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Dr. Jayanta Kumar Das: A heart surgeon who is truly a doctor from the heart

Medicine Mechanised Vs Humanised: An Unconventional Doctor And The Never Dying Human Spirit To Make His Life’s Work About Reducing Human Suffering At The Cost Of His Own.

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31 May '24
13 min read


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There are doctors, there is Doctor Jayanta Kumar Das and then there is the world of medicine.

Given the great earning potential of technical areas such as engineering and medicine, the term "Cardio Thoracic Surgeon" is likely to generate ideas of significant riches, particularly after decades of work.

Dr. Jayanta Kumar Das has excelled as a cardio-thoracic surgeon for over three decades, led as an activist in the Assam Movement and served as executive editor and editor of the Journal of the Association of Surgeons of Assam

He has received awards such as the Best Poster Paper Award in 1998, and taught multiple medical generations. Interestingly, he owns all medical degrees in India (MBBS, MS, and MCh). 

Yet, despite his successes, he lives a simple lifestyle without material possessions.

Dr. Das at one of his visiting clinics at the village. Source: Personal Archives

Every morning, followed by his coffee, as he gets ready for the rest of his day, he seems to keep his phone oddly close at every moment, a lot like the younger generations today. 

Dr. Das does not check any social media or WhatsApp messages, but he answers every single call that he gets, irrespective of what time it is during the day or night. 

He believes that to be a good doctor, one has to be a good human being first. A value he learnt in his early days and one that he has carried with him for over three decades. Something that has taken him closer to his patients and farther from his conventional peers 

An illustrated portrait mug gifted to Dr. Das by one of his patients. Source: Personal archives

He seems to be quite popular among his patients too. As recounted fondly by his wife and daughter, there are innumerable instances of people sending him homemade pickles and clothes when his daughter was a baby etc, with one of the patients even conducting namaz for the doctor’s well being, a couple of times and another one of the patients calling him every day to offer a free supply of chicken and poultry. 

Once dressed, he finishes his only meal for the day and at 65, walks out in the blurring sunlight for the rest of his day as a travelling doctor at his village in Assam. 

Things look harsh for the old man when seen from a distance.

But one careful look at him, and one would see a peculiarly serene man who seems to be fully content with his life.

However, that is not the only peculiar thing about Dr. Das, the man also seems to have one of the most beautiful handwritings on his prescriptions, much contrary to the infamous doctors’ scrawl. 

So much, that one of his patients has even framed one of the prescriptions he had written for them and hung it as wall decor in their living room. 

A sample copy of a prescription written by Dr. Das. Source: Personal Archives

Although he now works in a humble village in Assam, he has also had corporate experience as a doctor.

To discover the story behind the same, I had the pleasure of having a chat with the man himself. 

At the end of his workday, over another cup of his dearest coffee, we get chatting:

If you had a platform to talk about something today, what would you like to talk about the most?

I have been in the medical field for a long time, nearly three decades and have seen the misery of people for as long as I have observed. It's everywhere -  In the hospitals, in the outpatient departments, inside the operation theatre.

Which is why, I would like to talk particularly about the health, education and social issues that are affecting the life of the common people. Off Course, talking about such factors would ideally also involve talking about politics and policy makers, but that is for a later time. 

But most importantly it all comes down to awareness. 

Education is necessary to attain awareness, which is vital. Regretfully, basic education is not always available in India, particularly in rural areas. Due to a lack of education, people frequently visited healthcare facilities unable to express their issues or pain in an effective manner. We have to come up with creative ways to help and listen to their worries in order to address this. But even with our best efforts, a great deal of anguish and suffering was nevertheless experienced by many people.

You have had a career spanning almost three decades now across the country and corporate, what is work like now in the village and what was work like back then in corporate? What took you there and what brought you back?

Yes, it has been a long time for me as a doctor, and at its core, work is still the same for me now as it was back at corporate. 

I continue to work with the same values I learnt during my student years at Sri Chitra Medical College in Trivandrum. At Sri Chitra we were thought to be good human beings in order to be good doctors. 

There were nurses during my days as a fresher who took me under their wing and taught me what I know today. They have been my beloved teachers too. 

During my training, I was lucky to have several committed professionals provide me with guidance. I was trained by a nurse on a minor surgical procedure, and a ward kid named Madhav showed me how to introduce a tube into the chest. I benefited from Sister Smriti's extensive expertise in Cardio Thoracic Science as she oversaw Cardiac Thoracic Surgery at Guwahati Medical College Hospital. Taking care of me like a child, she went above and beyond the call of duty to make sure my meals were prepared.

In line with that, I have continued to work such that I am able to give at least 45 minutes of my time to every patient that comes in. I spend the time talking to them, listening to them in depth and making sure that they have made us well aware of what they do for a living so that we can prescribe them treatments, medication and tests that they can afford. 

Often there are many other natural ways to treat a patient, through things as simple as taking a daily walk or engaging in mindfulness instead of big pharma drugs that can be done without. 

The little things always matter like taking the time to write a prescription without hurrying, in a handwriting that can be read by them, the pharmacy and any other physician they might need to go to in the future. 

Further, it is resourceful to take the time to write in the patient's complete diagnosis and medical history in the prescription, so that if tomorrow the patient is ill again and has to go to another doctor elsewhere, the time and money that would be otherwise spent in repeating tests to establish the patient's status, can instead, be spent in starting the treatment right away. 

Yes, it is true that most practitioners are able to check 50 or more patients per day by giving a minute or two to each patient that comes in, but the treatment may not be the most holistic and the whole angle of the practice can become more mechanized than humanized. 

A picture of Dr Das from his early years in Bangalore. Source: Personal Archives.

