Dreamer #5: The doctor on a mission – Rajas Deshpande

How can we change the world?

This was the topic of discussion amongst Rajas and his friends in 1987. They were just 17 years old.

rajas first picThis wasn’t for a high school debate, but a serious discussion on what path they should choose for their future. Irrespective of the options available, the underlying aim stayed the same – to make the world a better place. “My parents and teachers always imbibed in me the principle of ‘Do good and be good’. I do my best to live by this philosophy.”

At that age, however, Rajas had no clue that this very philosophy was about to be tested in a way that he had never imagined.

The Career decision

Like most parents, Rajas’s parents also had ambitions for their child – they wanted him to either become an IAS officer or a doctor. He decided to go with the latter. “I don’t even remember a conscious decision to become a doctor. I went as per my father’s wishes – but personally, I had only one aim – to be and do something great. I wanted to leave behind a legacy.”

Once Rajas made his choice, he decided to excel at it. He worked extremely hard, studied long hours, and made it through to a medical college in Aurangabad entirely on merit.

The harsh reality

As Rajas started on his journey to becoming a doctor, he began to get a sense of what the real world was like as far as the medical field was concerned. He began to learn about the illusions that society had about doctors & doctors had about themselves and was completely shocked to discover the truth. “As many doctors became better, they would slowly start focussing on patients who were more high-profile and of a higher financial rank.” This trend disturbed Rajas. He made a decision right then and there – to never change the quality of his work based on the financial position of a patient. “I realised that the need of the hour wasn’t just a cure for cancer or aids. As far as India was concerned, the answer was in our service to the poor and illiterate. We need good doctors who would sympathetically be with the patient regardless of their status.”

Moving forward with a sense of clarity, he realised the path he must walk would require him to put in more effort than most other people. He would spend several nights in the casualty ward attending to patients who didn’t have anyone from their families to look after them. “I would get them food, water and medicines. This was by far my most pleasurable time in college. I would be with the patients till their relatives arrived.” The hidden benefit? Spending several nights in the ward gave him a huge academic edge. “These experiences formed my dreams – I wanted to provide for the poor and the illiterate with what I do. My time with these patients made me a better doctor – but more than that, it made me a better human being.”

Before he completed his internship, he had what was a turning point in his life and one of his worst experiences in the field at the same time. He led a team of doctors to the devastation of the Killari earthquake – 10,000 people died and 30,000 were injured in this horrific incident. “None of us could digest this. There were dead bodies everywhere. Those who were alive did not even have the energy left to grieve for their family members. We would feel guilty for even eating food. Slowly, we realised that in order to help others in a better fashion, we had to have the energy to do so. That’s how I manage with the pain I see around me even today – I understand that I need to take care of myself and my mind to help others.”

rajas2One of the highlights of this period, however, was when he had a chance to connect with Dr. Stephen Hawking. “He was gracious to answer my questions patiently. Of course, I had to touch his feet!”

 

The runaway bride

In his journey of connecting with the patients and being with them, Rajas experienced another form of connection – he fell in love. “I met a girl while I was completing my MBBS. She was posted with me during my internship. We decided that we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together, so I took the next obvious step – I went to speak to her parents about us getting married after my post graduation.”

Unfortunately, things did not turn out as planned. Her father strongly objected to this as they belonged to different communities – he even went on to insult and threaten Rajas. Over time, the girl’s father tried to forcefully get her married to someone of his choice. This eventually led her to run away from home, so she could be with Rajas. “I was young, and felt very heroic and rebellious. When I heard about this, I immediately called my friends and we got married in the nearest temple”. To ward off any interference from her parents, they decided to have a child early on – they were just 24 , and Rajas had yet to complete his studies.

It was only years later that he would regret the decision of getting married in such haste.

Professional ups, Personal downs

As Rajas completed his MBBS and MD, he decided to pursue neurology as his field of super-specialisation. As this field was under-developed in India and involved the complexity of the brain, it allured him like no other specialty. He went on to specialise in DM Neurology, ranking first in Maharashtra. As far as India was concerned, this was the end of the road in terms of the highest form of specialisation. Rajas, however, wasn’t satisfied. “I had one clear dream to tick off. I wanted to reach the peak of academic excellence and stand amongst the best in this field”.

