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 riches or 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 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 in 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 their 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 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 on 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 a few years ago. 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 father; 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 and influence found a voice in my maiden novel’s protagonist’s helping hand and nurturing nature.
As I conclude, I can recall the regrets 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 we had never felt neglected growing up and were thankful for the shining light he bestowed upon 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 and the lesson he taught me, but it should not end at home.