Upendra Devkota knew the end was near. He returned from London after doctors at the King’s College Hospital where he was being treated for five months gave up hope of curing his cancer of the bile duct.
He said he wanted to die in his own motherland, and he touched the tarmac with his forehead after landing in Kathmandu airport in April to pay respect to the Nepali ground. He showed signs of improvement after being admitted to his own Neuro Hospital in Bansbari.
However, the cancer proved too powerful, and even Devkota’s iron will could not battle it. He asked one last time two weeks ago to be taken to his parents’ village in Gorkha to drink water from the spring next to the house where he was born.
As a doctor, Devkota seemed to know exactly when his time was up, and asked to be put on sedatives two days ago. He did not want his family to suffer on seeing him suffer. He never regained consciousness and the end came at 5:35 pm on Monday.
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Devkota was a brilliant student at the missionary school in Gorkha where he was classmate and rival of Baburam Bhattarai, the Maoist ideologue.
It was 1983, when Devkota, straight out of medical college, went to the renowned Glasgow Neuroscience Institute to fulfil his lifelong dream of becoming a neurosurgeon. Not just any surgeon, Upendra Devkota wanted to be the best neurosugeon in the world. Under the guidance of professor Graham Teasdale, and with the dint of hard work and fierce ambition, Devkota soon proved himself.
But even as he learnt the craft, Devkota used to dream about building a hospital as good as the one in Glasgow some day in Nepal. He returned to Kathmandu 20 years ago, and set about making his dream come true.
The National Institute of Neurological and Allied Sciences was opened in 2006, and he brought Prof Teasdale to Kathmandu to inaugurate it. Asked by this newspaper why he returned to Nepal, Devkota had replied: “My philosophy is that it is more satisfying to grow vegetables in your own garden than to buy them at Sainsbury.”
Pioneering British neurosurgeon Henry Marsh, and a colleague of Devkota from his London days, writes in his book, Admissions: ‘Dev does almost all the major operating himself. In six weeks working in Kathmandu I saw more major operations than I would have done in six months in London … in the outpatient clinic he is like a king surrounded by courtiers and petitioners.’
Among his more famous patients were Ganga and Jamuna, the conjoined twins whom Devkota tried to operate and save in 2002 before they were taken to Singapore. He saved Editor Kanak Mani Dixit from being a quadriplegic from a shattered spine in a trekking fall in 2000 by performing a seven hour operation in the neurosurgery ward he had created at the government-run Bir Hospital.
Devkota served briefly as Health Minister in the Gyanendra government in 2005. His pet project of setting up a national insurance scheme could not be realised because Gyanendra was sidelined in a street uprising in April 2006. But he did establish the National Academy of Medical Sciences at Bir Hospital during his tenure.
Devkota was one of the few who got to witness up close the aftermath of the royal massacre of 1 June 2001, when Crown Prince Dipendra killed nine members of his family and then himself. At a time when the truth was unbelievable and unpalatable to many, Devkota wrote a forthright piece in this paper, recounting what he saw that night at Chhauni military hospital.
He wrote about seeing the lifeless body of King Birendra, a monarch he admired, at the hospital amidst a row of corpses: ‘I had flashes of memory of having met him during a big international neurosurgical conference in Kathmandu three years ago: he was a perfect gentleman, and he felt deeply for the country. It was difficult to accept that he was gone, it was as big a loss for me as when I lost my father and mother.’
And now the great neurosurgeon and great Nepali, Upendra Devkota, is himself gone — ahead of all the lives he saved.