After battling a long-drawn surgery, I enjoy a very personal ritual—I sit with a steaming cup of coffee. Alone. And I reload the hours spent in the operation theatre in my mind. Today, my thoughts are straying to something more fundamental: who I am and why I do what I do every day.
It can be summed up in one word: faith. The entire medical profession is based on faith. In no other sphere of life does an individual ever surrender oneself so completely to the hands of another as one does when consenting to a surgery. Try pricking someone with a pin and they’ll start fighting, but here’s a person who allows you to do anything to them. The whole contract is based on the faith that the doctor will return one to normal life.
I joined the All India Institute of Medical Sciences as a student in 1976 and completed my training in 1984. During those years, I saw how being a doctor was more than a job: the faith our teachers had in their profession, the hard work, the empathy and the fervour to go out of their way to save a life. They would start a class and there would suddenly be an emergency case. They would say, “No classes now. We will have it in the evening. This guy has to be saved first.” They would rush out, followed by us, shout at each other, run around—a lot of action—to save a life, the supreme satisfaction one can aspire for.
As a practising surgeon, faith plays out in the delicate balance between ethics and commitments. First and foremost, you have to have faith in yourself: “Yes, I am worthy of the ultimate faith that my patient has in me, I am qualified to do this and I shall be able to do this.” You have to have faith in your colleagues and the support system you have. The only guiding principle at the moment you pick up a knife in the OT is a burning desire to heal an individual, to return the faith your patient has reposed in you.
It is not easy to carry the pressure of that faith. We often try to make light of it in the OT, by breaking into inane songs or things like that. Then there are occasions when you have a difficult case, you feel the pressure—as you have breakfast, as you meet people on the way. Perhaps, you smile, but nothing really registers. You are lost in your world: how you will start the operation, what could be the challenges along the way.
For me, surgery is also the prime example of a surgeon’s faith in the powers beyond. In spite of your knowledge, skill and experience, you know that sometimes things can go wrong and they do go wrong. You need the blessings of something beyond human agency to let things go right. I believe in god and therefore, before I start, I look up and say to myself, “I surrender at your feet, be with me, work through me.”
I remember a patient, a boy from Coimbatore. His parents said that their guru, the head of a mutt, wanted 4 am to be the best hour for the surgery, because that’s when he starts praying. Could I start the surgery at that hour? There was so much conviction in their request that I approached my colleagues, we made special efforts and started the robotic surgery exactly at that hour. I had never seen their guru, but that morning I almost did the operation in a trance. Three hours later, it was as if I woke up from sleep. I came out and told the parents that someone did the surgery through me. We do get these experiences.
Faith is all pervasive in the life of a doctor. There is faith reposed in me by my students as a teacher, by my patients as a healer, by my colleagues as someone who can guide them in difficult times. For us, faith is the glue that joins hopes, hands and hearts. It can put us on an ego trip, too.
I recently treated a teenage girl with lung damage from Mumbai. The family had met with a series of tragedies. She and her sister were the only survivors of an accident. The operation was challenging, as was their financial situation, which we helped with. She finally came to me with a box of sweets and said, “I have seen gods made of stone and now I have seen a living one.” That sort of faith can make you feel like Superman. I just remember a song to keep me grounded: “Har nazar uth rahi hain hamari taraf aur hamari nazar hain tumhari taraf (Everyone is looking at me and I look at you).” And the chain of faith continues...Dr Arvind Kumar is a pioneer of robotic chest surgery in India