A celebratory start to the month turned out to be yet another ordinary day in the life of this surgeon
On July 1, I woke up to a barrage of messages. WhatsApp was buzzing with Happy Doctors’ Day wishes. Doctor groups wished each other, family groups said loving things to the physicians in their families, patients’ groups hailed them as superheroes, and medical representatives gestured how we were the backbone of our society, albeit with a gentle reminder to prescribe drugs that would make society even stronger.
I had a perfectly organised day ahead of me. Yoga in the morning, two standard spine operations, a regular list of patients in the clinic between the two surgeries, and then an early dinner with family and some friends who were visiting.
8 AM: “Good morning, Mrs Jones!” I greeted the feisty lady with a firm handshake as we wheeled her in, the coldness of the operating room making way for the warmth of our smiles. She had a critical compression of her nerves in her lumbar spine at three levels. There was fluid in her joints and her spinal ligaments were lax, resulting in her vertebrae slipping over each other. After five hours, we had meticulously relieved her compression by biting away at all the overgrown ligament, replaced three of her discs with metal cages, and realigned her spine with eight screws and two rods, making it look picture perfect. When you have sweat trickling down your back in a room that’s 16°C, you know you’ve worked for your lunch. She woke up feeling great. “I feel like I have new legs!” she exclaimed. I showed her an X-ray of her resurrected spine. “There is so much metal in there,” she gasped. “I could audition for the next Iron Man movie!” she said, still groggy from the anaesthesia, but with all her spirit intact. “I’m going to the OPD,” I told my colleague, as he prepped to get the next case in.
2 PM: I saw a bunch of patients in the OPD after I finished my first case. Some bought along a box of chocolates, some gave pretty flowers, and others drew up a card or two. Some didn’t have an appointment, but just showed up to wish. I was overwhelmed. A few years ago, even doctors didn’t know it was Doctors’ Day, and now, thanks to social media, every day is a Day. The nurses had also arranged a small celebration with high tea, cake cutting, and games, which we briefly partook in.
4 PM: Our second case for the day was a 55-year-old man with neck and arm pain that was bothering him relentlessly. He had a C5-6 disc prolapse. We had to artistically open up his neck, retracting his carotid artery to one side and his food pipe to the other, and remove the disc cramping his nerve. We inserted a cute titanium cage in the place of that disc as a souvenir for him to remember us whenever he sees an X-ray of his neck, which I usually ask my patients to frame and hang in their room as a reminder to take care of themselves. “My pain is completely gone!” he said looking at this arm in disbelief after the operation. “I’m going to do rounds of all our patients and then head out,” I told my colleague, adding cockily, “I have dinner plans.” “I’m going to the ER to see someone,” he replied.
7 PM: We were operating on the third case of the day. A 72-year-old man with a large haemorrhage in his brain from uncontrolled hypertension had come in for emergency surgery. I’m never annoyed when plans are cancelled and got right to it. We swiftly opened up one half of his head. The brain ballooned out with each heartbeat, threatening to make it burst. I nicked into a safe part of the surface to slurp out the blood clot, expeditiously deflating the balloon and restoring calm. “Will you close?” I requested my assistant, still hoping I could make it for dinner. “We will keep him on a ventilator tonight and see how he fares,” I told the family. “Thank you,” they said, sensing my hurry.
10 PM: I made it to dinner while everyone was having dessert. We sat in a restaurant overlooking the harbour and I devoured crispy fried prawns while bragging about how hard I worked. “One thing COVID has taught me is never to complain about work,” one of them said and we all agreed. We spoke about what it means to be a doctor in our country in these times. We spoke about how doctors were revered generations ago, while today, we are simply service providers who are expected to do their job well and pay the price if the customer wasn’t happy. “Touch wood, Indian patients are far more understanding about things than those in the West,” I muttered, as I walloped some ice-cream and got ready to call it a day.
11:30 PM: “Sir, the brain tumour we were to operate on two days later has come to the ER now. The patient is unconscious. We’ve intubated him. His CT shows a massive increase in the size of the cyst behind the tumour, which is probably why he’s in a coma.” Never alarmed by an emergency, I signalled all my people to cram into one car while I took off alone in mine. “Take him in but talk to the family; it’s a high-grade cancer,” I ordered.
1 AM: We were opening up another head. The tumour occupied the entire frontal lobe, almost a quarter of his brain. The ghoulish monster reared its ugly head, but we attacked it on all fours. My assistant and I performed a synchronised symphony in the middle of the night, miraculously converting an angry brain into a composed one. His frontal lobe now sat in a jar on the nurse’s table. When I took the specimen and showed it to his wife, she collapsed. A few sprinkles later, she woke up to the realisation that a quarter of her husband’s identity was now on a table in the operating room. Despite that, he was going to live a normal—and hopefully healthier—life.
8 AM: I drove home, feeling the exhaustion of the past 24 hours, but was revitalised by the onset of the monsoon. The rain and smell of the wet earth energised me, making me look forward to the day to come.
Each year, July 1 is celebrated as National Doctors’ Day in honour of Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy, who was instrumental in setting up the Medical Council of India of which he was the founder president. He was a renowned physician, freedom fighter, educationist, and philanthropist, and served as the Chief Minister of West Bengal for 14 years. July 1 happens to be his birth (1882) and also his death (1962) anniversary. Had he died on any other date, he is likely to have had two days celebrated in his honour, in homage of his legendary contribution to medicine in India.
July 1 is also National Chartered Accountant Day, to celebrate the formation of the Institute of Charted Accountants of India in 1949. I would have wished them with all my heart, but I’ll wish with only two-thirds of it—because they always deduct a third from everything I do.
The writer is practising neurosurgeon at Wockhardt Hospitals and Honorary Assistant Professor of Neurosurgery at Grant Medical College and Sir JJ Group of Hospitals.