Happy New Year – my foot!

I was operated for a tumour in one of the bones of my left foot 12 years ago. The surgeon meticulously curetted it and refashioned the defect by harvesting some bone chips from my hip. Luckily, it was benign and I could walk again. I went on to train as a neurosurgeon, got married, had two kids, and travelled the world. I was leading a pretty contented life until I returned to Mumbai.

As if living in Mumbai isn’t bad enough, a few weeks ago, the pain in that foot came back. It got worse with every step I took. Pressing the clutch of my velvety Maruti 800 seemed like summiting Everest; the fact that it was a 15-year-old car whose clutch was harder to press than my grandfather’s 1947 Lambretta kick-start scooter didn’t help either. With every press of the pedal, it felt like a construction company blasting dynamite to raze dilapidated buildings to the ground. I could feel the bone giving way from the inside.


Being a self-professed expert, I knew the tumour had come back. I could imagine the X-rays showing the bone next to it also being affected. I was convinced I was going to need surgery. I love to operate, but I hate being operated upon. I asked myself the same question that all my patients do when they are diagnosed with brain tumours: “Why me?” I read somewhere that happiness finds you, but I think sadness find you too. It sneaks up to you in places just when you think you’ve made it through.


I could see myself being wheeled into an ultra-modern air-conditioned operating room, a site I am abundantly familiar with. The sudden whiff of cold air sends a jolt down my spine. I shiver and ask for an extra blanket; not wearing any underwear doesn’t help either. An operating room, for those who haven’t been in one, is like Dadar railway station. Befor surgery commences; everyone is running around doing his or her thing. It is organized chaos. Sterile equipment is opened, tray tables are organized, lines are inserted, leads are hooked, monitors beep, and people bump into one another without apologizing.


The anaesthesiologist puts the oxygen mask over my face only for me to wake up a few hours later with a cast on my foot, not knowing what had hit me. The first few hours when you come out of anaesthesia are magical. You feel like you’re 2 inches above the ground and even Mumbai seems like a nice place to be in – until that effect wears off. Then, you’re rolled into your bed and sent to your room, just another member of the assembly line in this huge medical factory. A few people will come to see you the next day, fewer the day after – and primarily if the location of your hospital happens to be on their line of commute.


Luckily, none of this happened for me. The MRI showed that everything was ok, and like it always does after a normal scan, the pain too vanished. My doctor said it must have been just a strain – a strain more to my brain than my foot, I thought. If I can self-diagnose my problems erroneously, why do I blame my patients in doing so? If I can think up a heap of unnecessary rubbish, what stops the common man with no knowledge of medicine from deciding for themselves what’s going wrong with them?


I have a newfound love and respect for patients after having recently been a patient myself. I never interrupt what they have to say, unless they go into explicit details of their bowel habits; if you have a Bengali friend, you will know what I mean. Patients need patience. More often than any expert advice, they just need someone to hold their hand and tell them that everything is going to be okay. I am of the strong but unjustified opinion that every surgeon should be operated upon at least once, and preferably by another surgeon who is just about average, and further, every physician should be admitted as a patient in his or her lifetime to understand things from a patient’s perspective. Because as Mr. Jimmy Choo once famously said, “Only the wearer knows where the shoe pinches.”


The irony today is that everyone is happy with Indian doctors other than Indian patients. A recent study conducted at Harvard found that patients treated by Indian doctors had a lower death rate than those treated by Western ones. But doctors in India are having a tough time today. They are being mobbed, attacked, and exposed. Hospitals are losing their licenses over unsubstantiated claims and materialization in healthcare is raising its ugly head.


Fortunately, the love, adulation, and pride our community has for its own doctors is still something we cherish. Some of the quintessential stalwarts can alleviate any kind of distress. Going to a Parsi doctor is akin to having a meal at the Taj. No matter how many 5-star hotels crop up, the charm and comfort of sipping tea at the Shamiana or biting into a pastry at the Sea Lounge can never compare with eating anywhere else. The radiant staff and generous hospitality always take away your woes. Just like no corporate bank can compare to the joy and tranquillity of walking into a branch of Central Bank, where not only time but also your money stands still.


The community is fraught with illustrious names in the field of medicine. It is on these shoulders that we stand and help take our vocation ahead, giving it the respect and dignity it deserves. Despite the corporatization of medicine, in my eyes and heart, it still remains a noble and righteous profession. Very few are blessed with the ability to heal, and we, as doctors, assume that role with a great deal of responsibility, not pride or arrogance. Only people close to us understand how often we ruminate over our patients’ problems with an obsessiveness that consumes us completely.


This New Year, let’s not self-diagnose our ailments. Let’s go to someone who knows a little more about it than we do – not Google, not Yahoo, but your friendly neighbourhood physician or surgeon. Give them a chance to take care of you. That is what they trained for, for years. That is what gave us grey hair and receding hairlines.  Hopefully, 2018 will be better than 2017 – isn’t that always the hope? I wish that for all of us from the bottom of my foot – that’s as deep as I can go. Happy New Year.