Medical Gods I met upon Earth: Part II
© Dr. Rajas Deshpande
Today (10th April) would be Dr. Sorab K. Bhabha’s Birthday.
Due to some administrative glitches, Dr. Sorab Bhabha left KEM Hospital Mumbai.
He still visited us at KEM for the famous “Neuro-Radiology” meet on Fridays at 8 AM. This was the war zone of titans, and we learnt the meaning of “academically cruelly perfect” in that room. They all screwed us together, but we were anyway insignificant “ChilluPillus” in that room, they also skinned each other to dissect the truth. References were called for, textbooks were opened and whoever bled, truth prevailed! We grew up as a doctor each such Friday.
This was the ultimate in our academics then, because Mumbai’s stalwart specialists took the first row while the resident docs from Neurology, Radiology, Medicine, Orthopaedics and Pediatrics presented the cases to discuss MRI / CT / Xrays etc. Once someone questioned Dr. Bhabha’s comment about the blood supply of medial Pons. He smiled mockingly, said he knew he was right. They called in a textbook. He looked at us, not in the textbook. As he smiled at us students, he said with his trademark wink: “Let them search.. I know”. He was of course correct and I still remember some sourly bitter faces.
Intellectual fights between different medical specialties are legendary, and the Physician-Surgeon cold wars are well established. Dr. Bhabha’s humor was our greatest weapon in our residency, for this cause. “Don’t talk like lumpologists, bumpologists, carpenters or plumbers”: he’d say when we made a mistake in differential analysis, and we shamelessly enjoyed it (alongwith the lumpologists etc. who accompanied us)! But he was very good friends with most surgeons, and they made fun of him too (“By the time you Neuros evaluate one patient, we can finish a conference” ) ..
Only once did he “intellectually assault” one of the senior orthopedic surgeons who had crossed his own boss (this ortho boss had advised against surgery), in an attempt to be (over) smart. His assault was the sweetest, most polite series of questions that led the presenting “Smarty” into his own trap. “So when you say you examined the patient and found he had absolutely normal neurological examination, did you feel the need doctor, to have another opinion from a trained Neurologist, that the patient was having symptoms without signs? An exceptionally highly educated and skilled doctor like yourself must have surely thought why the patient had pain and disabling weakness with a normal examination.. and if the patient worsened after surgery, do you feel the need to connect these two coincidences, to cross examine yourself?”
I haven’t seen more sweat on a single doctor since then!
As he didn’t come to KEM anymore I started to go to Hinduja Hospital at Mahim to attend his OPD. I wrote notes he dictated upon the case sheets. I was slightly proud of writing good notes in readable handwriting and then showing him in anticipation of some praise from my idol. It came only once. He asked me if I remembered the patient we were seeing in OPD. I replied that I hadn’t seen that patient earlier. He smiled, said “See his old file, you will see beautiful handwriting of a doctor with memory loss”…!
“I have been diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disase”
Dr. Bhabha told me on a rainy day in his Hinduja OPD. “You should not think about this, try and concentrate upon your exams”. I couldn’t even cry. Having lost my father a few months earlier, I was still depressed. “There are very few years left, and I am winding up” He told as officially as one can. After a few minutes he dictated someone on phone a complete recipe of a delicious Parsi dish, and joked about how one can spoil it with a small mistake. Patients in the OPD on that day too all went home happy and satisfied as always. I never saw a tear in his eyes, but an eternity was sobbing in his courageous smile.
He never asked or accepted any favour from any student. He never talked to please, but never was rude. As MARD secretary then, I enjoyed a good acquaintance with the then Mumbai Commissioner Mr. Nalinakshan. I asked Dr. Bhabha that if he was willing I could request those glitches be cleared and he be reappointed at KEM. He declined it citing health, but I think he was hurt by something at KEM in the past. He never ever showed his weaknesses, pain to anyone.
Dr. Anand Alurkar was his favourite student too, and I secretly envied Anand who had so many of Dr. Bhabha’s qualities himself. He liked Anand’s case presentations. They both understood the crying necessity of parsimony of words while engaging in academic discussions, a rare quality among intellectuals.. otherwise most academic discussions are like a marketplace of intellectuals who almost get violent to show off unnecessary “stored” knowledge, often out of context.
Dr. Bhabha taught me that even “Conversion” (patient feels he /she has an illness / believes it inspite of not having it), “Malingering” (patient knows he / she is not sick, but pretends so), “Functional” (same as malingering, or exaggerating true illness) “Irritating” (imagine your professional rival) patients need good care and compassion, one should never look down upon them as a waste of time.
