The Ballad of Lars Branje

ScreenHunter_437 May. 06 11.58I had seen Lars for well over a year, at the exercise gym I visit twice per week. Lars is notable—tall, lean, white-haired and looking determined in his use of the equipment. Did I say he was an old guy? Yes, he is and, being one myself, I felt a kinship to this fellow survivor.

After more than a year of being around each other at least once a week, we finally acknowledged each other’s existence (such things develop slowly in Sweden) by nodding our heads to each other as we passed in the exercise area of Friskis & Svettis (which I like to call Frisky & Sweaty).

Finally, we uttered words to each other. I quickly let him know I am incompetent in Swedish. He effortlessly switched to English which my poor hearing was able to process adequately.

Lars at the Gym

One thing led to another. I imagined he might wish to write or dictate something I could put in my “Being Old” blog. Immediately upon my suggesting this, he started his story, which eventually led me to his nearby apartment where I viewed a DVD film of the first corneal transplant in Europe, 1957, at a hospital in Jönköping, Sweden. Lars was the recipient of that transplant.

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Lars Branje (right), training as an Army jet pilot in Ljungbyhed, Sweden (1955)

While training to be a Swedish Army jet pilot, Lars found that his eyesight was slowly fading. He was unable to continue training.

He became a sports journalist for Norrlands-Posten newspaper, then the Allehanda news organization (now MittMedia AB), which gave him the opportunity to travel abroad.When he was in Milan covering a match between the Milan club and Juventus of Turin, his sight failed completely.

He went to a Milan hospital where he was diagnosed with Keratoconus. From the staff at this hospital he learned there was a world-famous eye surgeon in Sweden. Lars was referred to Dr. Henrik Sjögren  in Jönköping. This was the first of many “lucky” event in Lars’s life—lucky, in this instance, that the Milan medical staff knew of this surgeon in Lars’s home country.

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Henrik Samuel Conrad Sjögren, eye surgeon (1957)

Doctor Sjögren was known internationally for identifying what is now called “Sjögren’s Syndrome,” after having published the English translation of his doctoral thesis. As head of the newly established eye clinic in Jönköping, under the aegis of the University of Gothenberg, Dr. Sjögren conducted research into surgical replacement of the cornea. He developed an instrument and a technique that was used in other countries for many years.

Lars and Dr. Sjögren established rapport and, because of Lars’s youth and good health, he was chosen to undergo the first corneal transplants (both eyes), using corneas from cadavers. The operations were successful and became widely celebrated in Sweden.

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Bengt Bedrup and Lars Branje during a televised interview, 1957

After surgery, Lars needed to lie quietly  for three months. During one interview session after surgery with TV journalist Bengt Bedrup , Lars asked him for a lighted smoke . The photograph on the side table is of Lars’s  children, Lena and Tomas.

[Click here to see the interview]

Lying quietly in bed or anywhere for an extended period is a “katastrof” for Lars. His nature is to be physically active. Later in life he ran the Stockholm Marathon, skied the Vasaloppet, became certificated in the  “Swedish classic circuit” (cross country skiing, cycling, swimming, and cross country running), and ran the Lidingöloppet (30 km.)

Nord07Lars says he has had a wonderful life. After working for the Allehanda news organization, he signed on with Radio Nord, popularly known as “Pirate Radio,” although it operated within the existing laws . As a member of the broadcast crew, he was stationed on the vessel Bon Jour in the Baltic Sea off the eastern coast of Sweden, two weeks on/one week off. It offered live news and recorded music not then available on the official radio stations of Sweden, and was preferred by many Swedes.

The most memorable event of his work with Radio Nord was to be the first person to announce to Sweden that Dag Hammarskjöld, The UN’s Secretary General and former Prime Minister of Sweden,  had died in an airplane crash in Rhodesia (now Zambia), 18 September 1961. Lars was in radio contact with pilots he knew from his Army days, and they gave him information not available through regular news outlets.

Radio Nord started on 8 March 1961 but had to shut down only fifteen months later, in June 1962, following passage of a new Swedish law aimed at silencing its broadcasts.

