‘Dr. Gangadharan is a distinguished Oncologist who combines high professional skill with compassion, and hence is a source of hope for cancer patients generally steeped in despondency‘, reads a profile on the website of Caritas Hospital, Kottayam.
Dr V.P.Gangadharan is a name that is familiar to every Malayalee. A name that cuts through all barriers of caste, creed, religion, wealth or social status- just as the disease he treats….
A disease that does not distinguish between its victims…
A disease where all the illusions of the material world crumble, exposing the vulnerable and terrified human being within.
To his patients, Dr Gangadharan is God himself. But the doctor brushes off the ‘larger than life’ image that his patients confer on him and maintains that he is just a human being who is committed to his role as a doctor.
In an era where there is a palpable lack of role models and references, there is much that Dr Gangadharan’s life speaks for itself. For a young doctor, there is much to learn from his life.
In an interview at J.B.Junction in 2014, the doctor illuminates those forgotten aspects that once defined the medical profession, by sharing experiences from his own journey as a doctor, rekindling the dormant spirit of young doctors, awakening the seeds of humanity in them, and planting dreams in a career that has transformed from what was once regarded as humanitarian service of the highest order to what is now a commercial industry.
At the start of the interview, the doctor makes an important observation:
A doctor represents a cross section of society. Now, if society has changed, it is quite natural that the doctor would also change. The change that we see in doctors today, is a reflection of the change that has afflicted society as a whole. And so, the greatest challenge that a doctor faces today is- Is it possible to remain committed to one’s ideals and principles, in the setting of such change?
This is the question that young doctors must ask of themselves. What needs to be understood is that the practice of Medicine is an art. The real doctor is an artist, not a scientist. And so, he must possess the quality that defines an artist- perseverance. A true artist must demonstrate perseverance. Only then can he remain committed to his art. It is this perseverance that will eventually enable him to carve out a space for himself…that will make him distinct and irreplaceable. Dr Gangadharan’s life is a living example of such perseverance.
In this context, Dr Gangadharan discusses the joy of the doctor-patient relationship. He believes that once a young doctor has experienced the joy of this relationship, it is impossible to choose materialism over this joy. He insists that teachers and doctors are the most fortunate, for their professions bring them ample love. This love that comes from their students or patients is the secret of their undying zeal and energy. He regards his patients as people, and not as cases. He feels they have much to offer him as human beings who have traveled their own paths in life and whose souls are enlightened by the suffering they have experienced. The doctor emphasizes on the need to communicate and converse with patients and breathe life into these interactions.
This message resonates with the previous post on Dr Rosamma who enjoyed her interactions with patients. Her interactions were unhurried and had the feel of a heart-to-heart conversation between two human beings, rather than the mechanical exchange of words that characterize a doctor-patient interaction today.
Yet again, this point illuminates the difference between a dream and an aspiration. As young doctors aspire for degrees, awards and materialistic rewards, they lose sight of what they have to live with every day, for the rest of their lives. They fail to see the daily routine of their lives that revolves around their interaction with patients. Unless one can transform these interactions into moments of joy, the degrees and all other achievements lose their significance.
Dr Gangadharan describes the role of an oncologist thus:
There is this narrow bridge between life and death. I carry my patient on my shoulders and walk across this narrow bridge. On one side is disease, with all its horrors. On the other side is treatment, with all its horrors. I carry my patients through these horrors, and that is the magnitude of challenge that an oncologist must confront!
Dr Gangadharan reflects on how a doctor is a student for much of his life. He recounts the numerous instances where his patients opened his eyes to numerous aspects of his profession that one cannot learn from text books.
I asked the patient to lie down. But I was called away for something, and I left abruptly. It was only when the patient said to me that it does not befit a doctor to make their patient lie down in order to be examined, and then leave abruptly, leaving the patient in the dark, that I realized the lack of sensitivity I had displayed.
He emphasizes on how the greatest lessons are always learnt from life. Formal education can only be a preparation for the lessons that one must learn from life.
‘Upon receiving an MBBS degree, the doctor is only formally qualified. But in effect, he remains a student who has much to learn from his encounter with his patients‘, he concludes.
In his book ‘Jeevithamenna albhutham‘ (The miracle that is life), Dr Gangadharan talks about the powerlessness and fragility of human life as he recounts his helpless moments as a doctor in the context of disease- the heart attack that killed an individual who survived cancer, the relapse of cancer in a patient who had been cured of it, and so much more. Perhaps the greatest tales of resilience are also found in these cancer wards where one witnesses individuals who manage to smile and keep up their spirits, despite their poverty, deprivation and the dreadful illness they fight.
It might be worthwhile compiling such inspiring stories into documentaries that could be screened in medical colleges. A lack of inspiration haunts our medical education system today and the medical curriculum must incorporate activities that inspire and motivate. Also, it must introduce sessions that focus on goal-devoid doctor-patient interactions. Students could be made to visit the community or palliative care units or hospices, talk to patients, and write about their experience. It is then that they engage with life and with the human being and discover the joy in these interactions!