One day I asked him something about Spinal Cord Infarctions. After speaking a few minutes about it, he went into a trance: “You must strive to be the best in your chosen field, not to show off or achieve, just to feel the pleasure of it. Learn the most standard, not the shortcuts. There will be slower people, people who enjoy repetition and routine for decades.. you need to keep up to your own speed, not theirs. If you can do something faster, do it, but without compromising upon the quality. Don’t speak or explain, just do it. When someone thinks about your work, it should be gold standard for that time if not better”.
On the eve that my results for DM Neuro exams in Mumbai University were out, he called me at his home at Cuffe Parade. A rosewood interior in a huge bungalow, a large white Piano and a great dane welcomed me around him.
His smile was my pride in that moment. “Congratulations! You should be proud, Topper!”.
One of his unfriendly contemporaries / practicing rival was my examiner. “You must go and touch his feet, and thank him for your rank”, he said (and I did it later). I came to know years later that the other had adversely affected Dr. Bhabha’s career earlier.
“Don’t think about those who talk about you, good or bad. People sideline themselves eventually to their destination. You must continue to walk to yours. And what people say is NOT your destination” he said once.
Selected for a Canadian fellowship, I made up my mind NOT to go as I was already away from wife and kids for three years for DM. But the real reason “no money” was too embarrassing to admit. When I called him, he said “Close your eyes, do what it takes, and go without a second thought just because I say so”. That one “order” has changed my life.
He made my CV (“Woh tera biography change karr.. make it human and decent”) himself. He told me that family is the greatest distraction in research, so I have to make my decisions carefully. I still took my family with me, and realized that I could have done better without distraction. Truth is very heavy and unpleasant. But it was also him who had advised me: “Whatever decisions you make, involve your family, for in the end they are the only ones who stay with you and matter”.
I saw him last just before boarding my Toronto flight. He sat like Buddha, smiling, knowing I may cry anytime.
“New shoes haan? Very essential for research!” he said as I struggled not to weaken.
“I bought shoes just like yours, Sir”, I said.
“I know you are scared of flying. But this is good airline and mostly nothing happens. Take good care, winters are quite bad there. And eat well. Don’t spend like a king there”.
“Sir I want a picture of yours” I said. His smile waned a bit, then he said “Yes my wife will give it to you, but don’t do its Pooja ok?” and he beamed again!
“Sir I will come back and meet you in two years”
“Yes we will meet”
I touched his feet. That was to be the last time I saw him.
I called him every week from London ON. He guided me, supported and nurtured my strengths, while understanding my weaknesses. “Everyone has their own weaknesses, and it’s ok. Don’t feel guilty for your weaknesses or fears”.
Once there was a crisis, and I quit one fellowship because of humiliating behavior of one boss. The UWO (God Bless Them) actually acted against that boss, and offered me another fellowship but I required to clear another viva exam, and furnish a recommendation letter. I cleared the viva. Dr. Bhabha stood by my morale, helped me overcome this crisis, wrote the required recommendation to the UWO, and I got my fellowship.
In his last conversation, he asked me, if I wished my old boss at the hospital (the one I had quit) if we crossed. I said I earlier did, but had stopped as the o.b. didn’t reply. He told me “Never let that happen. Smile and wish, even if he does not reply. A smile can convey almost everything you actually want to say.. ‘Who’ is not important, ‘What’ is right is important”.
Then he asked me what I actually ate, if I slept well, how was my family and told me to concentrate upon intensive care and IPD patients too.
“We will meet, I am waiting for your return” he reassured me when he sensed I was crying.
Then I received the email of his passing away at a young age of Fifty Two.
His shadow has ever since guided me. He still laughs at me if any lies, any compromises, any hypocrisy is inevitable for me. “You can live without these” he winks and says. In every patient, every dilemma, every complication his approach helps me sail through. Now I know what he meant when he said “We will meet”. He has kept his promise!
My greatest certificate in life yet is his “Queen square Hammer” which his wife Dr. Mrs. Firoza Bhabha graciously passed on to me as His blessing.
If you need people for being strong, you are a Mob.
If you can stand alone strong, you are a Man.
Dr. Sorab K. Bhabha taught me how to be a Man: Both in Medicine and in Life.
© Dr. Rajas Deshpande