The Mother Brain
© Dr. Rajas Deshpande
“Get out of the ward, Rajas!” said Dr. Pravina Shah.
Although many of my teachers may have thought of these words school onwards, it was Dr. P. U. Shah who finally said them, in the first month of my joining the D.M. Neurology course at KEM hospital (Seth Gordhandas Sunderdas Medical College) Mumbai.
The issue was simple. Someone was presenting a case. I had had a terrible fight on phone with my wife that morning, so I was unable to concentrate. Dr. P.U. Shah suddenly asked me about the case, and I could not answer. When you are a father and a post-doctoral fellow, you tend to develop a certain complex and an ego. I left the ward, angry with myself and upset with the whole world.
Next day after the OPD she called me to the staff room.
One couldn’t lie to Dr. Pravina Shah. Her eyes penetrated your soul. Her brain worked superfast behind those drilling eyes, and her questions made people quiver. For it is impossible to fight a true, guileless yet strong lady who only talks heart-to-heart. Her weapon was her fearless simplicity. You couldn’t offer her anything, and she was completely impenetrable via praise. In fact the first quality noticeable about her was a mixture of confident simplicity and a polite refusal to be “pushed around” by anyone. Whoever and whatever you be, you couldn’t impress her except with your humble and honest good work. Her words were always kind, and actions confident.
As I went to the staff room, I had wet eyes due to an anguish: that it was becoming so difficult for me to do justice to the extreme hardwork required in that set-up when I was having immense stress at home, which wasn’t resolving.
Dr. P.U. Shah was waiting for me.
“What were you thinking about during rounds?”
“Ma’m, I had had a fight with my wife, and there were some things about my father that worried me too.”
“Dekho Rajas, you must first learn to ‘Switch Off’ all external world when you are with a patient. Whatever happens outside, let it be. When you enter the hospital, you must be 100 percent here. Those who cannot do this will never do justice to the good doctor within themselves”.
She had told me one of the most precious things I ever learnt. To date, this has been one of the most respected commandments I practice as a doctor. There were many storms later in my life, but these words kept them outside my hospitals.
I was just another of a huge line of tough nuts she had cracked all her life.
Since then, so many of her “Gems” have made home in the hearts of the hundreds of superb Neurologists she created over decades:
“Your troubles, responsibilities will always be more tomorrow than today. There never will be a time with less responsibility than today. So deal with today effectively, don’t waste time”.
“Unless you lose something you won’t earn anything”.
“Leave people alone, let them do what they want. You stick to the good you have chosen”. etc.
During one of the Resident Doctor’s strike which I was coordinating, we had planned a morcha to Azad Maidan Mumbai, and truckloads of medicos from Mumbai and all over Maharashtra were travelling there. A day prior, there were dubious phone calls with threats to my life, so some of my colleagues walked around me, covering all sides all the time. Just as we boarded a truck with banners to climb above the driver’s cabin, I saw Dr. P.U. Shah walking towards the MARD (Maharashtra Association of Resident Doctors) office.
She called me down.
“Rajas, I had gone to Chembur to pray to my favourite God for your safety. Here’s the Prasad. Take care, and don’t risk your life” she said, handing me over the Prasad and flowers. After the success of that strike, she took me to that temple to fulfil her “Mannat”, and donated a huge sum there in my name!
When once her husband Mr. Ushakantji was critical in the ICU, I saw in her a wife more dedicated and caring than the ones described in most ideal books. She didn’t leave his side, and pulled together a thousand pieces of her sky to have one of the best cardiac surgeons do his bypass surgery. She may not like my mentioning this, but I have seen her agony and anguish in those 20 days, fighting the fate to win back her husband against all odds. For just a little help I could be to her at that time, she gifted my first born a Gold locket of her most favourite word: “Aum”.
She encouraged and helped many patients with Neurological disorders, especially women, to volunteer in the neurology OPD at KEM and participate in patient education. This way it helped the patients, and those volunteering got the confidence of contributing to the society, so essential for someone with no good hopes in future.
“Stand by good, Rajas, do good, and leave it at that”. She said often.
She also taught us to say the clinical “I don’t know” instead of beating around the medical theory bush.