It is also the reason why I made a lot less money than my peers in corporate. Often, also having to contribute from my own end for patients that could not afford anything at all. I think that is why corporate never absorbed me fully and I did not absorb it. I have had the chance to work with pioneers in the likes of Dr. Devi Shetty for instance but there are enough doctors and caregivers in the cities, our villages need us now more than ever before. 

My search for a work set up with the value of human life is what first led me to Bangalore, and it is the same thing that brought me back to my roots eventually. 

I had promised my Guru Professor B. K. Gogoi Sir and, another one of my mentors Padmavibhushan Professor M. S. Vallithan, founder & director of my alma mater Shree Chitra Tirunal Institute of Medical Science and Technology, Trivandrum, that I will come back to Assam one day and I have. 

Yes, the income has gone down even more since I moved here but nothing else has changed, the purpose of working for the people here continues every day I wake up. And I have no regrets about it. 

Did you always want to be a doctor? Where did it all start?

Yes I did. We come from a very humble background in the village, a community of farmers and folklore. 

When I was a child, my mother had fallen very ill one time and as I recollect, there was only one doctor around. Luckily he was able to come down to our home. My mother could not stand up or move. That day I told her to not worry, because one day I will be a doctor myself. I vividly remember, I must be around the age of 7 or 8.

Tell us a little bit about Project Assam, a dream you once had and wanted to realize?

Project Assam was a very dear dream of mine which I had started penning down a few years back. The idea was to make an ecologically sustainable hospital and care facility where everything from the paperweight to the roof tops would be inspired by the flavors of the northeast. 

Primary care facilities ought to be updated to better meet the demands of the general public. By offering free early detection services, these facilities safeguard vulnerable people with diabetes, high blood pressure, and cancer. Death rates are decreased and complications are avoided with early identification. For people found to have these conditions, routine examinations can be arranged. And Project Assam was meant to be a starting point for something like this in Assam.

Cuba's basic healthcare system is free and open to anyone, making it an excellent model. Cuba devotes more than 10% of its GDP to the fields of health and education.

We can prevent diseases and detect and treat ailments early by putting in place a primary healthcare system akin to this one. Because early intervention reduces the need for complex and costly treatments, this method will lower treatment costs in corporate hospitals.

A place where every patient would get as much time as they needed with their doctors and care givers. And where every doctor could take the time to write a patient prescription for their patient.

Reality looks a little different now. But some dreams are always worth having. 

Do you remember any of the memories with your patients across all these years? Tell us about a few stories from your life as a doctor?

I remember every single one of them. 

Sometime in the 90s, there was a young man called Kaushik, he was studying to graduate in Sanskrit and his father was a retired teacher. Kaushik had developed a large tumor in the lungs. They were not from much money, but his father took him across the country from Kolkata to Delhi, doctor to doctor and hospital to hospital. No one was ready to treat Kaushik, either due to fear of complications or the family not being able to pay huge money for it. 

Defeated, his father came back to Guwahati, Assam. I was a resident surgeon back then at Guwahati Medical college. It was not too late for Kaushik, there was a very small chance that it could be fixed. Small chances are as important to be taken sometimes. 

Since I was a junior, I was not officially allowed to take his case hands on. The senior’s were against it. But Kaushik could be saved and my then mentor Professor R. N. Das sir HOD Cardiac Thoracic Surgery of Guwahati Medical College was able to see this and was generous enough to lend me his permission alone and an operation theatre to fight for Koushik’s life. 

Kaushik went on to become a happy father in the future with a lovely family and a good job at a local bank. His father sent frocks for my baby daughter back then and pickles for my family for years. 

But this also fostered a little bit of backlash amongst the seniors of the department, leading me to, for the first time, find my way to Bangalore, where I would go on to work in the corporate and private sectors as a doctor for the next few years. I never forgot my roots though.

There was also a lady called Harija and a gentleman who’s surgeries I distinctly remember as some of the most challenging ones. 

The latter being my own father who sadly passed on and I dearly miss and have immense respect for.

There are countless more in number. Time would not be enough if I were to talk about them all now. Maybe one day I could write a book about it. 

Why do this Dr. Das? Isn't it all too painful for a one-man army?

Why not do this? Isn’t it painful enough already for all those people out there? Why not do this? Isn’t it not all too meaningless otherwise? In life money is important but is not everything.

What is a message that you would like to share with the society and the newer generations of doctors and medical practitioners out there?

My message is very simple, that as a doctor you should have empathy, kindness towards all your patients irrespective of them being poor or rich. You are a healer as a medical professional, so without being a good human being, you cannot be a good doctor. 

Most of the people suffer from a lot of fear, they come to a doctor as their only hope with a lot of faith, they don’t know anything else. So when you talk to them from your heart, half of the disease will go away. 

Dr. Das on his way back from work. Source: Personal Archives

Dr. Das continues to wake up every morning at the strike of 7, sits by himself in his cozy old one-seater couch in his modest little apartment, probably one of the only things to his name when it comes to human defined physical wealth at least, and sips on a curated cup of coffee, before heading out to meet all his patients.

There does not seem to be much sunlight that gets into the house and where he sits every morning, because of its construction plan. 

The windows of his living room seem to be blocked by the shadow cast by other buildings that are taller than his around the neighborhood. A striking allegory to the man’s life itself.

However, there is a smaller window towards the rear of the apartment barely enough to let in the full scope of a view and as Dr. Das puts it, “If one were to lean in a bit, even though a tiny window one could find something beautiful.” 

And he was right, this little window happened to look into the majestic Brahmaputra River glittering in the sunlight with a golden shore and beautiful, lush green fields around it. What a wealthy sight to wake up to indeed.

Disclaimer: This post has been published by Saneki Basundhara from Ayra and has not been created, edited or verified by Ayra
Category:Stories


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Written by Saneki Basundhara

Writer, Assistant Director