But, the official “Swedish Radio” had learned from the popularity of Radio Nord, so despite an official prohibition from hiring former Radio Nord employees, Lars then went to work for Sveriges Radio AB as a live announcer. Up until this time, all the programs were pre-recorded for broadcast at a later time.

Lars remembers the 1960s and 1970s as the years to be “out in the world.” He mentions the Congo and Vietnam. As a journalist he has interviewed Neil Armstrong in Houston, and Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles at Gröna Lund, the major amusement park in Stockholm.

After around four years with Swedish radio, Lars became a free-lance journalist for radio and TV companies, and for the Swedish Air Force.

The highlight of his career was a private half-hour interview with Nelson Mandela, upon his release from twenty-seven years of incarceration in South African prisons, 1990.

Both of Lars’s new corneas lasted until he was covering a soccer match in Toronto, where the Maple Leafs were playing the Philadelphia Flyers. His right eye stopped working. He returned to Sweden and saw Dr. Per Fagerholm, then at St. Erik Eye Hospital in Stockholm. His right eye was inoperable because internal pressure had separated the optic nerve from the brain. He retained the use of his left eye, until 2012 when he effectively went blind.

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Branka Samolov, Surgeon, St. Erik Eye Hospital, Stockholm

Returning to St. Erik Eye Hospital, he encountered the surgeon Dr. Branka Samolov with whom he established good rapport, as he did with Dr. Sjögren in 1957. And also, again, because of his good health and positive attitude they together decided to go ahead with another corneal transplant, recognizing the increased risk due to his now older eye, especially in that it had undergone previous surgeries.

It was a success. The headline of a TV news article quotes Lars speaking to his surgeon, “I can see your face! You are my saving angel”

[See the Expressen TV News broadcast here]

Forty-five years had elapsed since his first eye surgery. The hospital staff made note that Lars Branje represents the entire history of corneal transplantation in Sweden. The advances in medical knowledge and surgical techniques now allowed Lars to completely avoid lying in bed after his surgery, being immediately ambulatory.

Here is where Lars said that his “luck” was again emphasized: by being able to have the best surgeon available for his problem.

Now that his sight is returned to him, he has resumed his activities as a pensionär, meeting former colleagues–pilots and journalists–and enjoying his children and grandchildren; “doing whatever I want to do.”

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From Vasil Georgiev

HOW MY LIFE IS GOING ON WHEN “BEING OLD”

I congratulate Ron for his initiative to create the blog “Being old,” where every old human being can share his memories, his current life, and opinion.

My name is Vasil Georgiev. I was born on 13 January, 1931 in Plovdiv, the second-largest city in Bulgaria. I originate from a middle class Bulgarian family. I was one year old when my parents moved from Plovdiv to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. Here I spent my life until 2001 when I moved to Stockholm, Sweden.

The reason for my move was the death of my spouse Dr. Nadja Georgieva. Nadja was a stomatologist, specialist in orthodontics. She died from colon cancer with metastases. Nadja and I have one daughter who graduated in medicine in Sofia Medical University and later got a scientific degree, a PhD in Pharmacology. In 1990 my daughter got an invitation for post-doctoral research at Astra Zeneca, in Sweden. Subsequently she moved to Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm and within a couple of years became Associate Professor in Neuroscience.

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In Cannes. France

I graduated in medicine in 1954. After graduation I worked as a military doctor for two years at the southern border of Bulgaria. This kind of medical work did not fit well with my ambitions. So I left the army and spent almost two years in the country as general practitioner. Subsequently, I got a position as research fellow at the Department of Pharmacology, Institute of Physiology, later named Institute of Neurobiology, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, in Sofia. Here I spent forty four years doing research in the field of neuropsychopharmacology. During this period I received two doctorates: PhD, and DSc (Doctor of Science). I also achieved positions as Associate Professor and Full Professor.

I was a leader of a research team and also a scientific supervisor of large number of PhD students. During the same time, I gave lectures in Pharmacology for students at Sofia State University’s Faculty of Biology, as well as at Sofia Medical University, and at the new First Private Bulgarian University.

