Units of love

In her shortlisted essay for the 2017 John Henahan Writing Prize, 
Dr Pallavi Singh says commercial gain must be balanced 
with the joy of helping others

Pallavi Singh

Posted: Monday, July 3, 2017

There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else, there is a bevy of credit cards to choose from! Growing up in a middle class family in a developing country, like India, I can safely say that Indian children are taught to work hard, earn a degree and get a job at their earliest opportunity. Survival of the fittest plays out in its most severe form. And medicine is no exception.

The medical profession exacts its sacrifice in the form of the youth of budding doctors. So at the age of 25, while most of our peers are already working with enviable salaries, we still have a long way to go before the promised land of prosperity arrives. The average management professional earns more than the average doctor in India ( Not the best of incentives I’d say, definitely not at the cost of the sheer number of years and toil demanded.

When I started out as a resident at Dr. Rajendra Prasad Centre for Ophthalmic Sciences, the apex institute of ophthalmology in India, I was on cloud nine. I knew I could serve needy people. It was, at the same time, a bonus to receive training that would enable me to succeed commercially.

During my first year of residency though, two things happened. The first was getting enamoured with the natural glamour that came with ophthalmology. The prospect of high-end refractive surgeries and oculoplastic procedures, coupled with the promise of a lavish lifestyle, was lucrative enough. And why not, I reasoned with myself. After years of hard work and devotion, I summarily deserved to want the best for myself.

The second thing, also the sinister one, to happen to me was a gradual disenchantment with the emotion involved in treating patients. In the past few years, incidents of violence against doctors had risen in India. Almost every week, there was news about doctors being harassed and assaulted while performing their duty.
This, coupled with an ordinary income for the Indian doctor, paved way for my growing discontent. Hence, slowly but steadily, I felt that commercial interest was of paramount importance to me. Having almost been burnt out, I continued my training, with a cold detachment.

Months passed by, and one day, in my second year of residency, an old man walked into my outpatient clinic with a little girl. He had no slippers on and his clothes were visibly old and torn. The little girl, about six or seven years old, was bilaterally blind, one eye was phthisical and the other had a choroidal coloboma with a fresh retinal detachment. On further enquiry, the man told me that they had come from more than 700 miles away.

I was both awed and saddened at his persistence for his granddaughter’s treatment. Awed, quite obviously, saddened, because her prognosis was poor, and moreover, it was nearly impossible to get an early date for surgery due to the long waiting period. Nevertheless, with some running around and help from our social worker, and a most solid stroke of luck, the little girl got admitted the very same day.

The next day, I assisted the surgery, which went off well, and just prayed 
for a good outcome. To my utter delight, when I went to the ward the following day, the child walked up to the examination room without any help. She had gained some functional vision. What was more heartening to see was the delight on the old man’s face. His eyes were brimming with tears of gratitude. I was relieved, and even filled with a fleeting sense of purpose!

More months passed, and the memory faded, when one day in a hot and muggy summer, the same man with the little girl walked into my clinic again. At first, I could not recognise the pair, but the man pointed at me from a distance, and the child ran towards me, squealing ‘Didi!’ (sister) and hugged me. She handed me a beautiful handmade greeting card. I was taken aback for a second, but soon recollected who she was.

Her grandfather then walked up to me, a broad grin lighting up the wrinkles on his face, and satisfaction in his eyes. The girl was now completely self-reliant and was even attending school. I felt a surge of happiness and warmth that I had not felt in a long, long time and though I hate to admit it, in that moment I did have my epiphany.
I realised that even though the hours were long, the work back-breaking, and the emoluments oft meagre, we as physicians were capable of giving joy at a very primal level, to both patients and ourselves, when things fell into place. And this joy was irreplaceable, and most definitely could not be bought.

Our profession, by its inherent nature, demands service above self, but also promises contentment and actualisation like no other profession or job can. So even though it is a necessity to secure oneself financially, it should not be done at the cost of helping others and being compassionate.

Hence, when it comes to making a call on the importance of commercial interest in our lives, I would just like to quote one of my favourite singers, Zoë Johnston.
“Treasure is measured in units of love.”

Dr Pallavi Singh is a Junior Resident at the Dr. R P Centre for Ophthalmic Sciences, AIIMS, New Delhi, India