The Surgical Mentor

Each of us is guided by an outer force that teaches us to think, and makes us the people we become

“How do I continue to improve upon my craft?” I asked my professor and mentor Dr. Ari Chacko over dinner. He was retiring from the Department of Neurological Sciences at the Christian Medical College in Vellore after having served it assiduously for over three decades. “You have to repeatedly watch your surgical videos,” interjected his teacher, Dr. Mathew Chandy, who had helmed the same department for several years and whose home we were at for the feast. I used to do that with my father, himself a neurosurgeon, I reminisced. Ari, as everyone fondly calls him, continued the conversation: “You have to go back to every surgery and analyse every movement, and you’ll decipher for yourself how many of those steps were unnecessary. I’ve realized that with this approach, over the years, my movements, which might appear to be slow, have, in fact, become very purposeful.”

Revisiting him after several years of leaving his nest was a separate education in itself. When I first joined my training as a surgical toddler, it was he who taught me how to pee in the proverbial neurosurgical pot. Wetting one’s feet was equivalent to burning one’s fingers. Precision was key. Rigor in examining a patient, exactness in studying the scan, definiteness in preforming the operation, and meticulousness in postoperative care and preparing a patient’s discharge summary were constantly imbibed every single day for every single patient. “Any time you try and cut corners, you’ll land up in a mess,” he used to say. And if ever he got away with it, he was reminded of what his witty mother used to tell him: “You have more luck than sense!”

When you train under someone, whether it be for a few months or several years, you tend to absorb more than the craft. Ari taught us to be kind and caring. He was strict when he needed to be but had mastered the balance of treating residents with a perfect mix of firmness and gentility. He also inculcated the habit of listening to the right music and exercising daily. He was universally loved and admired, and with the demands of our work environment, that’s not an easy feat to achieve. When I finished my training with him, people began to notice that I spoke like him, my hand gestures were like his, and I even incorporated his swag. “And all I wish for is to be able to operate like him,” I told all the people who pointed out these similarities to me. Emulating him became such an integral part of my DNA that a few days ago, while talking a stroll in the garden, I noticed that even my daughter walks like he does.

In recent years, after having moved back home, my father has taken the responsibility of mentoring me. Even though we don’t work in the same hospital, whenever I’m lost inside someone’s brain or spinal cord and need to be bailed out, he’s just a phone call away. I tell him where I’m stuck, he provides the unfolding. I discuss the complication, he dispenses the clarification. I go to him with the arrogance and brashness of youth, he receives me with the wisdom and grace of experience. He has taught me what textbooks cannot – about neurosurgery, living, and knowing.

“I still find it very hard to deal with complications, they just drain me physically, mentally and emotionally,” I spoke over dinner. “It just means that you are concerned about the patient and that is exactly how it should be,” he said as we dug into some roast chicken prepared by Mrs. Chandy. I was being continuously badgered with phone calls from a colleague who was finding it exhausting to deal with issues being faced by our patients. “Despite so much experience, I continue to tremble with a staggering degree of doubt and confusion,” I confessed. “You just have to move intuitively and do the next right thing with conviction – and with the technology available today, we can seek help and guidance from anywhere,” he finished, dropping pearls of wisdom over a meal.

Borrowing from what Atul Gawande, a famous surgeon-writer, once said, we spoke about how it would be useful to get a teacher into the operating room to silently observe the surgeon; over a cup of coffee, the surgeon and his observer could then dissect how one could do the same operation better the next time around. All professionals at the highest level have someone to coach then, then why not a coach in the operating room?

It was an ethereal experience to dine with my teacher, Ari, and his teacher, Dr. Mathew Chandy. Beautifully enough, his teacher was his father, Dr. Jacob Chandy, who started the first department of neurosurgery in the country at the Christian Medical College, Vellore, in 1947. Time has a funny way of collapsing when you go back to a place you once loved and so deeply cherish until the present day.

Me on the left, with my teacher on the right, with his teacher in the centre with his teacher on the photo frame in the background.

I returned home on my first flight since the lockdown. Isn’t it strange that at every checkpoint at the airport, one is requested to lower their mask rather than keep it up?

When I returned, I messaged Ari that all the patients who had niggles while I was away had recovered completely, and just as I was hoping for an easy week, I mentioned to him that another patient had returned with a collection of fluid in his head 2 months after surgery. He wrote back, “My mother used to say, ‘The wicked are never at peace!’” Did I mention he had a devilish sense of humour?

