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Charity Begins At Home

By | SKR | 6 Comments

A Tribute to the man who taught me everything in and about life – What to do and most importantly what not to.

His looks betrayed nothing strange about him; he fits in very well. No one suspected anything: He belonged there. In reality, however, he was an alien at this poor man’s funeral. The deceased, albeit an ENT surgeon, did not die a rich man—at least not in the literal sense. His journey towards becoming a physician was not inspired by his father, grandfather, and great grandfather; he rather cherished the nobility of the profession and valued the humility that accompanied the power of saving a life or changing one.

He was not in it for the riches or for fame. He merely enjoyed helping people in need—not only as a physician but also as a human being who saw the best in everyone around him. Every day he was thankful for the gift and talent God had bestowed upon him and staunchly believed in paying forward without expecting anything in return. To his patients, the man was a tenacious advocate for their wellbeing; to his medical students and residents, he was a mentor, a role model, and a stubborn well-wisher.

He retired as a Professor of ENT, Chief ENT surgeon at Government Children’s Hospital and Department Chair at the Madras Medical College and Government General Hospital. While ensuring that he did justice to these positions, he remained unfaltering in donning different hats well. He also maintained a busy private clinic in the evenings and weekends and admission and surgical privileges in a couple of private hospitals. He was an active member of the Rotary Club of India, performing countless free-of-charge surgeries each year.

He was also a devoted husband and a loving father to five children. While he always made sure that he was available for his children when they needed him, he trusted their mother to raise them. He gave his children the privilege to learn by observing his life—up-close and personal.

The wake had been organized at his house. He lay there on a cot for people to pay their last respects. The alien just stood at the back, watching and absorbing the reactions of all who had gathered and listened to their stories about the physician, surgeon, teacher, friend, and the angel they had known.

A janitor at the Government General Hospital knew him, as the deceased was a house surgeon (chief-resident) until the time he became the Department Chair. The Janitor recalled that from the time the deceased was the house-surgeon to when he retired from the Government General Hospital, he was affectionately called “Dr. Nice.” Dr. Nice treated everybody with respect and kindness regardless of their position or social standing. He knew every nurse and orderly by their name and went out of his way to help everyone, especially the poor and underprivileged. Scrub nurses and scrub techs recounted stories of how he used to help clean the operating theater to help hasten the turnover time on a busy day.

A cook at the canteen hall where he had eaten as a house-surgeon and as an attending surgeon recalled his memory of the deceased. When the cook’s son had been in the urgent need of a mastoidectomy and the wait in the Government General Hospital was longer than ideal, the surgeon offered to operate on her son at one of the private hospitals. Not only had he waived his fee, but he also footed the bill that was not covered by the hospital’s charity program. This was not an isolated event; there were numerous such stories.

He organized free medical camps to remote villages to offer free care and outpatient surgeries to patients who would otherwise never make it to a hospital. Several patients recalled him making free house calls when they could not return to him for follow-up sessions due to poor socioeconomic conditions, particularly after a complex surgery. He cared about their welfare even after they ceased to be under his care. Talk about continuity of care!

Many of the chief residents attended the funeral, and they all shared stories of him being a great teacher, furnishing them with supervised autonomy, letting them operate while he first-assisted them, boosting their confidence and helping them perfect the surgical techniques. The story, frequently repeated, that most caught the alien’s attention was that every time the chief residents offered to take the surgeon out to eat at the most expensive restaurants after a particularly complex case as a way to thank him for letting them operate with such a high level of independence and for acting as a first-assistant while they took charge of the case, the surgeon’s response would always be, “No thank you. You could not have done it without the help of the anesthesiologist, the scrub nurses, the orderlies, and the attendants. So, instead of taking me out to eat, let’s settle for some coffee and samosa for our operating room team.”

Even when it came to his private clinic, where other government surgeons actually made a living by attracting people who could afford to pay high fees, he let his service be accessible to everyone. Many a time his response to patients who could not pay the nominal consultation fees was, “It’s okay. Do not worry about it. Maybe next time.”

The alien was in tears, moved by the testimonials he heard about this well-respected poor surgeon. I was the alien at this poor surgeon’s funeral, and I realized that my father, albeit poor, had died like a billionaire. His wealth could not be measured by the money he had accumulated but by the life he had lived and the number of lives he had touched and changed. I felt like an alien because the rituals, traditions, customs, and formalities were unknown to me, just as an earthling to Mars would feel. Living in America longer than I had lived in India, straying away from the religious beliefs I was raised with and becoming estranged from the relatives who always took advantage of my father’s goodwill all served to alienate me from everything that was happening at the funeral.

My father had taught me to respect age and elders, and I, therefore, had to appease my mother and my relatives. So I let myself be a puppet in their hands, performing all the rituals I was asked to, uncaring of whether it made sense to me or not. For the first time in my life, my father was not available to me for advice or guidance.

