When a humane touch helps
"Making a difference to people's lives... that's what medicine is all about," says Dr. Mayil Vahanan Natarajan, Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery, Madras Medical College and Research Institute, who recently received the Dr. B. C. Roy National Award. A profile.
"WINNERS DON'T do different things. They do things differently", reads a poster in the consulting room at the M. N. Orthopaedic Hospital, Kilpauk. The words seem to aptly describe Dr. Mayil Vahanan Natarajan, who dares to do things differently and translate his dreams into reality. Not surprising, for, in his pursuit of excellence he has followed in the footsteps of his father, Dr. M. Natarajan, who was considered an orthopaedist par excellence in his time.
The winning streak perhaps began at the Madras Christian College School where young Mayil Vahanan bagged prizes for proficiency in various subjects. An impressive haul of medals, trophies and certificates as an undergraduate student at the Madras Medical College, a university rank in the D. Ortho examination, and eventually higher studies at the Liverpool University, England, paved the way for a brilliant career as an orthopaedic surgeon. The Dr. MGR Medical University awarded him an honorary doctorate in Orthopaedic Oncology in 2000.
The list of academic degrees and distinctions is awe-inspiring. So is the towering personality of Dr. Mayil Vahanan Natarajan, who has spent around 30 years as a student and teacher at his alma mater, the Madras Medical College and Research Institute. He is, at present, Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at the college. Besides, he also heads the Orthopaedic Oncology Services at the Cancer Institute, Adyar, is a senior consultant at the Apollo Cancer and Speciality Hospital and an honorary consultant at the Military Hospital.
But what truly sets him apart from scores of orthopaedists across the country is the pioneering role he has played in developing Orthopaedic Oncology as a sub-speciality of orthopaedic and cancer surgery. And recognition for the long years of toil recently came in the form of the prestigious Dr. B. C. Roy National Award for the year 2001.
The achievement is of special significance because Dr. Mayil Vahanan has chosen to work in a unique field, which has no commercial appeal, with limited resources and amid numerous constraints. He is the only orthopaedist in this part of the country to perform `limb salvage surgery' to minimise the physical and psychological trauma suffered by osteo sarcoma (bone cancer) patients, instead of resorting to the conventional method of amputating the diseased limb. Though this specialised work is undertaken by the Tata Memorial Hospital, Mumbai, it is done on a much smaller scale. Therefore, the Regional Cancer Institutes in South India refer patients to him. Quite a few patients from the South and South-East Asian countries also seek his expertise.
The job can be defeating, he says, because most often patients come for treatment only after the disease has reached an advanced stage. For mysterious reasons, bone cancer mostly affects young people, usually from the underprivileged sections of society. Hence, while the monetary rewards might not be commensurate with his specialised skills, Dr. Mayil Vahanan continues to work tirelessly, relieving the trauma and wiping the tears of countless patients, purely with a humanitarian goal. "Cancer patients, more importantly those who are terminally ill and for whom the future is bleak, look forward to a compassionate hand-clasp or a few words of solace. Many times it is the doctor who is able to empathise with their distress and offer them the much-needed emotional support. A humane touch is an essential part of healing," he reiterates. He makes no bones about the fact that "hard work, an iron will, a clear vision and strict discipline are the prerequisites for success" and invariably tells his students to "put head and heart together while treating patients."
"Custom mega prosthesis" is another area that interests Dr. Mayil Vahanan and some of his innovations will hopefully be patented in the near future. The indigenisation of prosthesis has proved to be so cost-effective that service-oriented organisations such as the Government General Hospital and the Cancer Institute, Adyar, are able to offer it as an option to patients.
Academics is a passion for Dr. Mayil Vahanan and he is frequently invited to present papers and participate in symposia within the country and abroad. He has edited several books on orthopaedics, as well as authored text books. Contributing articles to several medical journals, teaching and performing surgery comprise Dr. Mayil Vahanan's routine. He was conferred the "Tamil Nadu Scientists Award" in 1998 by the State Council for Science and Technology a tribute to his exceptional work on "custom mega prosthesis in bone tumours."
Apart from winning acclaim from international organisations in the form of awards and fellowships, he has been accorded membership of various associations and societies. That Dr. Mayil Vahanan does things differently is again apparent because his dream of setting up a National Academy of Orthopaedic Oncology and Musculo Skeletal Transplant Foundation in Tamil Nadu is all set to become a reality in a couple of years.
With so much accomplished and so much more to be done... one may wonder from where Dr. Mayil Vahanan derives the strength to go on. "Weekends are meant for relaxation with the family. It is also a time for me to meditate, to introspect on the meaning of life." He has drawn inspiration from several spiritual mentors, and more recently from Swami Sukhabodhananda.
Spirituality and science seem inseparable for the doctor, who firmly believes that "true success is the unfolding of divinity within us. We have to discover our spiritual selves and express our unique talents through service to humanity."
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