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Home Articles Nostalgia Berlin to Bangalore to Baltimore

Berlin to Bangalore to Baltimore

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As I prepare to embark on what seems to me the most challenging part of my life thus far, I look back on the road that has brought me here - three continents, five countries, friendships made and unmade, and a single driving purpose.....
I remember the morning breaks in school. Milk bottles were brought to our classrooms at 10:30 am every day. I didn't much care for the taste of milk, but knew that it was good for me. I remember piercing the aluminium foil bottle-tops with my straw and breathing through my mouth while drinking the milk, so that I wouldn't taste it. I remember hating Friday afternoons because of the folk dancing sessions. Every week, these dancing sessions were held in a huge gymnasium in school. Each student had to choose his or her partner - and no-one ever chose me. I was the only Indian girl in my class - the only person with brown skin.

I remember riding on the school bus every morning, past Spandau Prison where Rudolph Hess, the last remaining major Nazi war criminal was serving his life sentence. My sister and I were the only Indians attending the British school in Berlin for a long time. Later, another Indian boy joined us - his father was the Indian ambassador to East Germany at the time, and his name was Sanjay Doddamani. He lived in East Berlin and had to cross the border at Checkpoint Charlie every day to attend our school in the West. Little did I know that several years later, he would become my senior in medical college! The Berlin wall came down about 6 months after I left that city in 1989. The event seemed to herald a new era in my life. Having studied in schools in England, Italy and Germany, I was finally returning to India to complete high school!

1 liked my school in Rome. I had class-mates from different countries across the globe: Israel, Sweden, Turkey, Egypt, Iran... I learned some Italian and made a lot of friends. I remember the lunch breaks especially, since I loved Italian food. Different forms of pasta, olives, mozarella cheese, lasagna and spaghetti bolognese were served to us at noon each day. I remember Ismath Khaleeli - the other Indian girl in my class - who was the daughter of the Indian ambassador to Rome. Several years later, while studying medicine in Bangalore, I read in the newspapers about a rather gruesome incident involving her family: Ismath's mother had been buried alive by a person greedy for the family's wealth - a swami who later admitted to the heinous crime and led the police to the crime scene (the Khaleelis' own backyard near Richmond Circle in Bangalore).

Living in a boarding school founded by J. Krishnamurthy was an interesting experience. These were the transition months I was returning to India and wanted to learn how to live the Indian way. I remember having to get up at 5:30 am every weekday to do yoga while watching the sun rise. I remember sitting cross-legged while learning how to play the mridangam. I remember 'asthachal' in the evenings - meditating while watching the sun set. Living on a strictly vegetarian diet was difficult after having lived for years in Europe!
I loved the art classes in Rishi Valley School. We used to paint water-colours in small groups. One of my painting companions was Siddhartha Das; several years later, I saw his sister, N andita Das, starring in Deepa Mehta's films 'Earth' and 'Fire'. Rishi Valley was a fascinating place to be...1 met a lot of children whose parents contributed to India in different ways... Kapil Sharma, son of Rakesh Sharma - the first Indian astronaut in space; Firoze Varun Gandhi, son of Maneka Gandhi, and others. . .

The final two years of school. I began to focus on the reason I had returned to India in the first place: getting into medical college and pursuing my medical education (St. John's Medical College). I remember how the first couple of years seemed to fly by; the smell of formalin in the Anatomy dissection rooms, the frog dissections in the Physiology laboratories. I remember Autumn Muse, the recreation room parties    for the first time in years I didn't have to worry about not having a dance partner! Just before starting 2nd MBBS, I ruptured my Achilles tendon. Attending clinics for the first time was quite thrilling - having to wear a full-length cast for eight whole weeks was not. I remember the amused expressions on patients' faces as I approached them on my crutches in an attempt to master the art of history-taking. During those days, I had to rely on my classmates to wheel me back to the college building for lectures after morning clinics. I remember one classmate reluctantly pushing my wheel-chair out of the hospital, complaining to me that if he was seen by anyone he knew, he would hear no end of it, and that the news would probably even reach his mother in Trivandrum. (So much for selfless camaraderie!)

I remember the food in the canteen: fish-fry, curd-rice and lime pickle (my all-time favorite meal), sweet tea served in thimble-sized aluminium 'tumblers' , and 'Pongal' served only on Fridays. I remember the hostel mess - epicenter of all Johnite gossip - where boys and girls had separate entrances, and where comments such as the following were often overheard: "Macha, check out her walk..."

I remember the library, cool and dark, where I spent countless hours waging (and losing) battles against that all-time enemy of medical students: sleep.
Unfortunately I have rather grim memories ofNirmala Block, which seemed to me rather like a prison in which I had nothing in common with the other inmates.

I remember the wards in the hospital, each with their own distinctive smells. The year I enjoyed most in St.John's was my internship year. I finally felt a purpose in living - I was finally discovering what it meant to be a doctor. Whether it was filling in lab requisition forms or carrying urine samples to the pathology laboratory, changing dressings or arranging for blood from the blood bank, I was actually doing things that would in some way benefit a patient - either directly or indirectly. After all, that was what being a doctor was about. . . .and internship was part of the learning process.
I learned how to suture and to tie surgical knots for the very first time. I found immense fulfillment in being able to use my hands and in having a direct and tangible involvement in the healing process. It was during internship that I began to feel strongly that Surgery was my calling....

(Johns Hopkins Hospital)
Here I am in Baltimore - birthplace of Edgar Allan' Poe right across the street from the number one hospital in the.
U.S.A. The original faculty of this institution included such pioneers of modern medicine as William Halsted (Surgery) and William Osler (Internal Medicine). This is the institution where rubber gloves were worn for the first time during surgical procedures, where the value of silk as a suture material was first recognized, where renal dialysis was first conceptualized, where vitamin D and heparin were discovered, where the three different types of polio virus were identified, where CPR was developed and the first 'blue-baby' operation performed (by doctors Blalock and Taussig), opening the way to modern heart surgery. This is the birthplace of numerous specialities: Neurosurgery, Urology, Endocrinology and Pediatrics    the list goes on. If anyone had told me in medical college that I would begin my surgical residency training at Johns Hopkins Hospital, I would have laughed and then perhaps day dreamed about it. Well, I don't have to dream anymore.

'Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp... or what's a heaven for?' -Robert Browning

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