The name “Kypros” for a man is not uncommon on Aphrodite’s island. According to the most recent census approximately 1,500 men have this name. Some cherish it as a gift and feel the obligation to pass it on as a matter of duty to their heritage. So it is with Prof Nicolaides: “It is a constant
reminder of my origins for which I feel extremely proud”. Indeed, he comes from a place where people have no choice but to succeed and overcome every difficulty with tenacity and humility. Kypros Nicolaides was born in Pafos in 1953. His father, Dr Herodotus Nicolaides (1913-1998), was one of the leading figures in EOKA (National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters), a man who adored his homeland but also acknowledged the qualities and organizational skills of the British; the “British system” he used to call it. Though imprisoned for his national liberation activities for three and a half years, Herodotus wished for his son to study in England.
Kypros was a child when his father was liberated in 1959 but recalls the memory as if it were only yesterday: “I vividly remember him heading straight to nearby villages to treat his patients, not only to address their health concerns but their overall wellbeing. I also remember visiting our relatives on my mother’s side in Famagusta. In any case, I never forgot the discussions between Makarios and my parents after the liberation in 1960, since my father was one of his personal physicians”. At age 17, the hard lessons of becoming an adult drove Kypros to make a life changing decision: “I came to London in 1970 to study medicine during a very turbulent era when Greece and Cyprus were both stricken by military coups”. This journey would not only change his own destiny, but those of innumerable women and their infants, the latter before they ever saw the light of day.
A humble “miracle maker”
In every story worth telling there’s always a definitive turning point. It’s the critical junction where the protagonist must decide which road to follow no matter if he is confused, hunted or, in Kypros’ case, a young medical student who must choose his specialty. It’s anyone’s guess whether the mind or the soul dictates the right decision, yet most would argue that, when both are in tune, something good will come of it. “In the mid 70’s I was in my senior year of medical school at King’s College, London when I saw ultrasound images of a moving embryo on screen. The realization that life begins before birth became very clear to me. From that moment on I began to meditate on many questions without precedent in the realm of childbirth: How does an infant evolve and grow? What happens when things go wrong? Is there a way to observe a child still in the womb? Does this child think and have feelings? What of the biological connection with its mother?”. Those were the thoughts that defined the moment Prof Nicolaides decided to dedicate his life to a new, slowly emerging field of medicine. Those initial sparks would go on to fuel the beginnings of fetal medicine.
When he first began training as an obstetrician and gynecologist, Prof Nicolaides devoted much time to fetal medical research. Soon after, King’s College became the world’s leading centre for research in this field, attracting doctors from around the world to participate and train in the program. Forty years have passed since and in that time Prof Nicolaides has been instrumental to some of the most revolutionary developments in the field of fetal medicine. Charismatic though he may be, he’s unwilling to take his share of credit for these successes. He strongly believes that “we” is so much more important than “I”. Integral to the development of the “nuchal translucency scan”, Prof Nicolaides discussed some of the medical breakthroughs for which “The Guardian” recently called him a “miracle maker”. “We described the diagnosis of many fetal abnormalities and their management. We developed a good method of screening for Down syndrome based on nuchal translucency. Recently we introduced methods for analyzing the embryo’s DNA. We developed a screening method for premature birth and proved that the risk can be minimized by prescribing progesterone to women. We devised a new method for predicting pre-eclampsia which can cause complications, sometimes severe if not treated early, for both mother and child. Through subsequent research conducted internationally we demonstrated that this risk can be minimized by the use of aspirin”. This is not all. The methods developed by Prof Nicolaides and his colleagues allow for treatment of the fetus inside the uterus. This includes blood transfusions, treating complications associated with fetal lung development, the use of endoscopes for uterine examinations, laser surgery to normalize blood flow between twins and many other procedures and treatments that give sick, problematic fetuses the chance to enter this world as healthy newborns. After all, this is the greatest reward for a doctor in this field: “To be able to witness the healthy development of infants from pregnancies that, without special medical intervention, would have died or suffered from a disability”.
A rare human
At the forefront of his field for half a century as both an embryologist and professor of medicine, he managed to establish the charity The Fetal Medicine Foundation in 1998 using profits from his private clinic for funding. Based in London, the foundation is an international leader in improving the health of pregnant women and their infants through research and training in fetal medicine. Every year the foundation grants dozens of scholarships to doctors and has invested over 40 million GBP for the construction and operation of the Research Institute. We ask Prof Nicolaides what we should expect in the coming years from his field of expertise: “We will see further developments in molecular biology that will allow for diagnoses of more fetal anomalies leading to complications during pregnancy. We will also witness the benefits to utilizing artificial intelligence that will render diagnoses of fetal anomalies and options for treatment that much more efficiently and accurately”, he says confidently.
Between his moral obligations to medical science and his fellow man, Prof Nicolaides’ schedule does not allow for much free time, erring closer to none in truth. Yet, he still manages to visit Cyprus for a few days each year, mainly for the purpose of participating in various scientific forums. “Whenever I get the chance I go back to Pafos: to the house where I was born, to the sea where I swam as a child, and I visit my father’s village, Ayios Dimitrianos, to remember my roots”, he concludes with the conviction that nothing really perishes as long as you keep it in your memories.
Even though Prof Nicolaides has been living in England for the past 50 years, he never forgets his homeland. He keeps himself well informed of current events on the island and, as a genuine Cypriot, he bids us farewell with optimism and hope that the days to come will be better and brighter, much like the light at birth heralding the arrival of a new soul into life: a light that will surround him forever, and rightfully so.