought it is the end of my life and started reciting Kalimah but was not able to recite it,” he said.
The shock of being detected with sudden epilepsy distressed his family and his worried elder brother landed in Jammu the following day.
Soon Dr Bhat consulted renowned Kashmiri neurologist, Dr Susheel Razdan in Jammu. He was asked to undergo specific tests. Subsequently, he consulted another neurologist, who, according to Bhat, kept him and his family in dark by wrong diagnoses, keeping him on anti-bacterial medicine for three years.
“The neurologists were not able to diagnose the disease initially as they presumed that pork eggs in Jammu may have found their way somehow in my intestines and travelled to my brain and that could be the reason for my epilepsy,” Dr Bhat said. He also could not question the treatment as he was doing well on medicine.
In June 2016, the real shock came when Dr Bhat was married and the frequency of epilepsy fits increased with severe headaches. This threatened to turn his newly married life upside down.
“My left hand was numb when I prostrated in Salah. It could not carry the weight of the body,” Dr Bhat said. Newly married, he rushed to Dr Mushtaq Wani, a neurologist in Srinagar who had grim prognosis for him and told him that it is beyond epilepsy as the body organ is manifesting malfunctioning.
“It can or cannot be a tumour,” Dr Bhat recalls Dr Wani saying. He was soon referred to PGIMER, Chandigarh.
The ground beneath his feet gave way when the doctor at the Chandigarh informed him that he has brain cancer. “It was a shock of my life. The shock was more painful than epilepsy pain,” Dr Bhat said.
Hoping for a different outcome, he repeatedly performed MRIs and other tests but was disillusioned as he was detected with rare Anaplastic Astrocytoma Grade III, a rare brain cancer.
Under The Knife
Far away from his parents, Dr Bhat’s doctors who detected his tumour did not want to delay his surgery and asked him to prepare for brain surgery within two days. “You have only two days for surgery because of your high-grade tumour,” he was told. His family flew to Chandigarh to be by his side.
Dr Bhat, meanwhile, had forgotten that he was recently married. He was also in the fourth year of his research as life was revealing him hard truths and realities.
Once the tumour which was in the right palatal lobe removed, Dr Bhat started his life again after a few months. Post-surgery he felt numbness in his left limb, arm and fingers. The doctors told him that he will recuperate after proper exercises.
“The roots of the tumour could not be removed as the fragile brain can be impacted and it can severely impact the organs of the body associated with it,” Bhat said.
Soon Dr Bhat had to undergo conventional chemotherapy and radiotherapy for cancer patients. “I used to puke constantly, lost appetite followed by loss of weight. I was reduced from the 70 to below 60 Kgs,” he said as he also used to experience hallucinations and anxiety post-surgery.
As he was a student of research, he worried about the financial burden that the disease entails. “Every month I was treated with five doses of therapy which cost Rs 4000 and initially, my treatment was sponsored by a cancer society in Chandigarh and later once I was assisted by Cancer Society of Kashmir”. Dr Bhat said. “I came to believe that public money has been spent on my treatment and I owe the people my gratitude and want to return the good they did in whatever way I can”.
Once the tumour was removed and Bhat started recuperating, the life had another shocker in store: his marriage fell apart as he got divorced. “My in-laws accused me of hiding cancer and my wife decided to walk away due to my disease,” he said with a lump in his throat. “My wife left me when I needed her most.”
Dr Bhat is grateful to his family especially his elder brother, parents and friends who stood by his side when everything was falling apart. Battling depression he was counselled by a psychologist friend whose words empowered Bhat to move on.
Life began to be colourful and purposeful again. “Either you can choose to be victim or victorious,” Dr Bhat recalls his friend’s words. He did not lose hope and started his daily routine and academic pursuits. According to Dr Bhat, the disease could not prevent him from publishing 14 research papers in internationally acclaimed journals. He also completed his PhD in 2018.
The doctors at Chandigarh had a prognosis for him that if the recurrence of tumour did not come back in next five years they can provide him with a certificate of being cancer-free so that he can apply for jobs.
“As I had to work as a research associate from November 2018, I needed a certificate from doctors assuring that I can work,” Dr Bhat said. “I availed certificate from my neurologist and radiologist certifying that I can work”. In September Dr Bhat remarried.
As plans were afoot to begin a new life, the distressing signs of epilepsy reappeared. After battling four years and three months free from disease, Bhat cannot receive the cancer-free certificate as the signs of epilepsy relapse showed up again. “I had an epileptic seizure and MRI shows sign of cancer recurring and inflammation in the brain,” he said.
This time he is much content and nonchalant as his second wife who is aware of his past and has accepted him in his entirety is by his side. “Death is certain for everybody and it does not have a fixed time. Anything can happen to anyone at any time,” she consoles me with these words. She said that she believes in Allah and accepted me with my disease.
As Bhat prepares to leave Kashmir for radiotherapy he has past experience behind him. “I see happiness and hardships in life both from Almighty Allah. Some come as lessons and others come as blessings,” Dr Bhat said. “In this test of life, we never need to lose hope in the mercy of Allah.”