This New Year, may we all be guided by an inner light and outer force. May we remember those who taught us and continue to do. Each of us has a mentor we revere, who has made us a little bit or a whole lot of who we have become. And like a friend of mine recently told me, “May we always pay it forward.”

36 Comments on “The Surgical Mentor
  • Anil Karapurkar says:

    Another gem by Mazda. Do keep it up.
    All the best for the new year.
    Anil Karapurkar

  • Shraddha Deshpande says:

    Beautifully expressed. You are blessed to have such wonderful mentors and destined to pay it forward!
    Happy new year!

  • Dr. Lakshmi Vasudevan says:

    Thanks . Very well written . Yes we need a guide throughout in our professional career . Two other great neurosurgeons who come to my mind are Dr. HM Dastur and Dr. SK Pandya , both past HOD’s of Neurosurgery at KEMHospital . Dr. Pandya too writes beautifully like you . I think you neurosurgeons are a breed apart . God bless

  • Supriya Correa says:

    The power of your writing, Mazda…we, your readers, are neurosurgeons and humanitarians in the making. Great post as always.

  • Bikram Shakya says:

    Happy new year…
    The learning continues!!!

  • Dr. Neepa V says:

    Well written mazda..i agree..having a mentor is very important in a surgeons life..
    I had a chance to watch my mentor operate recently..and as always it was a treat watching his skillful and meticulous movements and it made me promise myself that i would work harder and try to be as skillful and dedicated as him..

  • Anil Agarwal says:

    Dr You are too Good. I do read all. It’s worth meeting a writer than a Dr.

  • Dattatraya Muzumdar says:

    Well penned Mazda. Thoughts and experiences which we all go through..Best wishes for the New year

  • Dr Harshad Parekh says:

    Excellent Mazda we are lucky n blessed to be having mentor .its very important for our improvement

  • mrs sunaina saraf says:

    Hello sir

    Experience & advice has helped u to analyise urself sir
    Keep up the good work
    God bless
    Mrs Sunaina saraf

  • jawahar mukhtyar says:

    Mazda, ordering you now to start work on publishing a book of your essays. Absolutely amazing gems as someone above just pointed out. Keep up the good work.

  • Ipe George says:

    A nice tribute Mazda to Dr Ari (one of my mentors too) and to all our teachers whose voices and memories we carry in our minds and remind us perpetually that we stand on the shoulders of giants before us, ever hoping to perfect the art and science of neurosurgery. May we be able mentors to those who come after us.

  • Atman Daftary says:

    Sir enjoyed ur write up. Apt,to the point,soul searching ,made my sunday sir. It’s become a Sunday morn ritual to read you.

  • Dorothy says:

    Thank you so much . Knowing that you are so concerned about us your patients and still going back to your mentors for more advise is great. We feel safe in your hands.

  • Krishna Shroff says:

    Very well written sir, as always! It’s quite uncanny how we tend to imbibe almost every behaviour/action/attitude/way of thinking from our mentors! But then again, why not?! Afterall it’s a part of our journey!

  • Dr Ram Dama says:

    Nice enjoyed your write up..u r great surgeon as well as good writer too thank you for sharing

  • Ralecha Mmatli says:

    Mentorship is key in every craft and I guess even more critical in surgery because human life is involved abd at stake should a mistake occur.
    We remain grateful to your mentors and from what you did to my body to save me, you are a good mentee Mazda.

    Keep learning from those with experience, and just like wine, yiu will mature fully with time.

    All the best for the new year- Ralecha Mmatli from Botswana 🇧🇼

  • Godfrey Coelho says:

    It’s sheer poetry in motion to read Dr Mazda , engaged and deeply involved ….make it every Sunday doc ✊

  • Arun Pushkarna says:

    Anybody can write a book. It’s writing that short story that makes a truly talented writer stand out. What you a hit with your brief articles is a depth few can plumb Mazda. Every article is a learning experience – and an absolute delight for the reader!
    In this one I once again learnt that giving respect to the teacher, irrespective of how often that is done, is so rewarding!
    God bless you Mazda!

  • Dr Naresh Jani says:


  • Avinash Karnik says:

    Dear Mazda
    What an article taking the readers like me to a journey through all the steps that you took while becoming a great neurosurgeon.
    One has to be lucky to get tutors and father that you got but please remember that such tutors teach and guide only those students in whom they see a spark to carry on their legacy. Hence along with your tutors and father, you also take a bow. Congratulations and all the very best for carrying on the legacy of your tutors and dad.