Rewind to September 2015. I remember I had to take an urgent trip to India when I learned of my father’s terminal illness. Before his discharge from the hospital, he asked me to take him on a tour of the hospital premises—a trip down memory lane. I pushed him along in a wheelchair, and he showed me the hostel he stayed in, his classrooms, his anatomy lab, the canteen where he used to eat, the ENT Department, his office, the wards where he used to make daily rounds, the ICU, and his operating room. The one place he did not show me was the mortuary; I had to find that on my own when I finally claimed his body.

I began to write this reflection about my father on the flight back to America after his cremation. I had to share it with my residents, future surgeons, and my fellow healthcare professionals: It was not about my father but rather about a surgeon who positively impacted the education and growth of many surgical residents and a humanitarian who touched the lives of many.

I wanted to share the lessons I had learned from my dad; I wished to tell of his dedication to his profession, his commitment to his patients, his generosity towards his residents, his humbleness, and his respect for humanity. His presence found a voice in my maiden novel’s protagonist’s helping hand and nurturing nature.

As I conclude, I can recall his only regret that he shared with me on his deathbed: “I wish I had spent more time with my family; I wish I had been there more for my kids; I wish I had accumulated some wealth to leave my children.” I reassured him that we had never felt neglected growing up and were thankful for the shining light he bestowed on us while he cared for his patients and students. I was his eldest son, and on behalf of my siblings, who I knew shared my sentiments, I thanked him for the most precious wealth he had bequeathed us: valuable life lessons and a good education for us to make something of ourselves—a gift that surpasses any material wealth. It would, therefore, be a disservice to him if I did not share the lesson my father learned on his deathbed: Charity begins at home.

Writing And Editing My Maiden Novel

By | SKR | No Comments

I wrote a novel and in the process discovered a greater level of respect and admiration for mothers.

This is probably the closest I would ever come to giving birth to a baby. Like reality, the conception was the easy part. Unlike the average 40 weeks of pregnancy, I carried this baby for 229 weeks and felt it every waking minute.

I was lucky she didn’t bother me with morning sickness. That was a saving grace, but there was constipation in the form of writer’s block. Days would pass without me able to pen a single sentence. There was no nipple discharge, another saving grace, but I suffered from breast or in my case chest engorgement with emotions ─the pitfall of getting emotionally tangled with the characters. Swelling of the legs due to sitting for prolonged periods plagued me on the weekends. Carpal tunnel syndrome, due to repetitive typing, did not spare my poor wrists. I did not have the luxury to take out the wild mood swings on a spouse like some pregnant women tend to do.

It was a lonely emotional roller coaster not from the hormones but from all the rigmarole I put the protagonists through. I craved for desserts. I didn’t mind this one bit as I have a sweet tooth and just needed an excuse to sit and write. It was for her not for me. I wish the calories said the same. I gained 30 pounds in the process of writing.

One cold and rainy Saturday, I woke up early and settled in the comfort of my robe with the laptop when the water broke leading to a flood of inspiration to write. The labor/home stretch lasted about 34 hours of writing non-stop, except for the occasional trip to the loo and the kitchen for a snack. Finally, it happened. There was no epidural, no pain, and alone in the dusk of September 2, 2018, she arrived quietly as I typed “The End” on the white screen. I unplugged the cord from the laptop. There was no after birth to worry about.

I was exhausted but relieved. She weighed 253 pages and measured 154,534 words long. I aptly named her “I have no earthly idea” as I had no clue what to do next. In hindsight, the whole process of conception to pregnancy to the delivery was diametrically opposite to what ensued after the delivery.

I edited my novel and in the process discovered a greater level of respect and appreciation for fathers.

She didn’t cry immediately. Her APGAR score was poor. I examined her and found many flaws. Do I give up on this labor of love? Or do I resuscitate her? Albeit emotionally drained, I stuck by her side while she spent several months in the incubator. Reviving her included multiple rereadings, and the treatment ranged from gentle rewriting to radical resection of several verbosity-tumors. Patience was of paramount importance.

Babysitters came in the form of beta readers who gave valuable feedback of her strengths and weaknesses which further helped me to provide her with fortified nutrition in the form of rephrasing and rearranging sentences. Being too close and emotionally attached, I feared I may have overlooked some of her flaws despite grooming her with a fine-toothed comb. So I took her to a specialist just like a caring father who wants the best for her baby would do. A thorough checkup by a qualified proofreader finally certified her with a clean bill of health. After a new outfit with a custom-designed book cover, she is all ready for adoption.

She is my pride and joy, the apple of my eye, and I am looking for a loving and caring home for her. I hope you will adopt her and welcome her into your home and heart. I promise she wouldn’t disappoint you. Please write a review on Amazon. If you have any questions or seek feedback, please send a message on this website.

Aspiration vs. Inspiration: Why and How I Wrote a Novel.

By | SKR | No Comments

“It doesn’t cost anything to dream. So why not dream big?”

