In 1983 a “mysterious disease” claimed several lives in the remote villages of Himachal Pradesh’s Rohru district. “It is plague,” a young government doctor posted at the Rohru Civil Hospital raised the alarm. But none would believe him.
Undeterred, Dr Jaidev Singh Retola kept treating patients with tetracycline, an antibiotic. Three decades later, the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER), Chandigarh, in a research on plague acknowledged that Dr Retola had single-handedly curtailed the spread of the contagious disease in the state.
The good doctor, who hailed from Sheel village in Rohru, passed away at the PGIMER on Saturday. He was 71.
Those who knew him fondly recall him as 'Dr Kotnis' — after the legendary Dwarkanath Shantaram Kotnis, one of the five Indian physicians sent to China to provide assistance during the second Sino-Japanese War in 1938, who was revered for selfless service.
Dr Sonu Goel, Additional Professor, School of Public Health, PGI, the main author of the study on plague, says Dr Retola’s intervention as a community physician was remarkable. 'He did not have any diagnostic facility. By treating patients based on symptoms, he earned a place in medical science history as a physician who was the first to identify the breakout of plague,' says Dr Goel. 'Had he not intervened, it would have been a disaster. Medical science also acknowledges his contribution to identify the trend of plague outbreak as cyclic occurrence. It was proved correct when a few Rohru residents succumbed to the disease in 2002,' he adds.
'Legend has it that Dr Retola not only carried medicine for those infected by plague, but also helped cremate the bodies. Kullu-based Dr Om Pal Sharma, former president of the HP Medical Officers Association, of which Dr Retola was a lifelong associate member, says there was intermittent breakout of plague in Rohru district between 1983 and 1985. 'Posted most of the time in and around Rohru district, Dr Retola was always at the forefront in the battle against the disease,' he recalld.