  • Chandan R. Sanjana says:

    Another wonderful article in your list! Well you were trained under Dr. Jacob Chandy’s son. We knew Dr. Chandy at the CMC as I was his patient after a serious head injury for which he treated me. And when he moved out from India, he said to me Chandan you gave a great Neuro Physician rated as one of the best in Dr. Noshir Wadia. Any problem go to him.
    Two great stalwarts in the medical field … I am sure you will reach the heights of the recognition these great men reached. All the best always.

  • Jyoti says:

    What a lovely tribute to your teachers! Yet another beautiful read

  • Rita singh says:

    A lovely tribute to ur mentor.Iam sure ur juniors will too have the same respect and admiration for u.Happy new year to u and all dedicated doctors.

  • Dinesh Shikotra says:

    Well expressed Doc, Yours is a noble profession with challenges and new learnings with every case. You are blessed to have such good mentors to guide and hold hands when in need.
    Wishing lots of good health and continued success in 2022 !!

  • Anuradha karnik says:

    Your love,respect and dedication towards your teachers comes shining through in this article. Their blessings and helping hand will see you through the most difficult moments in your profession. Proud of you.

  • Vipul Shah says:

    Dearest Mazda Sir

    Its a super pleasure to read your piece like a
    Very useful information to lay man.

    Giving Tribute to Teachers & Mentors is Guru
    Shishya Parampara of Gurukul Schools …

    Please keep on writing & enlighten us sir

    God Bless you always

  • Gool Kotwal says:

    Your insight into every aspect of your profession and your lucidity in expressing the same is a great combination.
    I may however add that mentoring takes place in almost all professions. You advertently or inadvertently imbibe the approach, attitude and mindset of your mentor and it lasts a lifetime.

  • Anjali Patki says:

    A beautiful tribute to your mentor. I’m sure you make him proud with not only the professional skills imbibed but you’re inherent expertise with the knife and pen. The pen is mightier than the sword?… In your case, might I say, the knife and pen go hand in hand!!

  • Cyrus Desai says:

    Wonderful article. Emphasizing on revisiting, observng, and improving on the past, brought out so vividly by you as.always. God bless and a Happy, Healthy and.Peaceful New Year to you and your family :/

  • Gloria Msampha says:

    The importance of paying it forward cannot be over emphasised. You are lucky to have been taught by legends in your profession. Well written article. May the new year give you more energy to operate and heal as many people as you have. Happy new year.

  • ADI Cooper says:

    Excellent information about Dr Chandy.
    Thanks for Reminding Dr Wadia,a top Neurophycian, I have met him several times in Ben Nevis His consulting chamber.
    Very humble and kind to His patients

  • Christopher Moses aka Jalna says:

    Very well penned Mazda. As you said Ari is retiring from CMC Vellore….brought me back to my age. Ari was my intern in S2… Dr Fenn’s unit way back in 1985 when he did his first inguinal herniorrhaphy with me. A really great intern to have for a haressed second year PG and opposite side Dr MC who was our teacher also and operated on my uncle for Acoustic Neuroma in 1986 when my uncle was 67 and went on to live till ripe old age of 92. Wonderful memories of both of them. I have continued bumping into Ari and Geeta over the years as our daughters were classmates from batch of 2010.
    Would suggest…keep on writing. Something that I’ve failed to do over the years.

  • Di says:

    Happy new year! As always well written… beautifully expressed… and a lovely picture, legends in one frame… hats off to all the amazing mentors who are paying it forward… we must keep learning and pay it forward too… aah so now i know where u got ur sense of humour from lol… what a lovely line in the article “may we all be guided by an inner light n outer force”.

  • Quinee Patel says:

    Mazda….You are like a ray of sunshine on a dark cloudy day…..illumination!!!! Your articles are akin to an intricate jazz composition….you marry the world of science with the instrument of your pen……both require equal parts of technique and feeling, and both can inspire a zen oneness among the artist, instrument and process. I would dearly wish to be included in the list of people who receive a digital copy by email of all that you publish. I live abroad and so do not have access to your newspaper articles. You inform and educate me…..I love it.

  • VISHAL KUMAR says:

    Beautifully expressed. I was operated on in 2013 march for my 4th ventricle tumor. I was just 21 at that time. I got new life due to Dr. Ari. Since that day I am in continuous touch over the mail. He is not only an excellent doctor but also a great human being. I lost all my hope, but he gave me confidence and life. He took care of every single thing during my stay in Vellore. Whenever I needed them, I just emailed him and he was there for me. Although he is retired I send him emails and he blesses me. I wish I could meet my superhero Dr. Ari someday, whenever he returns from Bangladesh. I have met you also dr mazda several times in the ward and opd. Thanks for everything


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