Category: Now Thinking

While doctors have to deal with patients’ anxieties, those accompanying them can be a greater cause for concern. Here are eight kinds of them

Medicine is a profession where the patient is considered to be the centre of our universe. We design protocols, tailor surgical approaches, customize therapy, plan treatment, conduct reviews, perform audits, and get feedback to be able to improve our quality of care for our patients. We’ve learned how to do all of this. We know how to handle these aspects.

However, there is no formal training on how to deal with the relative, that individual who accompanies most patients. Relatives come as solitary figures of one or in contingents of up to five, and they can make the life of a doctor either effortless or exasperating. As it’s that time of the year where we sit back and reminisce about the past 12 months, sometimes making lists, I decided to carry out a broad categorization of the relatives I’ve encountered so far.

The Trustor:

This kind usually has blind faith in a doctor. “We will do whatever you say,” is something they keep repeating. They don’t argue, they don’t question; they keep nodding. They manifest the best result for their patient. “Don’t worry, doctor, nothing will happen!” they say to bolster you if you show some concern about the difficulty of the case. They wish you good luck before you walk into surgery and they greet you with a broad smile when you come out to tell them how it went. It’s the best kind of relative for a doctor to have. Unfortunately, it is also the rarest.

The Projector:

They take it upon themselves to talk about the patient’s complaints irrespective of whether the patient wants to. “Mr. Patel, has surgery completely relieved your symptoms?” “Yes, doctor, my pain has completely gone and I am able to do everything very comfortably!” The relative: “Arre, but doctor, he had a headache 2 days ago. His hands have been shaking a little too.” Looking at their patient, they continue, “Also ask him about that itch near your bum you were talking about!” Because they stay with the patient and don’t want any grumbling or complaining to surface at home, they insist that everything be discussed in front of the doctor – and even invent a few symptoms along the way.

The Doubter:

This is the kind that gets you to dig your palm deep into your eyes. “But what if you’re not able to remove the tumour completely? What if the disc you fix comes out again? What if she doesn’t get better after the operation? What if there is a complication? How many such surgeries have you done before? Will you have someone as a backup in case something goes wrong? What if there is an infection?” All valid questions to which answers must be given – but the doubter asks them on loop after they have been copiously answered and re-answered.

The Fact Checker:

“But last time you said the chance of any complication is 1–2%, and this time you’re saying it’s about 4–5%. But last time you said surgery will take about 3–4 hours; now you’re saying it might take 5–6 hours. Last time you said we’d be discharged in a week. but today you’re saying you’ll keep him for only 5 days!” To this kind, you must either surrender or explain to them that the human body is not a constant. These are just numbers. They mean almost nothing. They are provided to give a rough idea about the way things might pan out. Nothing is absolute.

The Scroller:

This is completely different from the Googler who has researched every aspect of the patient’s illness and is prepared with a barrage of questions. The Googler is no more a category because it is almost every patient and relative. The scroller, on the contrary, is usually a teenager or young adult accompanying an elder family member. They can never stop scrolling on their phone and don’t lift their head up during the entire consultation. “Tanya… Tanya… Tanya!” I called out thrice after I had taken a full history and examined her grandmom, trying to get her attention to explain what needed to be done further. It really is an addiction. I feel sad for them.

The Bargainer:

This kind is exclusive to our country and probably even some places in the Middle East. This variety makes you believe that you are practicing in a baniya shop instead of the holy grail of a hospital. They ask you what the surgery will cost, you quote an approximate amount, and pat comes an instant reply: “Can it not be a little less?” – usually with the nod of the head and a shake of a hand that indicates that money is a concern. With the magnanimity of your heart and the ability to prune things a little, depending on the case in front of you, you may be able to quote a slightly lower figure, only to hear, “That’s all? I’m sure you can help a little extra!” – with the head doing an even more acute tilt. You can either smile with serenity or get frustrated because doing this transaction – this part of the conversation – is not your job. I prefer to smile.

The Freeloader:

Once the patient has finished their consultation, things have wound up, and everyone is nearly out the door, the relative suddenly interjects with “Doctor, I’m also having some pain in the neck here, can you just quickly examine me there and write out some medicines I can take?” For this kind, I simply grin and do what is asked without grudging them or imagining that I work at a ‘buy one, get one’ setup. One can even run into a slightly more extreme version of this kind at social gatherings, where they will smoothly lead you to a corner, get you to check them out, and even have you WhatsApp them a prescription over a drink. These too you deal with lovingly, as if this was your calling. After all, this is what we enjoy doing the most – taking care of people.

The Ass (not really a category, more of a one-of-a-kind specimen):

“Doctor saab, after your operation on my wife, we have travelled the whole world in one year. I thank you greatly for such a miraculous recovery! Now that there are no more places left to see, we are repeating many of them!” said the husband after I finished a thorough check-up to note that everything was okay with his wife. They were directed to pay at the reception, which is usually the practice. He headed there and returned to my clinic while I was in the midst of seeing another patient. “You have increased your consultation charges by Rs. 500 from last year?” he asked, with beady eyes. I held my head and gently rubbed my forehead. Sometimes, even the best of us have nothing left to say.


It’s not often that you get to operate on one of the most powerful men in the world.

A few months ago, I got a call from the Vatican. “Hello, this is Alessandra Romano and I’m calling from the office of His Holiness, Pope Francis.”

