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Saturday, August 7, 2021

Life's Lessons - Who taught me what? (7)

 What did the process of choosing a profession and field of study teach?

When I decided to enter medicine as a profession, it was based on desire, faith, emotions and a role-model. I had no facts or knowledge to base my decision on. My 5 years in medicine taught me several things. Therefore, my later decisions had more solid grounds.

In the process of choosing pediatrics, later choosing pediatric rheumatology and in deciding to come to USA for training, I learnt several things. First, one must know why one wants to choose one path or one decision over another. That requires a reasonable amount of information - not necessarily everything, about the choices. In other words, knowledge about the choices. That, in turn, requires efforts to gather knowledge by reading, listening, observing and if possible, through experience. Next comes, a logical analysis of the pros and cons of the available choices. Finally, the final choice or choices have to be checked with one’s own “heart” to make sure one can live with the decision, even if not able to enjoy it. That decision should be compatible with one’s values and personality.

This learning and a desire to share this with others was the motivation for my book (with a co-author) on Thinking Skills for the Digital Generation in which I have summarized these thoughts.

Experience during my first visit to the USA

When I came to US in 1958, I came as a rotating intern at the Binghamton General Hospital at Binghamton, NY. During that year I learnt many things about personal and professional life in USA.

The first person I got to know and work with was Dr. James Johnson. How fortunate that was! He died recently at the age of 96.

He initiated me to the ways of medicine, particularly pediatrics, as practiced in USA. This footing helped me immensely in my learning how to be a good house officer and how to acquire knowledge by observing and doing. It also helped me obtain great residency positions at CHOP and at the University of Chicago. I applied to 50 Departments of Pediatrics and Dr. Johnson sent letters of support to all of them. This was in those days when there were no copying machines and every letter had to be typed. (I still have a copy of the letter he wrote)

One other person who helped me in the process of acculturation was Mr. Herman Darkins, who was a Speech Therapist at the Hospital. He taught me how to pronounce English alphabets correctly! He showed me how to position the tongue and the lips to produce various sounds. (Later I could relate his teachings to what has been written by Panini on how to use the tongue, lips, teeth and roof of the mouth to pronounce Sanskrit alphabets. There is a similar section in Tholkappiam on pronouncing the alphabets in Tamizh).

Mr. Darkins was an Afro-american. During my trip to Pittsburgh with him by car, I also learnt first-hand how segregated things were at that time. We had to sit in a separate counter at a diner!

Then there was the family of Clifford and Peggy Thomas of Greene, NY. They introduced me to how a typical American family lives in a village. Peggy also introduced me and Ramaa to pancakes and maple syrup and to strawberry shortcake!

The next stop was at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, affectionately known as CHOP – and what a stop! That was the beginning of my career in Pediatrics. Who are some of my teachers at CHOP who influenced me?

Doctor Milton Rappaport was one of them. He was a giant in knowledge and in stature. He read medical journals in five different languages. He was a pioneer in several new fields in pediatrics. He taught me (he did not ask me to notice; but I noticed how he did) how to hold newborn babies safely, without any risk of dropping them. (When I was demonstrating this method to students at Chennai later, they were all scared that I was going to drop the baby!) He taught me the importance of expanding my horizon in reading. He insisted that I read far and wide and develop other interests. 

Doctor Stokes was a gentleman and a statesman. We rarely see such gentleman in medicine as Chairman. When I interviewed with him for residency his first question was about cricket in India and not about pediatrics. I learnt later that he did not like intimidating students and this was how he helped his students and colleagues to relax.

Later he taught me how a professor or any one in a high position can come down and just be human. Here is one of the  most touching incidents in my life to document what I mean.  After my second stint in US, I was getting ready to return to India for good and set up a research project at the Egmore Children’s Hospital in collaboration with CHOP. At that time, we were living in a one bedroom apartment in Camden, NJ and both Bama and Hari were very young. Hari was hardly 3 months old. 

Dr.Stokes had just returned back from Denmark after being honored by the King of Denmark for his work during World War II. He wanted to see me before I left. I offered to come and see him. He said: “You are probably busy packing up for your return home. Besides, Ramaa just had a baby. Let us come and see you”. He drove from Chestnut Hill, outside Philadelphia to Camden NJ with his wife and visited us in our tiny apartment. Just a day before we left for India, Dr. Stokes drove to Camden to my apartment, with his wife. (I still have a picture of him sitting in my apartment and with Hari as an infant on Mrs. Stokes’ lap).

During the conversation he said: “I am 70. You are going back to India for good. I do not know whether I will get a chance to see you again. That is why I came”.   I have tears in my eyes as I write about this episode. True enough, he passed away before I came back in 1970.

The main lesson is that even if you are a “big shot” or a Professor or a famous person, you must have concern for others, give respect to others irrespective of their position in life and treat everyone with dignity.

The next most important person who influenced me at CHOP was Doctor Lewis L. Coriell. More about him and what I learnt from him in the next post.

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