At 7.45 am in Delhi's killer winter cold, when the world is still rising from its slumber, Prof A.K. Mahapatra strides to his room in the Neurosurgery opd at the capital's premier government hospital, the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). Outside, a sea of ailing humanity waits to be attended. Many have travelled hundreds of kilometres to avail of the super-speciality treatment they can afford; for others, it is their last hope for survival.
Mahapatra knows this well. For 28 years, he has been doing what would brand him as a lunatic to most of his tribe: working for 14 hours non-stop per day, living in a small government apartment and earning a paltry government salary. All this when there is a permanent queue of India's best corporate hospitals and international medical institutes offering 20 to 100 times the money he carries home at month-end. But Mahapatra does not feel the pinch.
"I may not drive a luxury car, I may not afford to eat at a five-star but I am a very satisfied man. If we fall to monetary temptations, there will be no one to cater to suffering humanity," he says. His patients volunteer to tell you stories about how this 52-year-old doctor sprints several floors to locate a misplaced drug. How he doesn't think twice about paying from his own pocket if the patient can't.
And the most remarkable thing at AIIMS is that Mahapatra isn't an aberration. Many of his colleagues share his spirit. A few yards away, in the Cardiology Department, Prof K.K. Talwar is attending to a stream of patients. Emergency cases keep pouring in. He works at breakneck speed, attending to the sick, supervising renovation work in progress, guiding a team of juniors and even ensuring admissions to deserving patients. His daily routine has been the same or even more hectic for 22 years at the institute. At no point of time did he feel the need to gravitate to private sector lucre. "If one wants to excel in ethical clinical practice, teaching and research, AIIMS is the best place to work. Serving people is definitely a part of this professional satisfaction," he says. The amazing degree of trust Talwar and his colleagues from other departments enjoy is evident from the fact that nearly a third of AIIMS patients have first gone to the luxury corporate hospitals and come here for a second opinion.
"A lot of people can earn money but not all can get to work at AIIMS," says Prof Veena Kalra, head of the Paediatrics Department who gave up her US green card 25 years ago to permanently settle in AIIMS. "A lot of my patients whom I treated as kids bring in their own children now. Many years ago, I successfully treated a girl child from Orissa who had been declared untreatable. Now the same girl has completed her PhD and is applying for research at AIIMS. This is my reward," says Kalra. Who could ask for more?
Only such dedication and energy levels can explain statistics like 8,000 patients attended to at AIIMS every day and over 1.2 lakh surgeries performed in a year. In addition, the doctors take time out for pioneering research. Here too, they excel compared to their private-sector counterparts by producing over 800 research papers per year. All this despite unionised staff, erring paramedics, faulty administrative policies and political interference. Doctors like those at AIIMS are the heroes of our time.
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