Stephen Hawking achieved incredible glory in his life much after doctors had handed him a death certificate. It was 1963, when Stephen, a brilliant, bubbly Cambridge scholar, first heard the three words that were to warp the course of his life forever: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS.
"You would not live for more than two years," the words of his doctor burnt through him like burning coal, leaving him stunned. But by dint of sheer determination, resolve and powerful positive thought, the mathematical genius not only proved his doctors wrong but defeated the disease, living a life of dignity and extraordinary achievement for 53 more years.
Even on March 14, 2018, when he finally breathed his last, it is most likely that he died a natural death and not to ALS, which had reduced him to a wheel-chair bound cripple, but could never, to the end, defeat his spirit nor blunt his razor sharp brain.
ALS is a deadly, incurable neuro-motor disease that preys voraciously on human cells all across the body, ravaging the muscles of its victims, turning them into withered creatures and finally killing them with a relentless and, thus far, unstoppable certainty.
Four to seven people in every lakh are afflicted by the disease, which causes programmed death of motor neuron cells progressively, squeezing out life part by part until the muscles of respiration fail leading to death.
There is no marker or tool known thus far to science for early diagnosis of ALS, nor is there any cure. Once you are diagnosed with ALS, death is certain and generally not too far away. Patients seldom live more than five years post-diagnosis; most fall well before as much from panic and dread as from the affliction itself.
And yet Hawking lived with the disease for more than 50 years, moving from feet to wheelchair and from writing and dictating to finally using voice processing gadgets to communicate his powerful thoughts. All through those fifty years, his brain worked at whirlwind speed, sweeping up waves of intellect that fundamentally reshaped cosmic physics across the entire spectrum, from Big Bang to black hole. What accounts for this apparent miracle?
It was his brain. It is probable that the sheer speed, brilliance and agility with which Hawking's brain worked, is what helped modify his immune system itself, mimicking what science is striving hard to achieve: immune-modulation, a system that eggs on the body to produce special antibodies to protect life.
It couldn't have been anything but the power of positive thought, self-belief and positivity, that helped Hawking to not only defy death but achieve spectacular intellectual feats, as a physicist, cosmologist, best-selling writer and thinker. Feats that were beyond the pale of most of his able-bodied peers.
In my experience as a neurosurgeon, I have witnessed the most astonishing of recoveries: end-stage brain tumour patients clawing back from the brink of death to near normalcy owing to positivity and confidence churned up by faith.
The life of Stephen Hawking is a shining example of the power of our brain, which is now recognised as the seat of the immune system. Once powered by positive energies, this remarkable and inimitable organ can help us achieve the impossible and even alter the natural course of the disease.
Medical science is of course working relentlessly hard to find ways to diagnose and cure this devastating disease, with immune-modulation and stem cells therapy at the forefront of promise. But it may be many years if not decades before we are able to find cure for every incurable disease.
In the meantime, let us use our brains and rule our lives like Hawking did. This is the only theory of everything that we need to know. The rest is a brief history of time.
(Dr NK Venkataramana is Founder & Chief Neurosurgeon, Brains Hospitals, Bengaluru)