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Some human being are larger than life. Prof. R.J. Garst was one of them. He was a friend of Bangladesh. His name is synonymous with the dedicated care of the wounded freedom fighters of the war of liberation and with the birth of National institute of traumatology and orthopaedci Rehabilitation (NITOR), the then RIHD.
Dr. Garst was working in Ludhiana, India as a missionary surgeon in 1971. in Bangladesh, we attained victory from Pakistani occupation but at the cost of 3 million deaths and thousands of freedom fighters wounded in the war apart from other miseries. During that time we hardly had any orthopaedic surgeon to take care of our wounded freedom fighters. Bangabandhu Shiekh Mujibur Rahman was deeply concerned & worried about how to arrange proper treatment for the brave sons of our nation. On his personal initiative, some of the wounded freedom fighters were send to Germany. Many more were left for treatment in Bangladesh. Bangabandhu Sheik Mujibur Rahman at that time found Dr. Garst to help them out.
Dr. Garst came to Dhaka and started his journey of dedication and sacrifice for the people of Bangladesh. Initially he gave his services in DMCH and then from the makeshift wards in the veranda of Shahid Suhrawardi Hospital Complex. Within a short period of time the demand for his services grew immensely both among the freedom fighters as well as the civilians. So, with the blessings and active support of Bangabandhu he went for a large and ambitious project that would help to mitigate the suffering of orthopaedic patients and injured freedom fighters. So the building of RIHD was started with the govt and non govt funds.
Doctors and staffs of this hospital who worked with him during that time love to tell stories of those days when the hospital was being built. At that time Dr. Garst played the role of Project director and managed finances. He also acted as an engineer because most of the engineers could not work better than him. He acted as a plumber and masonry because he knew the job and also as a day labourer to give dignity of labour. Many of the doctors, faculty form abroad and the staffs of this hospital took active participation in the construction of this building. Dr. Garst was an invincible man in his mission. He had a unique quality to over come the difficulties. For the construction and development of NITOR he was tireless and did turn all the stones if required. There are stories about his tenacities. He used to carry a small type writer in his bag. In the persuasion of official help if any time any document was required he used to provide instantly using his office in his bag.
Dr. Garst was not only the founder of this hospital but also the father of orthopaedic surgery in Bangladesh. He knew, health care can not be provided by the doctors of other countries, so wanted to produce orthopaedic surgeons, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, OT/PT technicians and orthopaedic nurses in Bangladesh. So for the first time in Bangladesh he introduced MS & Diploma in orthopaedic surgery, BSC & Diploma in Physiotherapy & other courses under University of Dhaka. This in fact was the beginning of a new era in post graduate education in Bangladesh. With the introduction of courses he introduces American education system at NITOR which is based on extensive hands on training. As a legacy of the tradition started by Dr. Garst, we still start our days with the morning conference just at 8 am. This is attended by all doctors. And the residents take active role in patient care at every level form the very beginning of their tenure.
For Dr. Garst, service to humanity was his philosophy and the well being of man kind was always in his prayers. He wanted to please God by serving the diseased and distressed. He could successfully infuse that philosophy in the mind of the people around him. That is why NITOR in his time reached to zenith in patient care and became famous nationally and internationally. We often come across people treated by Dr,. Garst in our hospital. Those patients love to tell stories about his love, kindness, skill and power of healing.
Dr. Garst had a constant companion, his wife Mrs. Marie Garst. Mrs. Marie used to work as his secretary and to look after some of the administrative and academic affairs. Students were mostly responsible to Mrs. Marie Garst for their attendants and Library works. Dr. & Mrs. Garst were persons who believe in giving and giving selflessly. They gave their time, money. Love & affection to one and all. Staffs of this hospital who worked with him, all had their personal tales of Dr. & Mrs. Garsts generosity. Hospital staffs and the doctors used to consider them as their guardians. Dr. & Mrs. Garst used to love them as their children. Arranging parties and giving gifts were usual practices. Not only that, they used to visit residence of many hospital staffs regularly, knew the name of the children and family members and looked after them & Mrs. Garst maintained that relationship even after leaving the country and did that to the very end.
My first encounter with Garst was in 1980 when I wanted to join to his hospital. Prof. Nawab Ali, my teacher & head of surgery at DMCH send me to meet him with a letter. He could not take me at that time because I could not get Govt. Order. I came to NITOR in 1984, when Dr. Garst had already left NITOR, any way, after that I had many opportunities to meet them & working with him. Dr. Garst was very interested in TB spine and I had opportunity of assisting him in surgery on patients with TB spine on few occasions. He had been suffering form Rheumatoid arthritis, had his hip replaced and had deformity in hand. But that did not prevent him of doing hard work like collecting materials for NITOR, repairing those and sending them to Dhaka. Not only that, he kept visiting NITOR frequently & helping doctors and students in teaching.
During his visits a warm friendship developed between our two families. During their visits Dr. and Mrs. Garst would often come to our house for dinner. There were many lively discussions during dinner. My father-in-law Brig. Malik and Dr. Garst had many interesting stories to share especially about the old days when both were busy developing NICVD and NITOR respectively. In 1994, I had an opportunity to go UK and work at Princess Margaret Orthopaedic Hospital for 2 years. Dr. Garst was instrumental in getting the position there. During his visit in 2002, one day Dr. Garst asked me to get some medicine & envelopes to take to USA. I happily obliged. However, I was a bit surprised when he offered to pay me back for those few items and I refused. I was struck once again by persistence of Dr. Garst when I got a letter and a cheque from him a week later. I wrote back that the things I had got for him were a gift from me and I would not cash the cheque. How ever I asked him if it would be all right if I keep the cheque as a souvenir.
Dr. R.J. Garst was truly an enlightened human being. He sacrificed every thing for the benefit of mankind; even he donated his body for the study of medical students in Tennessee University where he studied. He was a person who touched millions of life in different parts of the world. He inspired many of us to keep his dream of serving humanity selflessly alive for generation to come..
Freedom fighters and the people of Bangladesh are ever grateful to R.J. Garst. In recognition to his contribution Government offered him Bangladesh nationality in 1999.
Dr. R.J. Garst and Mrs. Marie Garst are no longer with us. But their spirits & legacies live on. So long as there is orthopaedic surgery in Bangladesh they will be continued to be remembered with love and admiration.
Prof. Kh. Abdul Awal (Rizvi)
Professor & Director
Ministry of Health and Family Welfare