“Yes?” I answered, both suspicious and surprised, proceeding with a metered “How may I help you?”

“Am I speaking to Dr. Mazda Turel and is this the right time to talk, signore?” he questioned in a thick Italian accent, the kind that someone might overdo while pulling a prank. I tried to quickly identify if it was one of my friends pulling a fast one on me, but we hadn’t done something like that in over two decades now. “Yes, this is Mazda,” I confirmed my identify.

“I am calling regarding a strictly confidential matter,” Alessandra continued in a serious tone, “and we hope you will respect the privacy of His Holiness regarding the same.”

“Please go ahead,” I replied, still suspicious but now also a little serious.

“As you must be aware, our Holy Father hasn’t been keeping well for some time now, which is also why he has reduced his public engagements and appearances. He has been having persisting headaches. The personal physician of the Pope, Dr. Roberto Bernabae, has diagnosed him with a brain tumour after several tests were conducted, and the neurosurgeons here have suggested an operation,” he briefly summarized.

“Okay,” I replied, not knowing what the call to me was for.

“His Holiness Pope Francis wants you to do the operation,” said the reverend, sounding a little confounded himself at the absurdity of this phone call.

“Is this a joke?” I asked, a little impatiently, but then quickly realized my own worth and switched to, “Why me, when he could get anyone in the world?”

“Your name appeared to him in his meditations the previous night, and this is his personal request,” he replied in a formal tone. “If you are willing, we will arrange a formal video consult with his doctors and then make travel arrangements for you and your team to come over at the soonest,” he concluded. During the phone call itself, my email inbox received an official communication from his office along with all the medical reports.

“I would like his Holiness to be on the call before I can make the decision to travel,” I added some meat to the conversation. A few days later, through very official looking communication, I got onto a call with the Pope and his medical team. He was in his ceremonial robe and everyone else wore a crisp suit, while I was in my scrubs sitting in my office. I should have taken this a little more seriously, was my first thought.

The surgeons took me through the case history and examination findings in detail while I sat there a little awestruck. They asked if I had any questions but everything was clear. It was a big but thankfully benign tumour pressing on the Pope’s right frontal lobe. “It’s straightforward and he should be fine,” I said with brevity, maintaining decorum. “Thank you and may God bless you,” were the Pope’s only words before he left the meeting, allowing us to discuss the logistics. I was made to sign a non-disclosure agreement until the Pope could make his first public appearance after the surgery (which is why I can talk about it now).

We organized a 4-member team from the hospital to go to Rome, which included me, my assistant, a nurse, and the anaesthesiologist. On landing, we were escorted to the Vatican in a mini entourage. Our accommodation was arranged in the Apostolic Palace itself, ordinarily the official residence of the Pope, although it is this Pope’s personal choice to live in a guesthouse nearby, I was told. After an official lunch with the Pope’s chief physician and a private tour of the palace along with a briefing of how it functions, we were escorted to meet the Pope.

He sat there in a sombre room devoid of all the grandeur of the palace. It was ethereal to be in a room with a man who millions can see only from afar. There was an indescribable aura around him, but once he started speaking, he seemed like a regular chap going around doing God’s work. He spoke to me in his Italian English, and I briefly asked him a few technical questions, carrying out a quick examination after taking his permission to make physical contact with him. I held both his hands in mine. They were soft and wrinkled. I put them on my head and asked him to bless me. He did so and kissed me on the forehead.

“I do have a confession to make,” I said becoming a little chatty. “Many years ago, when I visited the Vatican as a tourist, I jumped the 3-hour line outside and sneaked in. I seek your forgiveness for that,” I quipped, and we both laughed about it. “Out of curiosity, Your Holiness, why do you want me to do your operation?” I asked just before I left. “That shall be revealed to you when the time is right,” he said, always a man of few words. We then visited the private hospital of the Vatican that caters to all the cardinals and pontiffs. We were shown the equipment; it was all state of the art and I tried hard to not look enamoured.

The next morning, the head of the Catholic Church was under anaesthesia on a table in front of me with no news of this in the world press whatsoever. I have never felt this nervous before an operation. If something were to go wrong, I knew my career was over. “Let’s do this like we would do it for anyone else,” I told the team. Once he was under the drapes and we opened the head, it looked like that of a regular pious 85-year-old. In a synchronised fashion, we removed the tumour effortlessly without a glitch. He was fully awake as we wheeled him off to the ICU within a few hours, a gentle smile on his face. As the ICU was reserved entirely for him, I slept the night on the bed next to him to ensure nothing went wrong. I spent the next three days by his side having some long and interesting conversations that I plan to compile into a book titled Parsi Communions with a man of Christ.

His Holiness was discharged within a few days and resumed some of his work in a week. He even made a brief appearance at the large balcony at the centre of St. Peter’s Basilica to ensure that none of his devotees were concerned about his health. The night before we left, our team was felicitated in an extremely private yet opulent ceremony on the palace lawn. The air was crisp and the atmosphere filled with gratitude. It was such a proud moment for me, my community, and my country.

I looked up into the sky and saw a shooting star whiz past. The harder I looked, the closer it seemed to come towards me. Within a few moments, it had doubled up in size and appeared to crash into the earth. I felt a huge thud on my body. “Wake up daddy, wake up!” said my 20 kg daughter jumping on me. “It’s Sunday! Let’s go out and play!”