He would go on to complete the next level of specialisation in Canada, and pursue two more specialisations, reaching the highest point the academic world could offer – all of this through merit and getting a fellowship, with a family to look after. Unfortunately, things on the personal front were not looking up – his marriage was in troubled waters. “I had to take my wife and kids with me to Canada under the threat that she would leave me. I had no money and had to work in two jobs as well as study at the same time. It was only later that I realised that my wife couldn’t adjust as she was quite attached to her parents. We had made our decision to get married in a hurry.” After the birth of their second child, things seemed to get worse for the couple. “We would get into terrible quarrels that would lead to threats. This was a dangerous situation to be in a foreign country.” Under severe pressure, he begged people to give his wife a job so that she could continue with her career.

Even with the emotional tirades, Rajas went on to pursue, and accomplish another dream – to write in an academic book of international repute. He kept his focus on his career and, over time, was invited to contribute chapters as a co-author in 2 books related to neurology that were distributed all over the world. Despite all his best efforts, however, the situation with his marriage did not improve.

The journey back home

Once he completed his education, he decided to return to India. “My mentor, Dr. Sorab K. Bhabha, had passed away due to ALS while I was completing my fellowship in Canada. He always wanted me to return to India and contribute towards the country.” Driven by the wishes of his late mentor and his own patriotic fervour, Rajas decided to let go of all his opportunities in Canada and move back to India. “I had another big dream in mind – I wanted to start a hospital that would provide free treatment to all patients with a tough financial background. This required me to return home.”

rajas1Given that he was already qualified in the highest possible manner in his field, and that he had participated in 17 clinical trials at this point, he moved between medical centres in India before being offered the position of director of neurology in a prominent corporate hospital situated in Pune.

As for his personal life? “I did everything I could to find a job for my wife in the hospital I worked with as she wanted to work. I finally was able to help land her one as a paediatrician.” Things were beginning to look great – Rajas was back in India with his family and serving at a prominent position in a leading hospital. He had no idea that he was just a month away from the darkest period of his life.

Painful times

Rajas found himself staring at a paper that confirmed his worst fears – A week after his wife received her first salary, he was handed a divorce notice. “I felt extremely deceived. I realised that I had been living a lie for several years.” To top it off, the notice contained several elements defaming Rajas to make the process a simpler matter – some even bordering on human rights violations. “We had our fair share of disagreements as couples do and I have made my share of mistakes, I agree; but a majority of what was on paper was completely false. My own parents would hit me if I ever did some of what was mentioned!” He realised what this meant – his name and career could be destroyed before he would even know it. “It felt like death and I was shattered”.

As the divorce proceedings were underway in court, his professional life was also about to nosedive. The corporate hospital he was working with wanted him to take part in what is commonly known with large medical facilities– the cut-practice. “Many corporate hospitals have ‘targets’ set. In other words, doctors and hospitals would get a ‘cut’ from recommendations they made for tests the patient must undergo. Even when it wasn’t required, patients would be sent for X-rays, ECGs etc.” When the hospital told Rajas that he would have to partake in this, he outright refused. This went against everything that he believed in. “I had already made my decision in my MBBS days – I would serve everyone, and treat those patients, who couldn’t afford treatment, for free. Money was a secondary concern.”

His sense of righteousness did not appeal to the hospital’s policies. Soon after, he was told that his services would no longer be required. In short, he was fired. “I was completely shocked. In my personal life, I was going through a divorce. Now, here I was, without a job or a source of income. I had just been thrown out for doing the right thing.”

As he began to call all the prominent hospitals in the city, he realised that his name had been black-listed. “I was broken. Here I was, with my resume spanning 16 pages documenting the highest of qualifications – and not one hospital was willing to employ me because of the listing. I had no friends in Pune to help me.” He would spend several days roaming the streets looking for jobs in any specialty medical institution. He was fortunate enough to get the help of a friend and another neurologist, Dr. Anand Alurkar, to bail him out of terrible financial situations.