As I had not been a member of the communist party which governed Bulgaria during 45 years I was not able to take an exclusive position at scientific institutions. Instead, I concentrated at making good research and publishing the results. During my whole research career, I have published more than 230 papers, predominantly in English, in internationally recognized scientific journals. Since I was able to establish scientific collaborations with many colleagues in different countries (UK, Hungary, Poland, former USSR, Japan, former Jugoslavia, Greece, Sweden), a large number of these publications was done in collaboration with them. Significant for my scientific career was the year (1968-69) which I spent as a Riker International Fellow at the Laboratory of Neuropharmacology, run by Prof. W. Feldberg, National Institute for Medical Research in London. I won this fellowship in a competition through the International Union of Pharmacology (IUPHAR). I spent also three months (1990) as an invited Professor in the Department of Pharmacology, Kurume Medical University in Japan.

During the period 1992-1996 I worked as visiting scientist at the Department of Pharmacology, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, together with Prof. B. B. Fredholm, with financial support from Swedish grants and the European Science Foundation. This joint research was realized in the framework of bilateral contract between Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences. As a results of this latter collaboration we have published five papers in scientific journals with high impact factor. All my scientific publications are continuously cited in the scientific literature.

When I moved to Stockholm I had already retired (1999). My life changed completely. In Stockholm I joined the ESCC (English Speaking Community Club). There I met interesting people speaking English which was very good for keeping my knowledge in English at a reasonably good level. Here I met Ron Pavellas. We both found similar interests in some aspects of life, and particularly, in music. For quite a number of years we regularly have met once or twice a month and discuss which concerts of classical music to attend. We attend concerts usually either at Berwaldhallen or at Konserthuset; sometimes at churches. Ron very often describes his impressions from the concerts in articles in his music blog. In summer time we visit some museums. Ron rather often shares with me his writing ideas. I try to give him useful advice which he sincerely appreciates.

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In Vienna, with Johannes Brahms

I turned 85 years on the 13th of January 2016.

Being rather old and also being a physician who has some practice in medicine and in medical research I would like to share my modest experience which I have in keeping a good health condition.

I always start the day with 30 minutes or more of exercises to improve the muscles, mainly of my spine. The exercises have been described in the book “Bible of the people with back pain” (translated in Bulgarian) by the Australian physiotherapist Sara Key, working in London. As I have been suffering for many years from lumbago, complicated with lumbar disc hernia, as well as of sciatica, with permanent numbness, these exercises help me very much to be in good physical condition. I also use some other exercises for the other parts of the body. When I perform the exercises I usually listen to some classical music (Chopin, Beethoven, Mozart, Grieg, etc).

After the exercises I have my breakfast in which I include quite a number of seeds, some nuts and always blueberries, one of the more potent food in terms of protecting the brain. I also take a small piece of bread with butter, cheese and olives, together with a cup of green or black tea when I take my medicines for the day.

I continue the day with some house work, reading the news from electronic media (mainly in Bulgarian) or scientific literature in English. Lunch I have at home eating food which has been prepared by my daughter during the weekend. Sometimes, during the week days, I myself also cook. I usually cook beans or lentils once a week. Both are extremely healthful foods. I remember my mother used to do the same. Beans, especially , are believed to be a Bulgarian national food. Everybody in Bulgaria likes both beans and lentils.

My mother lived 86 years; my father lived 87 years. My paternal grandfather lived 97 years. My maternal grandmother lived 90 years. It seems that I have family predisposition for long-living. It is not my purpose to live long but I try to organize my life in such a way that to avoid awful factors from my life. Usually I eat fruits (avocado or bananas, apples, grapes, mango, oranges, berries, pears, etc.) after each meal. After lunch I usually take my nap (for 20-30 min). Than I go outside for a walk (45-60 min). In the afternoon I usually drink either coffee with milk (cappuccino) or tea (rooibos or green).