She had an extraordinary vision for her student’s future. She collected the best of people to teach her students. She saw to it that the external teachers were always happy with the academic environment in her department. Be it Neuropsychologist Dr. Urvashi Shah, Neurophysiologist Dr. Khushnuma Mansukhani, Neuroradiologist Dr. Meher Ursekar, or Dr. C.D. Binnie from the world famous Queen square hospital, she used her personal relations with these stalwarts so they came and trained us. She saw to it that we got good exposure under the genius of intensivist Dr. Dilip Karnad, Neurosurgeons Dr. Atul Goel, Dr. Paresh Doshi, Dr. Trimurti Nadkarni, Dr. Datta Mujumdar, Radiology chief (and probably God) Dr. Ravi Ramakanthan, and Neuropathologist Dr. Asha Shenoy, Pediatric Neurologists Dr. K.D. Shah, Dr. Surekha Rajadhyaksha, Dr. Anaita Udwadia to name a few. She never let her personal / professional discord with anyone interfere with her student’s benefits. She always encouraged us to go to other hospitals to learn and call those students to learn at KEM. In today’s world where mentioning a doctor’s professional rival gets the students blacklisted and environments muddy, this was an outstanding example for us.
She supervised every student’s activities and attendance every day! We were supposed to call her every night at 9 and inform about all cases in the ward and all referrals, get her instructions, carry them out, and only then leave the wards! Performing and reporting EEGs (electroencephalographs) and EMG – NCS (Electromyography and Nerve Conduction Studies) was almost a daily duty, and we now understand what that exposure means now!
Dr. Sangita Rawat was our Associate Professor then (now Chief). She had just returned from her epilepsy training in Australia, and made sure that we had teaching sessions every single day. Sometimes when Dr. Pravina Shah madam was upset with a student, Dr. Sangita tactfully buffered the situation. She established one of the first video EEG & Epilepsy surgery set-up in the region at KEM Mumbai, and saw to it that we students were trained in it. I still remember Dr. Rawat’s immense efforts to get the best technology and technicians. She helped me get my overseas fellowship too.
Dr. Pravina Shah regularly called all students to her home and fed them full umpteen times. Although her cook Mr. Premjee assisted her then, Madam is herself an excellent cook, and because I liked her “Tindore ka achaar” (ivy gourd / little gourd pickle), she made it for me so many times, and I have shamelessly enjoyed it with her heavenly “Theplas” while listening to her (but now concentrating upon the task in front of me: eating!) at her Gamdevi home balcony. She was our mother in Mumbai.
She has many proud achievements to her credit, but she never boasts about herself (another quality we learnt from her). She established one of the first epilepsy support groups in India “Samman”, and again used her personal equations to get space and funds to run it. She researched with Dr. Richard Masland, a father figure in the field of Epilepsy. She has led the Indian Epilepsy Association and now is among its advisors too. In a world where most people boast about flying over the Everest when actually they just jump over a pebble, we never heard madam talking about her own achievements and virtues.
We never hesitated in the face of hardwork again, because she made us participate in the toughest of the academic tasks. Every Neurology patient admitted in ward no 10 was supposed to be seen, interviewed and completely examined by the resident doctor immediately. A 40 page proforma had to be filled up for each patient, recording everything in the minutest detail. It was huge paperwork. Next morning, she would check each word from each proforma, and correct us. That habit has been imbibed in almost all her students.
The mud and some petty philosophies now cropping up in our profession have never affected her. She still writes the case sheet exactly like she taught us, in her beautiful handwriting. She knows the families of almost all her students and still cares for us after so many years. I have never seen her wearing ornaments / jewelry or “costly” clothes / accessories. She has used most of her income to help others in various ways, never speaking about it.
In a country still struggling with the female foeticide, here’s the glorious story of a strong woman from a humble family who made to the top of Neurology circle in India in a field dominated by men, making not only a very successful career as an ideal doctor and teacher, but also as an ideal wife at home and a mother to hundreds of students practicing neurology all over the world. While doing this, she has done extraordinary social work especially in the field of epilepsy and women’s issues therein. Like with most honest and true social workers who never talk about their work, her work is yet to be recognized by our governments, which appear to be more inclined towards sports and films when prestige awards are concerned.
But then, she does not care. Her reward is the millions of patients who continue to benefit through her students.
The loving ones who say “Get Out” to you are often the only ones who can bring you back to life.
Thank you Dr. Pravina Ushakant Shah madam, for imbibing the strength of good upon my life, both as a doctor and as a human being!
© Dr. Rajas Deshpande