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Saturday, August 14, 2021

Life's Lessons - Who taught me what? (8)

          (Just a reminder that although the focus of this series is on the lessons learnt, I may elaborate on a person or an event to set the context and relevance. Quotes within parentheses carry the main points even though not in the exact words. Italicizes parts are for extra interesting details.)

Doctor Lewis Coriell (teacher, mentor, father-figure)

Doctor Lew Coriell was the first physician-teacher I worked with at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). He was the Director of the Municipal Infectious Disease Hospital at Camden, NJ. (The hospital has closed since then. In the 1950’s Camden was a thriving community. Its economy was driven by New York Ship Building, RCA and Esterbrook Pen company. The Courier-Journal was considered the best small-town newspaper in US. The Polish ethnic neighborhood was a great place to live)

Doctor Coriell took to me at first sight – I do not know why. From that moment, he has been  a father-figure, teacher, mentor and cheerleader.

He was outstaged by Mrs. Coriell (Esther) with her kindness and care. Mrs. Coriell just took Ramaa under her care like a mother would. The Coriell's did not have a daughter and I know that Ramaa was that missing daughter to them. She taught Ramaa every aspect of home-life and family living in America. When we said: “Thank you for your kindness” , her response was “Kindness is meant to be passed on”.

Mrs. Coriell gave Ramaa some simple items such as a toaster, a griddle, and empty cans and canisters to store grocery items. This was very helpful to us when we moved into our apartment.  Ramaa learnt this lesson and used it to help newer families who came from India after us. She helped them get started with simple, mundane but useful things.

Mrs.Coriell also taught Ramaa several small “do”s and “don’t” about living in USA. Ramaa was a great student and picked them all up – such as how to be frugal and yet do not cut corners in daily purchases; how to cook Western style; how to set the table etc etc.

If I have to list the lessons we learnt from the Coriell’s, I have to respond by asking “What is it we did not learn from them?”

Dr.Coriell taught me how think critically, how to disagree without being antagonistic, how to be firm and gentle at the same time. He taught me how to plan and perform scientific experiments. He taught me how to write medical articles with attention to details and how to edit scientific manuscripts. (I helped him edit one of the early editions of the Red Book for the American Academy of Pediatrics. He went over it for accuracy, clarity and thoroughness and edited it over 20 times before it went to the printer)

There is  one other incident to remember. Through this experience I learnt two lessons. One was about caring for others and helping them when needed. That was the lesson from Dr. Coriell. The other was from the owner of an auto-body-shop in Norfolk, Va.

We (me, Rama and Bama) had gone to Williamsburg, VA for a long weekend by car. The valet of the hotel we were staying in got into an accident with our car on his way to the parking lot in the next block! When the police called me to report this incident, I did not know what to do. As usual I called Dr.Coriell and asked him. He said that since I had nothing to do with the accident, he suggested that I give my details to the Police and collect all the information from the Hotel and take a flight back. I did just that. But, when I landed at the Philadelphia airport, I was surprised to see Dr.Coriell waiting! When I asked him how he knew about my flight (since I had not called him), he said: “There is only one flight a day from Norfolk and I took a chance”. The story does not end there.

The car did not get fixed for several weeks, because the insurance company for the hotel and my insurance company were arguing as to who should fix it and who will pay for what portion. Nothing happened for almost 2 months. When Dr. Coriell heard about it, he wrote a letter to the President of my insurance company and the car was fixed within the next 2 weeks.  I do not have a copy of that letter. But I read it. In that letter Dr. Coriell did not criticize or attack. He just stated the facts and told them that one of them should “fix” the car and then argue, not argue for ever leaving the customer without a car for several months. I learnt how to write with tact and diplomacy, how to complain without pointing finger at anyone – in other words how to get things done and not vent your anger!  This is still not the end of the story.

After the car was fixed, I had to fly to Norfolk, VA to get my car. When I reached Norfolk, a big surprise was waiting for me in the form of the owner of the garage who repaired the car. I wish I remember his name. He taught me a major lesson in life. I learnt that he is not just a garage owner or a car mechanic. He was passionate about cars and their maintenance. It was evident from the way my damaged car looked after he laid his hands on it. For one thing, the car was better than new, if that is possible. In addition, I learnt that one can be an “artist” even with car repairs.

He was animated when he talked about how he fixed my car. In addition, he spoke about his passion and about the many other cars he was repairing. We went around looking at them. It was obvious that he did his work for more than making a living. He took pride in his work. I forget everything he said. But the gist was this. “It does not matter what work you do. You should do it with passion and with perfection. It should be done in such a way that when someone looks at the work you have done, they should be able to see “your stamp of excellence” on it. If you can do your job well, you do not have to worry about making a living, whatever the trade or profession. Even when there are several people in your town doing the same kind of work you do, people will seek you out”.

Later I realized that this is also a definition of excellence. Knowledge, skills, attitude, creativity and values.

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