Aspiration vs. Inspiration: Why and How I wrote a novel?

All human beings have a story to tell. So, the natural question that begs to be asked is: Why do only some people choose to write the story while others don’t. Is it vanity? Well, I’ll address that later. If you ask me, I believe people write because of aspiration or inspiration. It is akin to the age-old debate of nature vs. nurture.

Coming from the land of Bollywood where around 1500-2000 films are released every year, it was no surprise I like watching movies. Even though Hollywood pales in comparison with its meager 600 movies a year, it reigns supreme in glamour and glitz not to mention gross revenue. Hollywood is always looked up to for special effects, latest technology, summer blockbusters but I am more attracted to romantic comedy and courtroom drama. Don’t get me wrong. I would happily indulge in a good action, or thriller or a superhero movie just as much but if given a choice, I would happily settle for a romantic comedy or as my friends call it, a chick flick.

Needless to say, my favorite movies include Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, Good Will Hunting, As Good as It Gets, Definitely Maybe, Leap Year, The American President, The Holiday, well you get the picture. I am also a sucker for courtroom dramas like A Time to Kill, A Few Good Men, Primal Fear, Kramer vs. Kramer, Presumed Innocent, To Kill a Mocking Bird, and My Cousin Vinny, just to name a few.

Pardon the interlude, let me come back to the question of aspiration vs. inspiration to write a novel. In my case, I would say it was both. Oscars are to me what Superbowl is to a football fan. Since coming to America in 1994, I have been watching it religiously. Billy Crystal is my all-time favorite host. From just watching the Oscars in awe to having an aspiration to be up there was during the 70th Annual Academy Awards on March 23, 1998, when I saw Matt Damon and Ben Affleck win an Oscar for Original Screenplay for the movie Good Will Hunting. I still vividly remember their acceptance speech. I was naïve, but their movie and their acceptance speech planted an aspiration to someday achieve what they did that night. (You can watch their speech at https://youtu.be/d8RIS5GJqAg.

While life took its course, I promised myself not to let this aspiration become a pipe dream. Luckily, several incidents followed to keep that dream alive. During the 84th Annual Academy Awards, also hosted by Billy Crystal, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo won five Oscars. I was working with Dr. Lee Selznick who was a neurosurgery resident at that time. His brother Brian Selznick was the author of the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret that was adapted for the movie. This was the closest I have been to a celebrity, albeit by the association which rekindled the aspiration to write a story.

However, the inspiration to eventually sit and write a story dawned on 3/12/2012 when Ms. Judy Flynn, a patient I had the privilege to take care of when she had her brain surgery gave me a book: Cutting for Stone by Dr. Abraham Verghese. Reading that book had not only taught me how to write but also inspired me to write a story of my own.

As soon as I finished reading that book, I typed the words “It’s a long shot.” As a fortunate stroke of serendipity, that phrase served as the opening line for my book.

I took my time and barely had written a few chapters when after three years, as fate would have it, on September 25, 2015, I came across a YouTube video of The Graham Norton Show that featured Matt Damon. Matt Damon remembers the night of winning the Oscar for Good Will Hunting, and he recalls his favorite line from a movie: Robert Redford’s The Natural. (You can watch that clip here: https://youtu.be/Jf4hSjUNInU. It was like a shot of adrenaline, just what I needed, my second dose of inspiration; my second wind. For the next three years, in spite of averaging close to 70-72 hours a week as a neurosurgical physician assistant, I started to write at a steady pace. Following two events of aspiration and two events of inspiration and 3 years later I am proud to say I finished writing an original story.

Finally, for the vanity part of writing a story: After struggling to come up with a name, I lent my name to the protagonist of my novel. In the end, I asked myself: Would my novel become a bestseller? Would Hollywood or Bollywood come knocking? I am my worst critic, but I didn’t want to be too negative, and the only honest answer I could come up with was I Have No Earthly Idea. That answer became the title of the novel.

I Have No Earthly Idea may not become a bestseller. Hollywood or Bollywood would never come knocking, and only a few copies would make it off the shelves and that too due to the generosity and kindness of my friends. If that is the reality, I am okay with that. I may be a dreamer but not delusional. Since it doesn’t cost anything to dream, why not dream big.

To paraphrase Matt Damon quoting Robert Redford from The Natural:

“All I want is to walk down the street someday and have people say, there he goes, the best there ever was.”

That is the part of dreaming big. To all my friends who did not laugh when I said, “I am writing a novel”, “it’s going to make it to the New York’s Best Sellers List”, and then “be made into an Oscar-winning movie”; I humbly submit my sincere gratitude and thanks for all your encouragement and support. Thanks to Ms. Judy Flynn for giving me the book Cutting for Stone. Last but not the least, thanks to the unwitting partners in crime for their aspirations and inspirations: Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, Brian Selznick, and Dr. Abraham Verghese- my manaseega guru who taught me how to write a story.