What motivated you to specialise in onco surgery?
I was intrigued by the uncertainty of the outcome of cancer surgery as compared to the huge amount of certainty in non-cancer surgeries. I joined Tata Memorial Hospital in 1982 and learnt that there was tremendous scope to do further research in oncology.
You have played a key role in the transformation of Tata Memorial Hospital.
All my predecessors have also made their contribution. We want to offer cost-effective and state-of-the-art treatment to patients and train medical professionals so they can offer excellent and uniform medical care across India. Poor patients will no longer have to travel to Mumbai if good quality medical facilities are offered to them locally.
How do you motivate your staff?
We have always had a wonderful work culture. People here are willing to spend 12 hours tending to patients. If they are asked to put in an extra hour, they do it willingly. We also deal with a large volume of patients. The most important thing is if the first patient has the right to be explained about his medical condition, so does the hundredth patient.
How do you deal with a field that must be depressing at times?
There is no doubt that there is suffering in this world. But do you want to remember your suffering? Bad times have come and gone, so have good times, but do you want to retain your suffering as a thorn, or just throw it away? I believe in living in the present moment. ‘Why me?’ is a question that has no answer. In the larger tapestry of life there is always something bigger and better for you. But have faith that the Almighty might test you but never harm you.
How should women who have lost their breasts through mastectomy cope with the change, for instance?
There was a lady who had undergone mastectomy and found her loss incomprehensible and irreconcilable. Her husband counselled her with compassion and showed her their wedding album and said to her, “You see, I had so much hair on my head then, but today I am balding. So does that mean you love me any less? How can my love for you diminish? Love is not so frivolous.” That changed her remarkably and since then, she accepted her reality. The family’s love and support is very vital. Although reconstruction is hard to undergo, wearing prosthesis equalises balance and restores confidence. It is universally observed that the initial lopsidedness is felt for about a week and it gradually vanishes over time.
Despite so much pressure, how do you manage to stay so cheerful?
It’s all about the choices we make. Happiness is a state of mind. We make the choice of getting affected negatively and blame it on situations. Either change the situation or don’t be unhappy. Anger reduces our functionality. After all, it’s the willingness to help that matters. Ratan Tata had once said, ‘If you want to walk fast, walk alone, but if you want to walk far, walk with others.’ I would add, ‘If you want to walk far, walk for others.’
Do you practice yoga or meditation?
No. I strongly feel that drawing happiness from every sincere action is the ultimate yoga. If you have the right attitude, then every action becomes an excellent one. Of course you train yourself. Just as in surgery, you practice to be excellent, similarly you practice compassion and refine your way of showing it.
What advice do you give to your juniors and children?
I tell my juniors that there is always scope for improvement. Listen patiently to those in pain and don’t look for appreciation. As a father, I tell my kids that there should be a hugely strong reason for you to be unhappy. Do not do anything against your conscience, always try to do good to others.
How do you unwind after a long day?
I like listening to western classical and Indian classical music. I enjoy discussing
philosophy, studying architecture, paintings and driving. I driven on the long, scenic route from New York to Toronto via the Niagara. On another occasion I drove from Mumbai to Goa through the hinterland and small villages. It’s fun to explore.
How important is sense of humour to you?
Sense of humour is like a ‘kewat’ (a boatman), who carries you through life.
What would you have been if not an onco surgeon?
My being an onco surgeon is incidental and my happiness and effort would have been the same in any other role.