Visual impairment : Blinded by an accident
He had always wanted to be a microbiologist. “My parents wanted me to do medicine so they encouraged me to apply and I got a seat,” he remembers. “After completing medicine, I went back to Microbiology, but the only difference being that now it is Medical Microbiology and not Industrial Microbiology.”
The fact that he has zero vision has not dimmed Dr Amarnath’s passion for his work. “I have four designations [at Manipal],” he says. “They are: Coordinator for distance education in Allied and Sciences, Quality Management Representative for Manipal for the ISO certification, Advisor in Microbiology and Chairman of the Manipal Infection Control Committee.”
On September 5, 1998, he had stepped out to a tailor’s shop for some work. While on his way home to dinner with his family he was attacked viciously – unseen assailants threw concentrated sulphuric acid on his face and ran away before they could be caught. An ophthalmologist friend told him that there was a 99% chance that he would not get his sight back.
Dr Amarnath’s life was thrown into upheaval. “My son was too small, my daughter was around 12 and understood; my wife and mother were totally devastated but helped me move on. Basically, someone tried to destroy my life. I couldn’t lose the battle and I wanted to go on. I guess I was just stubborn and didn’t want to give up.”
“A thing that moved me the most,” he says, “was a total sense of helplessness that I saw in my family and that is when I decided that I had to fight.” On the 40th day after he was attacked, he was back at work, trying to do what he did best.
He feels the general public reacts to him differently now. “I have been lucky though! My plastic surgeon did a good job with my face and when I wear glasses, people don’t realise that I don’t see.” He adds, “People are over-protective or over-caring, but I guess they are trying to be helpful and it just never bothered me. I knew what the other person was trying to do and thus was never offended.”
Adjusting to mobility or travel was not a big issue. “After three months of the episode, I learnt to use the cane. I don’t have any hang-ups going anywhere.”
After Dr Amarnath lost his vision, he thinks the hospital, initially felt that it should not hurt his feelings and let him continue work at his old position. Subsequently, when the hospital authorities saw his ability and “my stubbornness to do things and do all I could”, they did not bring in additional microbiologists until the workload really demanded it.
He appreciates the fact that all his friends and colleagues did a lot for him. “In fact, my very close departmental colleagues helped me a lot and encouraged me in every small little thing I did,” he states. “I know what I can and cannot do. When I did explore what I could do, it was quite a lot.”
The key to making time for the activities connected to his work, and to keeping track of what is happening around him, is very simple. “I have very good people working for me; they know how I expect work done. It is also important to choose the right people, delegate work to them, motivate them and see that they follow work through.”
However, there is definitely a difference in the kind of work he did before he lost his sight, and the work he does now. “In microbiology, a lot is based on sight, on seeing things and reporting what is there,” Dr Amarnath explains. “Yes, I can’t do that now but what I do is this: I ask two people to describe it to me and then I draw my conclusions. My experience helps me do this. If there is a difference in the two descriptions, I bring in a third person before drawing my conclusions. I use my olfactory senses and the perceptions of others too.”
Dr Amarnath has a large body of published work to his credit. He is also an active contributor to many international and national medical journals. His hobbies include stamp collecting and computing. He has also developed software packages for medical institutions as well as for teaching.
What message does he have for people who may have been through a similar situation?
“I have met lots of people who have lost their sight. What I feel is that most of them give up not exploring what they can do. They can do is quite a lot. If they only explore what they can do, they will find enough and more to do.”