THEY'RE among some of the busiest physicians at the Eric Williams Medical Sciences Complex. He's an anaesthesiologist and professor of anaesthesia and critical care medicine at the University of the West Indies' Faculty of Medical Sciences.
His wife is a surgeon.
Yet on afternoons Prof Hariharan Seetharaman makes time to play a game of cricket with his son and reads bedtime stories to his children before tucking them to bed at night and his wife, Dr Jagathi Gora makes hom-cooked meals every day and entertains her children's friends when they visit at home.
When the couple agreed to sit down for an interview, we met in Seetharaman's office at EWMSC where they talked about their lives and careers and about the factors which motivated them to leave their family and friends in India to work in Trinidad and Tobago's public health system. This couple has a wealth of knowledge and experience, yet they have chosen to forfeit lucrative jobs in private practice, in favour of the public health sector. But more about that later.
On a round table in the professor's office, a red and black lunch bag sits on the far end—a reminder that as hectic as the day gets, he can't forget to have his lunch. His office is quiet, the phones aren't ringing off the hook but the physicians know that beyond this room the hospital is running at a feverish pace. Patients are being admitted, others discharged, some are lying in operating theatres, their lives in the balance. Others are either recovering on wards or coming to terms with the reality that they are terminally ill.
In a pressure-filled environment where doctors and nurses work with limited resources, that all-important element—communication—is often sacrificed. But in the hospital setting maintaining a healthy patient-physician relationship and a good bedside manner is paramount, they stress. That one-on-one connection with patients, the ability to empathise with and include them in the decison-making process should never be underestimated, says Seetharaman. Additonally there is enough evidence to suggest that lawsuits against health care workers are less frequent when there was enough communication between physician and patient, he says.
During his inaugural lecture at the University of the West Indies in April, he told an audience of medical students and doctors that medical professionals have lost the human touch in medicine and encouraged doctors to establish a good rapport with patients.
Interacting with patients and their relatives is not something you learn in classrooms or in textbooks, but on the wards, says his wife. Spending a few minutes to communicate with patients, understand their emotions and interact with them can make a major difference, she says.
Gora is known for her ability to effectively communicate with patients. One such patient who is being treated for colon cancer related to Express Woman how Gora took a special interest in her and briefed her before and after she performed surgery.
"When you have been in a situation like mine, you're scared, you're not sure what's happening. But she (Gora) let me know what had to be done and in the end she was always positive with me. When I spoke with her, she actually listened to me, and was kind and caring. In difficult times, that's what a patient needs," she said.
Being entrusted with the life of another brings one of the most rewarding feelings that can be derived from a career in medicine, say the couple. After graduating from medical school, Seetharaman worked in a district hospital in India for six years. To know that he along with doctors saved the lives of patients with tuberculosis meningitis despite India's grossly underfunded public health system and limited resouces, thrilled him.
"I try to tell my students to remain as humane as possible because the moment the students become doctors their attitude changes and they may think more of themselves. But when you see someone who is really sick and cannot afford to have the procedure done in any other place and we have the opportunity to save his life in the public health system, it is extremely gratifying," says Seetharaman.
Seetharaman is originally from Tamil Nadu and came from a family of engineers and lawyers, Gora is from Andhra Pradesh and was inspired by her father, also a doctor, to get into medicine. Seetharaman dropped out of engineering school and enrolled in medical school. Years later, the pair met as postgraduate students, learnt each other's dialects and realised they had similar ideas and interests and eventually got married.
At the time when they were expecting their first child—a girl—Seetharaman received an invitation from an associate professor to go to Barbados. But their familes were apprehensive; no one knew where Barbados was. The couple flipped through the encyclopaedia and found the island—a dot compared to the vast country they called home. Almost sure that they would not have gotten the vegetarian food that they were accustomed to, Seetharaman spent 25,000 rupees to bring dried vegetarian goods into the island. Imagine their surprise when on their arrival they encountered many Indian professionals working in Barbados and an abundance of vegetarian food.
Seetharaman comes from a conservative orthodox Hindu background but he wanted to understand the culture and customs of Barbados, so he donned a costume and indulged in crop-over.
During his time in Barbados he made on-and-off visits to Trinidad for research. Soon a position for a lecturer with the University of the West Indies became available. They moved to Trinidad. Everything about this country amused the family, but there was one thing that fascinated Seetharaman from the start—pan. He is proficient in string and percussion instruments and would stop and marvel at how such a sweet sound could come out of a steel drum. Not long after they arrived in Trinidad, he bought a pan and taught himself how to play. Had he not been a doctor, he would have chosen a career in music, he says.
As accomplished physicians who have a combined 36 years of experience, Seetharaman and Gora are content to let their children choose their own careers. So what if his son loves pan and wants to make music his life and career?
"That's no problem. I'm very open-minded," he says. "This myth that only a certain type of people must become doctors—I don't subscribe to that. Everybody has their own identity and they're intellectuals and geniuses in their own way. A pan player expresses his genius in that pan. I never disregard or underestimate any profession," he says.
Almost in the same breath, Seetharaman admitted that he's trying to dissuade his children from a career in medicine and wants them to weigh carefully the pros and cons that come with such a a stressful career.
Because the couple believe in gender equality they gave their 12-year-old daughter Dwithi Hariharan, her father's first name as a surname while their son Nishwal Gora, 10, shares his mother's surname.
What is most intriguing about the couple is that they have sworn off private practice although they are both qualified and eligible and would have earned more money.
"We are content and satisfied with what we have. With our working schedules, one of us will always be available for our children. If we work in private hospitals, we wouldn't have time for that, sure we will make more money but our children will be missing us and then one morning they will say "you weren't there for us when we were growing up", said Seetharaman.
While some physicians are able to strike a balance and give ample service to the public health sector, because there is more money to be made in private practice, many prioritise private practice over public health care, he says.
"It is very difficult in a small island like this to dichotomise public and private practice because you don't have many resources, we still rely on people who come from abroad. If everyone decides to do private practice, the public health sector will collapse," he adds.
If at home with their children is where their hearts lie, then the enthusiasm and drive they have for their jobs lies in the public health sector. Seetharaman is now Deputy Dean of Graduate Studies and Research at UWI and Director of Operating Theatres at EWMSC.
Their families are eager for them to return to India. Maybe that possibility lies in their future. But at the moment, as long as they can work to improve the public health system here in Trinidad and their children are happy, then they too are happy.