Growing up in an immigrant household, I’m always surprised by the unimaginable stories my relatives nonchalantly slip into conversation, seemingly unaware of how incredible their journeys are. Since many of my family members are doctors, I anticipated hearing more about their specific journeys once I made the decision to pursue medicine. However, I avoided conversations about medicine since they all diverged back to the question, “Have you heard back from any schools yet?”, exacerbating an already stressful application process. Now, as a second-year medical student, I have transitioned beyond that question. I am able to explore further into their lives as doctors.
During Thanksgiving break, I went on a hike with my aunt, whose father and husband are both doctors, and we discussed all of my concerns about residency. I was worried about potentially entering a male-dominated field and feared the hurdles of being an outsider. She told me her dad likely faced similar fears when he immigrated to the United States from India in the early 1960s as a young doctor continuing his medical training in Otolaryngology. As a child, my knowledge of my great uncle didn’t extend beyond knowing that he was a doctor and that he was the first person to immigrate to the U.S from my dad’s side of the family. I didn’t really think much more about it. However, after this conversation with my aunt and maybe having the word “otolaryngology” in my vocabulary now, I was full of questions and decided to speak with my great uncle to uncover some buried family stories.
What made you decide to continue your medical training in the U.S?
One of the reasons I came to St. Louis was because of the Korean War. During the Korean War, a lot of soldiers were injured, and at that time, around 1961, the American Medical Association had built a lot of new hospitals to take care of veterans. They didn’t have enough doctors to fill up the hospitals and the only country in the world that had a lot of English-speaking doctors was India because of the British influence. I saw an advertisement in the newspaper from the American Medical Association that said if you pass their exam and have an M.D you can come work in America. At that time, I didn’t know anything about America. Indians mostly went to Great Britain to get their post-graduate education.
I had just graduated from Mysore Medical College, gotten married, had my first child, and was working as a pharmacology professor at Mysore medical college and intern at Victoria Hospital in Bangalore. I went to America because I passed the exam that was advertised in the newspaper. Me and twenty-seven other colleagues of mine passed and we all took the same flight to the U.S in 1963. Seven of us were women and the rest were men. I came to St. Louis but we all went to different places in the U.S that had built new hospitals for veterans. We could stay in the U.S if we worked at one of those hospitals but had to go back to India every two years and come back.
What made you interested in ENT and was it challenging pursuing ENT in the U.S?
Earlier in my training I met a man named Dr. Hiranya in Mysore who had trained at the Mayo Clinic and started a free clinic in India. He was looking to hire an ENT resident and they called me to come work with him at Victoria Hospital in Bangalore. I started doing tonsillectomies, cleft lip surgeries, and other ENT procedures with him and that was when I decided I wanted to do ENT.
After my two years working at a Veteran’s Hospital in the U.S, I was supposed to go back to India. I had applied to an ENT residency, but no one had gotten back to me. In the meantime, I went to work in a new Catholic hospital called Kirkwood Hospital in St. Louis but was ready to go back to do an ENT residency in India. The sisters at Kirkwood were very friendly and encouraging. One Friday evening, the sisters were all hysterically crying. I asked them what was wrong and they said there was a baby who had a tonsillectomy and was uncontrollably bleeding, but the ENT doctor at Kirkwood, Joseph West, was unavailable because he had gone to play golf. I told them I could fix it. They responded and said “How? You just came from India?” The anesthesiologists were waiting there and the kid’s whole family was waiting and crying. I told the anesthesiologist that I can stop the bleeding and the anesthesiologist responded, “how can you man, you’re from India.” I told him I had performed tonsillectomies in India and you just have to get a cotton ball with tannic acid and it will stop the bleeding. Dr. West couldn’t come back until 6 P.M so I went ahead and administered the tannic acid and it stopped the bleeding. When Dr. West came back, the sisters were happily laughing and told him about how I stopped the bleeding and saved the kid’s life.
Dr. West asked me what I had planned to do next and I told him I was going back to India the next morning. He said don’t go back until I come back Monday and came back Monday with a paper for me to sign. He was the chief of a residency program at Homer G. Phillips hospital (affiliated with the Washington University of St. Louis) and had gotten me an ENT residency position. I came back and told Saraswathi (my wife) and we stayed.
What were your biggest challenges during residency?
We just worked a lot and slept many nights in the hospitals. Every weekend I would also go and work at the smaller local hospitals and we would make $24 if we worked 24-hour shifts, that was good money back then. Flights back to India were expensive so I would take the extra weekend shifts.
What was it like being an immigrant resident? Were you treated differently from your colleagues?
No, no, no, actually the colleagues were very happy and worked well with us. Maybe a little bit but not as much as we thought. The only thing was that they would have issues understanding our English which I think still happens today.
What about patients? Did they treat you any differently?
No no, again besides the language there were never any issues. I spoke more of a British influenced English compared to American English.
Did you have friends in residency?
I had a lot of friends. At the hospital I worked at, most of my colleagues and patients were African Americans and during this time, Martin Luther King Jr. had a big influence on the country, and we connected on him being influenced by Mahatma Gandhi.
That leads me into my next question. Medicine is largely affected by what happens outside of the hospital. You were a resident in the heart of the civil rights movement, how did that impact your training and move to America?
Race riots were ongoing and I was a resident at Homer G. Phillips Hospital which was the only hospital for African Americans in St. Louis. There was one night where I was the On-call resident and there was some sort of riot where Clyde X, a leader of Malcom X’s NOI group was shot. They had shot him in the temple and when I went to tend to him, the journalists immediately came and took a photo. Before I got up in the morning, I was on the headlines of the newspaper. All the nurses and doctors from my hospital told me not to go outside or drive my car anywhere. See, since I had saved his life, they told me whoever shot him might come for me and my family. Here I was with a wife and two young kids. I didn’t know what to do and stayed in my apartment for three full days.
In my great uncle’s last response, he mentioned his family. This story would be missing a vital component if we didn’t hear from my great aunt.
Aunty, what were your impressions of the U.S before coming? Did you know about the political climate and the ongoing civil rights movement? How did you adapt?
Noooo, I didn’t know anything and was so scared. I was 21 and just followed uncle. I also wasn’t very educated and came from a very protected family. I had never slept anywhere other than my family’s house. I had to learn everything including speaking English…speaking English is really hard. The apartment complex we stayed in was all residents and their families so I had friends who were also married to residents. There was one lady who was so nice and used to take me shopping and to all the sales. It was also so hard to get Indian food (dal etc.). Back then, we used to write to and send money to a store in New York and the guy would send us whatever Indian cooking ingredients he had on hand.
Do you have any memorable firsts or funny stories?
When we moved from the resident’s complex to a proper apartment, uncle was on call one night and an older lady came and knocked on my door. I saw her from the hole in my door and she was yelling “Go back to your own country, why are you here” and more things along those lines. I was so scared and couldn’t sleep all night. The weird thing was that she was ok the next day, she must’ve been drunk or something. She was a really big lady….otherwise I would’ve yelled back at her to go back to her apartment.