I thought I wanted to be an engineer. Physics and Maths were my favourite subjects, and it seemed only natural that engineering would be a straightforward choice. My mother, a gynecologist, wanted me to become a doctor. She managed to convince me to take Biology as a subject in class 11, in case I changed my mind. For one year I prepared for engineering, till in class 12, I realized something was amiss. I could not imagine myself sitting behind a computer screen for hours at end. Oddly enough, I could see myself spending those hours in a surgeon’s clothes. And that, simply, is how I changed my tracks and got in to medicine. Not because I really thought about public service as a 17 year old, not really because I wanted to honour my mother’s wishes, but simply because I wanted to see myself, in a few years, as a surgeon.
Medicine was hard, arduous and frustrating, and there were times when we slept for only two or three hours a day at a stretch. But having the support of my parents, both in the medical field, and being a day scholar made those hard times easier to bear. I often wondered how some of my classmates whose parents weren’t doctors, many of whom came from outside Delhi and stayed in the hostel, managed to keep up with the stress. In fact, sometimes, I thought what made them take medicine in the first place, for I was sure that even though I didn’t admit it, one of the reasons, albeit subconscious, that I moved in to this field was because my mother was a doctor. And that I knew that she’d always have my back. And we’d grow old together treating patients.
A few months after I finished five and a half years of medicine, I lost my mother. To pneumonia. Not an accident, not a heart attack, not cancer or any other morbid illness. To pneumonia. One week of fever and a chest infection. And she was healthier than me, even at 52 years of her age. The team of treating doctors could not save another doctor from a pneumonia. I couldn’t save her. Even with the fanciest of treatments, my mom died of an infection that should have responded to antibiotics. That’s when the faith broke. I left medicine swearing to myself I would never come back again. I had lost my mom and without her beside me, it didn’t make sense. I spent a year and a half at home, convinced that I didn’t want to be a doctor. But, as luck would have it, it was those months at home that gradually made me realize that a doctor’s job was to diagnose and treat, to the best of his ability and with the best of his intentions. Not to play God. There is no foreseeable reason why a treatment does not work in a fraction of patients, even if it is the standard of care. No way to know why a particular disease would behave in an aggressive way in some and certainly no method to predict it. Some patients have an aggressive infection, some an aggressive tumor and some are resistant to standard treatments leaving little time, and sometimes little much even doctors can do. And with my years of medical training, I could realize that, slowly but surely. As a doctor, I knew that we had done everything possible to save her. That knowledge gave me my reassurance and my answers. Without it, I’d probably be blaming Medicine or my ill fortune all my life. And so, two years after my mother’s death, I came back to Medicine again. Took gynecology to fill in my mother’s shoes. And years later, oncology.
Even today, every intubated patient in ICU reminds me of my mother on the ventilator. As oncologists, we try to keep our emotions in check because, in spite of best of our efforts, we lose some patients – to aggressive disease, to stage IV cancers, to relapses. And many times when we break the bad news to the families, we go back to our rooms and swallow our tears. We may not be going home happy everyday, but we know in our hearts that we do the best we can, striving to give hope in every way possible. If we stand for ten hours in a surgery, it is not to satisfy our egos, but because if even the smallest of efforts can make a difference to a patient’s life, it is worth it. Helping terminal patients may seem hopeless, but if we can relieve their pain, provide a quality of life and help them live their last days without suffering, trust me, there is nothing more rewarding.
To all my fellow doctors, and especially to those who lost their loved ones along the way but didn’t lose faith, a very Happy Doctor’s Day. Let us continue our work, no matter what, no matter how.