Anaesthesia and so much more besides …
I meet Dr Nazzareno Azzopardi just three days before his graduation day. And he’s 75 years old … a specialist anaesthetist whose medical profession has given him more than his fair share of stories to tell. As he prepares to graduate as a Legal Procurator, he sits in the clinic in his suit and tie, and recounts just a fraction of his life to me. Here is what I find out about him …
He still practises as a doctor, on a voluntary basis in a home for the elderly, some patients being younger than himself. It is his way of keeping in touch with the medical profession and contributing to the greater good. It all began way back in 1961, when he graduated as a medical doctor, spent the regular three-year stint working at St Luke’s Hospital and then decided it was high time to specialise. “I was at odds between two choices – obstetrics and anaesthesia. Finally, my marks decided for me. I placed first in anaesthesia and was highly encouraged by one of my tutors – Dr Charles Podesta – an exceptional man.” So anaesthesia it was. He was awarded a Diploma in Anaesthesia in 1965, after which he won a Council of Europe scholarship in 1970, specialising in Paediatric Anaesthesia at the Karolinska Sjukhuset of Stockholm and at the Clinica Gaslini in Genoa. He spent time in London in 1975 to gain a Fellowship with the Faculty of Anaeasthetists of the Royal College of Surgeons of England.
“By 1976 I had been appointed Consultant Anaesthetist and Head of the Gozo Anaesthesia Department by the Maltese Government. By 1977 I was a lecturer in Anaesthesia at the University of Malta, but that was the same year of the infamous doctors’ strike. It was an extremely trying period of my life. I proudly avoided the strike, since I always considered patients as my first priority. I remember discussing my decision with the hospital chaplain at the time, and he had advised me towards making a moral decision. In the end, I was one of the only 54 doctors who remained working with the government of the time. We kept things going and it was definitely not easy. I had a patrol boat constantly at my service, ferrying me to and from Malta and Gozo, covering all the operations that needed to be done. Eventually I ended up heading the Anaesthesia Department at St Luke’s Hospital, as well as setting up the Intensive Care Unit – posts I held until retirement in 1999.” His work, in collaboration with several foreign experts, transformed the new ITU into a fully functional and professional unit, which eventually led to the development of the SCBU.
It was this position that led him to witness several terrible fatalities caused by violent episodes of violence imprinted in history. Dr Azzopardi recalls the day Karin Grech was assassinated. “They brought her to hospital with her belly tied up with a towel. We tried to sew up her wounds – an impossible feat. She died in my presence. It was a terrifying moment. All doctors who had not participated in the strike were worried about their life and their families’ safety. I myself received threats but carried on nonetheless. My wife stayed with her mother for some time, taking along the children to safeguard them. Of course, Karin’s demise led to the creation of Karin Grech Hospital which served its purpose well for many successful years.”
At a distance of so much time, Dr Azzopardi’s face still darkens as he recalls these incidents. By that time, his family was complete. He and his wife Grace have four children, boys, now grown adults. One is a pilot, one is a vet, one is a businessman and one is an orthopaedic consultant surgeon. Being a family man at heart, Dr Azzopardi’s face lights up again, this time proudly, on mentioning his family.
Another episode that marked his medical experience was the Egyptair hijack in 1985. “We were apprehensively following the minute-to-minute events as they unfolded during those nerve-wracking 24 hours. As head of the Intensive Care Department, I was part of the team responsible for the immediate care and medical attention given to anybody injured during the hijack. After the attack happened, we were presented with a large number of seriously injured people, most of which had to be operated on immediately. I remember, at the time, our present Speaker of the House of Representatives, Dr Angelo Farrugia, was a Police Inspector. He approached me as we prepared to start operating these victims, informing me that one of the men we were to operate on, was a hijacker. I did not know who was who. We proceeded with the operations which had to be carried out. Eventually, there were 58 victims in all after that fateful event.”
In 1992 Dr Azzopardi decided it was high time he take a sabbatical. To rest? Far from it. With the consent of wife and children, he set off to Papua New Guinea to work as a Lay Missionary. It was a momentuous year, as evidenced by his book Mission Experience – Papua New Guinea, in which he documents salient moments of his experience, including his several brushes with malaria.
Referring once again to Dr Angelo Farrugia, Dr Azzopardi says the man was an inspiration to take up Law in later years. “With the last pay packet received at age 61, I knew I needed something to fill my time. I resumed study by taking up Theology up to Masters level. Then during my last year in Theology, I started Law. With Theology, the evening classes were shared by a good number of adult students. With Law, it was different. At first it felt strange to be a full-time student once more, especially since I was sharing my studies with people so much younger than myself. At first I kept to myself a lot, but soon integrated and became friends with all.”
It has certainly been an eventful ride for Dr Azzopardi. As he prepares himself for his umpteenth graduation, he is not sure what comes next … more study perhaps? Dr Azzopardi does not comment but as is typical of such a man, the last word is not about himself … “May I make a final comment? Through all these years I have appreciated the constant collaboration of dedicated nurses. We tend to disregard nurses as appendices to doctors, when in reality they are key collaborators who deserve all the respect in the world.”