My evening meal is always with my daughter after her return from work. We prefer meat from chicken, veal and also fish which are consumed mainly at lunch and during weekend. At supper we never eat meat but mainly vegetables in salad form (spinach, ruccola, etc.) with olives, cheese etc. We have reduced to a minimum our bread intake. We also have tremendously reduced the use of sugar in any form. We regularly observe our body weight and calculate BMI. We also regularly take vitamin D3.

I have to mention that the existence of good psychological climate at home is very important. My grandson, who was schooled in Stockholm until he enrolled in the study of Economics at the prestigious University of Warwick in England, graduated with very successful scores and now has a good job in London’s financial center.

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In Monte Carlo

When possible we travel abroad together. For example we traveled to London two years ago to attend my grandson’s graduation ceremony at Warwick University. We usually spend one month in Bulgaria. Last year (2015) we traveled to Vienna, as well as to the French Riviera (Nice, Cannes, Monaco).

Before going to bed I usually read (novels, stories, etc.), but I avoid staying up late. I go to sleep before midnight. I try to have 7-8 hours sleep in the night.

Nice and interesting spending of my time at home is following the RESEARCH GATE, an internet portal for scientific literature and activity. I have registered into it and receive regularly information for my scientific publications (followers, citations, questions and answers, etc.). So far I have 1202 citations of my publications in the scientific literature, 880 reads and 222 profile views. This means that the researchers are still interested in my publications. Through this portal I could ask the authors for sending me copies of their articles. I could also discuss with the authors their results.

In conclusion, I would say that it is important to age with dignity. Being old is condition when life and professional experience had been achieved. And if the old person is secured financially , has rather good health, keeps good physical and mental activity, has good friends, and most importantly, lives in good psychological atmosphere at home – such a person might contribute with knowledgeable and useful advice to the surrounding people. Life can be good and interesting, despite of the age, if someone knows how to spend it.

From Nanci Thomas

[Nanci is a friend from my time in Anchorage. Alaska: 1979-1984. She lives in Washington State, USA]

Well, I guess I am a survivor too, next year being my 70th, a year which I never thought I would see at the youthful age of 18, living in Spain’s Costa del Sol.

My parents were prisoners of war in Santa Thomas in the Philippines, along with my two elder brothers and grandma on my mother’s side. They went through much, for which I hold them in enormous admiration. They never held ill-will toward the Japanese, in spite of what they endured. My Uncle Bruin spent much time in the jungle living off roots and wild berries until eventually captured by the enemy. That he survived was a miracle.

I came along after the war and returned to the Philippines with the family. This was the place they loved the most. Yes, it was quite an idyllic place.

My parents’ generation was a special generation, on the cusp of the old and the beginning a new, awesome and sometimes frightening future.
From there my brothers went to prep school in the UK and I to Calcutta with my parents—an eye opener of great proportions, in my observation of the culture of this immense civilization with its myriad ethnic traditions, dialects, language, and religions.

I have witnessed other cultures as well, their diseases and social changes, with personal sadness. My life in the U.S., has not always been positive: the advent of television, flight, space travel, computers, the internet, many presidents, social changes, and upon seeing how my adopted country has affected others.

Nanci's ArtAs someone who paints, and does photography, I see deeply the absolute beauty of the natural world, creation itself, awesome beyond belief—and then also, the pathos, sadness and brutality of man against his fellow man as well as other members of this planet. Why? In the scheme of things, life is brief and frail, and we all just specks of dust.

Did I leave a positive footprint? hopefully there is time for this, though personally, I believe the hands of the clock are close to midnight. Exciting yes! but what kind of tiny footprint have I left, have we left? Worthy or unworthy. I am definitely not ready to ‘fade into the sunset’ yet.

Perhaps the best gift in life, for me anyway, is being blessed with a dearly loved family, living treasures, being a part of their lives, ups and downs. At any moment, they could have been taken away from this earth, through the war, but our great Creator saw fit to keep them from an early passing. A miracle in itself. So I thank Him every day for their presence in my life, along with some of the finest friends one could ever have.

What more could I wish for? I have been utterly blessed throughout.