Meanwhile, the divorce proceedings were coming to a close. In his only stroke of luck, the judge was able to separate the facts from fiction. To the court’s surprise, his wife refused to take on the custody of the children. “Even though I would have fought for my kids, I didn’t have to. Everyone was appalled to hear that she didn’t want the children as the rights to the children are customarily granted to the mother.” After verification of all the facts around the case, the custody was granted to Rajas – his children were just 13 and 7 years old.

rajaskidsWhile this in itself was a moment of joy, the reality of it was dawning on him – he had no job, no money, no friends in the city and two children to take care of. “I visited several big doctors in India for a job. They would simply flip through my resume and ask me questions like ‘how much money can you make for us? How many patients’ admissions can you guarantee?’”. For Rajas, this was simply unacceptable even in his current situation. He continued to support his family by living off on loans and credit. “I was beginning to regret returning to India. At that point, it felt like the worst decision of my life.”

One day, he went to meet a senior neurologist in Pune, Dr. Divate, to seek help. Instead, he completely broke down in front of the doctor and poured his heart out. He wanted to get out of the country as soon as possible and didn’t know what else to do. “I remember him telling me, ‘Give it one more chance. Don’t look for only work that you want to do. Start doing something. Take on anything and make your way back!’” These words served as a point of encouragement for Rajas – he decided to give it one more year.

As time went on, he realised that the only way to make it back in the field was to start from scratch. Rajas started taking on odd jobs at any clinic or hospital – at times he would shuttle between 14 hospitals in one day just to earn enough for his family. Fighting his way through, his expertise was finally noticed. After a year of being without a job coupled with another year of struggle, he was finally offered the position of ‘Director – Neurology’ in a reputed medical set-up in the city. Today, he serves patients from across 26 countries, teaches in various institutions, writes articles for neurology patients and provides free medical advice through his online page which holds 28,000 members.

Ever since then, there has been no turning back for Rajas; he has been chasing and living his dreams in every way possible.

From dreams to reality

Many of Rajas’s primary missions in life have been influenced by his own experiences. “Ever since my MBBS days, I had already decided that I would do everything I can to ensure that everyone gets the treatment they deserve regardless of their financial situation.” Today, he provides free consultations on Thursdays and other days as well, if required. He has also tied up with pharmacies to provide free medicines to patients in need and to an orphanage in the city (he co-ordinates a donation drive for this orphanage and ensures that at least Rs.3 lakh every year is contributed to the cause). Adding on to that, he’s convinced his medical set-up to provide free treatment to certain patients.

rajasstudents2One of his biggest dreams, however, is for the future doctors of India. “I have been teaching in the medical field since 1997. I can say this with absolute certainty; hundreds of my students around the world practice in this profession ethically. I make it a point to share the pain that a patient goes through in trusting the doctor – this should not be taken advantage of.” He continues to spread the message in his teachings and is now a strong advocate across the country for ethical practices. “This may not be a tangible achievement, like money – but for me, this is clearly one of my biggest professional achievements.” He’s also been responsible for pushing the State government to provide better facilities for resident and student doctors.

His dream of creating the hospital for the underprivileged is still a part of his plans – he intends to pursue that path two to three years from now, and wishes to see it to fruition.

In my conversation with him, I realised that Rajas has several achievements to be proud of – an honourable mission of service, his ranking in all his academic pursuits, position in the field of neurology, contribution in books that have been distributed across the world… what is the one achievement he’s most proud of?

rajas7“I have two, and they are related. My biggest achievement is not professional, but personal; I learnt to be a mother. To look after my children in the face of all the difficulties and a growing career was a humbling experience. My second achievement is me being proof that it IS possible to build a highly successful career along with looking after and being with your family. You CAN do both if you’re willing to make the sacrifices needed.”

“The 17-year old me believed in changing the world. I still follow that thought with the same intensity, but as I grew up I realised that it wasn’t the world that had to change. It was ME that needed to change FOR the world. So I have only two thoughts to share – One, you do NOT have a choice to give up on your dreams. Do not give up on your stand for your life. Two, never underestimate your achievements because you don’t see the reward. Medals, salaries, bonuses – all of these can cloud your mind and make you believe that they are the indications of an achiever. Be proud of what you choose to do – the achievement is in your work.”
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If you liked the post, track the upcoming dreamers by liking our Facebook Page and following the Twitter handleDr. Rajas Deshpande shares information, articles and provides free medical advice here.

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