It was sometime around October 2002 that we discovered my mother had diabetic nephropathy. In February 2003, we learnt that she also had breast cancer. Sometime in the year 2004 or was it 2005, we found that the cancer had metastasized to the pelvic bone area. In or around 2007, they told us she had bradycardia and required a pace maker. As the end of 2008 approached, it was suspected that the cancer had spread to the liver. Amma’s heartbeat kept slowing down from around February 2009 till it simply stopped beating on April 21, 2009 – a day before her wedding anniversary.
Almost seven years of pretty much continuous medical tests and treatment. Seven years of being in and out of hospital. Seven years that would probably have been much worse if we hadn’t been blessed by the presence of several angels with a stethoscope attending to us.
Leading the pack of angels was Dr. Dilip Galvankar, a leading urologist attached to Nanavati Hospital in Mumbai, India. There will never be another doctor like him. A larger than life personality, he strode down the corridors of Nanavati like the hospital belonged to him. And it did for all practical purposes, judging by the way the staff responded to him.
Dr. Galvankar was full of life and lived life to the fullest. He would stride into my mother’s room and say, “Give her some port wine and send her home. There is nothing wrong with her.” He would then proceed to examine my mother while discussing the line up of horses for the weekend races at Mahalaksmi Race Course in Mumbai. You see, that’s how my mother knew him. They were racing buddies.
On other occasions, he would turn to his attending staff and say, “Admit the daughter. She’s the one who needs treatment.” Or he would tell me, “You are very smart. You sit there listening to me and are quietly practicing medicine on the side. That too, with no license.” This was because I had begun studying all my mother’s various ailments so that I could take better care of her at home.
Anything and everything that went wrong with the family’s health would lead to a SOS call to Dr. Galvankar who would advice us on the best course of action, often sending us to a trusted colleague. I remember calling him in panic in December 2005 to tell him that they were suspecting that I, too, had breast cancer. He told me to meet him in the outpatient department where he examined me, held his hands up and said, “If these hands know anything after all these years of experience, you don’t have cancer. But we need to make sure. Go for a fine needle aspiration test and see Dr. Kulkarni.”
Dr. Galvankar was never seen without Dr. Dikshit by his side. What a pair they made. One so loud and the other so quiet. One so jovial and the other so serious. Poor Dr. Dikshit. He ended up responding to all my family’s issues courtesy Dr. Galvankar. When my mother first started having a problem with swollen legs, it was Dr. Dikshit she went and saw without telling us. And it was he who told her that she either had a kidney or a heart problem. Some years later, after my lumpectomy, Dr. Dikshit came to me and held my hands. That gesture scared me because it came from a person not known to show his emotions. I was scared by his gesture because what they found was dysplasia and not cancer. Was there something they weren’t telling me?
Dr. Dikshit, himself, had undergone surgery for a brain tumour. Sadly, the tumour returned a while later and the world lost a good, compassionate doctor. I remember one time when I rushed my mother to Nanavati with severe abdomen pain and Dr. Dikshit yelled at me when he learnt that she had been having the pain for a week. I looked at him helplessly and told him, “She told me only today.” Fact is my mother, the heroine, was waiting for her granddaughter to return to her b-school in Dehradun. It was only after she departed that she turned to me and asked me to take her to hospital.
Completing the trio of doctors in our life was Dr. Kulkarni, my mother’s and later my oncologist as well. Dr. Kulkarni could well have been the inspiration for the character of Dr. Gregory House in the famous American television medical drama. He, himself, told me once, “People don’t like me because I am too blunt.” Boy, can I vouch for that. When my mother’s biopsy results came in he told us, “I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that she has cancer. The good news is that she has a well behaved cancer, if you can ever call cancer that.” He also told us, “At her age, I am not going to give her chemotherapy. Most other doctors will tell you that chemotherapy has to be given. Either you go with my opinion or you are free to go to another doctor.”
When Dr. Kulkarni suspected that my mom’s cancer had spread to the liver, he told me, “We are not going to do any tests. What will a MRI tell us? Confirm that she has cancer of the liver? What can we do with that information? Nothing. So, no unnecessary tests. Just take her home and try and give her all the happiness you can.”
He also had a quiet word with me, saying, “For some reason, God has decided that mother and daughter are going to suffer. As the cancer spreads in the liver, Amma will be in terrible pain. Don’t bring her to the hospital. You won’t be able to afford it. I will teach you to administer morphine at home.”
In the end, God spared my mother and her daughters. Her heart gave way before the cancer could get her. That fact, too, in a way, we have her doctors to thank. Because all of them called the cardiologist who was insisting on a pace maker and told him, “This lady is in the last stage of cancer. What are we going to achieve by putting a pace maker? By strengthening her heart? Let her go home.” Unsaid, but implied here was don’t save the heart and condemn her to a more painful death.
A couple of years after my mother passed away, we learnt that Dr. Kulkarni collapsed in the operating theatre and died of a massive heart attack.
Last year, we were shattered by the news that Dr. Galvankar had been diagnosed with liver cancer. He passed away in February of this year. Days before this world lost him, I am told the stream of visitors was something to behold from Tina Ambani to a whole host of well known people.
He moved in rich and influential circles. So much so, I am told that Subhash Ghai dedicated his latest movie, Kaanchi, to him. Yet, anyone who met him or his wife wouldn’t suspect it. Both were so down to earth. Both doctors also stayed away from charging patients beyond what they thought could be afforded or necessary.
When I walked into seeing Dr. Galvankar, he would ask, “Have you bought your cheque book?” But when I offered to pay him, he would slap my hand and say, “Ghari za” (go home). Because he was like that, I used to gift him a bottle of scotch every Diwali, switching to other gifts only when I felt it was an inappropriate gift given his health.
Today, my family is without our lifelines, our angels with a stethoscope. Dr. Dilip Galvankar, Dr. Dikshit, Dr. Kulkarni are no longer around. But Dr. Galvankar has left other angels who we can still turn to. In the form of his wife, Dr. Preeti Galvankar who bought our little grandson into the world and is preparing to bring the second grandbaby soon. The other angels Dr. Galvankar sent us to over the years are Dr. Sunil Kelkar, Dr. Suresh Shetty, Dr. Kirti Uphadhyaya and Dr. Himanshu Mehta.
It would also be remiss of me if I didn’t mention Dr. Suhas Patwardhan, a general physician in our residential area who always came running home when called. All these doctor angels are kindness personified and role models for the way medicine should be practiced. Dr. Kelkar and Dr. Shetty were always compassionate and gentle when treating my mother and other family members. Dr. Uphadhyaya managed to protect my mother’s kidney from further deteriorating and would often tell me, “No need to come back and see me. I will tell you what to do over the phone.” Dr. Mehta used to call my mother, “Young lady” and treat her so gently. This for a patient who practically threw him out of her hospital room the night before her cataract surgery.
Sometime later, I once asked my mom, “Why were you so scared of a simple cataract operation when you bore up with a mastectomy so stoically?” She told me, “I have to see, don’t I? Can’t afford to lose my sight!”
Well, hopefully she and her doctor angels with a stethoscope are enjoying the sights from above.
Featured Image Credit: Cast Aluminum Doctor with Stethoscope (New Kensington, PA). Image by takomabibelot (Flickr.com under Creative Commons license)