I worked at the Cancer Institute, as a young college student, during my college summer holidays, for two years. This was in 1986 and 1987. My father, a man of great idealism decided that lounging around reading (what were to him) totally useless novels was never a good way to spend one’s time. I disagreed entirely, but, well, he was my father.
He decided that it would be overall a good thing if I saw “real life, with real people having real problems” . His voice still echoes in my head after more than 30 years. He spoke to one Dr. Shantha at The Cancer Institute to give me an internship. He told me to go there by bus there and come back by bus. Thankfully, another friend of mine from Stella Maris College also accompanied me for these internships. My friend is currently a renowned archaeologist. At the time, her father suggested to her that instead of dreaming of exotic places, she should go by bus from Mylapore where they lived to The Cancer Institute and come back safely.
We were placed in the blistering hot main hall to carry out administration work. Dr. Shantha interviewed us. She called me in first. I saw a tiny lady, wearing a pinkish colored sari, sitting on a stool. She asked me a few questions which I answered completely truthfully. In the middle of it all, a person who administered the lifts came in. She told him to call the company manufacturing lifts to ensure the lifts didn’t shake when they rode up and down. It disturbed the patients she said.
The physician and the administrator
This then was the real Dr. Shantha. Dr. Shantha was not just a great physician, she was a great administrator. From my study of leadership, a study that has spanned two decades, I have been almost obsessed with finding out what leadership is and what great leaders do.
As life went on and I saw more and more of the Institute, I began to feel smaller and smaller as a person. It was especially unbearable to go to the children’s ward but we ended up making friends with the kids there. They wanted simple gifts- crayons, color pens, chart paper. My friend and I used to pick these up for them.
Cancer is a matter of fact
What strikes you about this great institution is how matter of fact it is. Yes, there is a dreaded disease. It’s called cancer. People get cancer. Everyone understands it. We fight it, we treat it, we give the best of ourselves to it. We listen, we learn, if we lose a patient, we have lost a patient. We turn no one away. I have heard sobs in patients’ rooms, I have seen trembling relief as scans have come out clear, I have seen people praying at the gate.
I asked Dr. Shantha once how she managed it all. What really is leadership, I asked her.
She said she managed it all because if she didn’t, who would?. And, leadership is difficult to define she said. “It’s about leading people. But it’s also about taking humiliation when you are treated badly by funders. “You have to take a lot of humiliation ma, she said”
Legend has it that at one especially difficult time in the Institute, she told the then Finance Minister, who was from Tamil Nadu that she would need to close it down due to absence of funds.
Apparently the FM along with his Finance Secretary, also from Tamil Nadu, saw to it that tens of crores was passed in the Budget for the Institute to survive.
To my knowledge, we have never had an FM and the Finance Secretary both from Tamilnadu at the same time. But that such money was indeed released is highly likely.
Cancer pays us a visit
We were gearing up for my graduation from Harvard, when we received an odd email from my father. “Mummy needs some medical tests. We will get the results shortly."
I am hugely good at premonitions. My sister asked me to wait and see. I called up home immediately. My mother, herself an outstanding doctor, picked up the phone. “I have cancer”, she said, in the most matter-of-fact way. My surgery is on Monday. I had called her on a Friday. I kept on repeating “Monday? Monday!” over and over.
She got admitted to the Cancer Institute almost overnight. We reflected on how my father, a civil servant of some influence, had gone flat out, spending hours and weeks and months to help out the Cancer Institute in whatever way he could. Now, as my mother said, “His own wife is admitted here”.
I flew down from the United States immediately. Dr. Shantha would drop in every day on her rounds.
I have never been as grateful for her presence, her caliber, her steadiness, as I was during those terrible days. Dr. Shantha had a way of calming you down. But if news had to be broken, it was broken and she would wait quietly till the patient’s sobs had lessened or the shock had been absorbed.
A few years later, my father got cancer. Again, we began the endless visits to the Institute and painful radiation sessions. Again, we went through the same cycle of grief and terror. I could outline all changes in the Institute from 1985, even when I as an intern and my friend tried to tag along behind the most handsome surgeons on their rounds. Because of my father’s help to the Institute and his later more public roles, every single doctor knew him by name and sight.
During his public roles, he had been recognized wherever we went. For once, we were grateful he was. While the waiting period for appointments was endless as no one was turned away, we also got to meet extraordinarily committed surgeons,and physicians during the course of his treatment.
Dr. Shantha had often told me that she couldn’t keep her staff, and how the Institute was prime poaching ground for talent as the training and exposure were so outstanding. People fought to get in, she told me, and then left. She just could not pay them what the private sector paid them. She spoke with no censure at all. We were deeply fortunate though to meet many senior staff who had stayed behind.
Do I mourn Dr. Shantha's death?
A wave of grief hit me when I first heard the news. She had, after all, treated my mother. But it passed very quickly. I am not sure why it did. Or maybe I do know. She had seen death so often, in so many forms and was determined to help thousands and thousands of people fight it, that I can only say that instead of grieving for her, I am proud to have interacted with her so many times. Many distinguished people of extraordinary accomplishment have paid tribute to her.
Mine is from someone who is just a regular person, leading anespecially unremarkable life, but who had seen her from the time when I was a young girl in college learning what it meant to give back, to the times when we faced devastation and she steered us through it.
I have had the rare privilege of glimpsing so many sides of her, drawing strength from her, seeking solace in her presence and just benefiting from her kindness. My story is simple, but it may just strike a chord in some.
This tiny lady, who could put the fear of God into her staff (we used to literally fly to our administration counters when we knew she had arrived), who kept just the picture of Marie Curie on her desk, who carried out her medical examinations sitting down when she could not stand any more, would have met death head on.
By building the Institution she has, by giving thousands of families, including mine, hope when we were going through total despair, not once, but twice, she has risen above death as a bit of her lives on in all of us.
I am sure that when the grim reaper made his final knock, demanding that the door be opened, she would have walked across herself and requested that, before she was taken, could he look at a proposal for funding.
Anu Oza is a Director-HR at an auto major in Chennai. The views expressed here are her own.