The Defining Moments!

September 17, 2020

By – Devendra Tayade, Indian School of Business, Hyderabad

Leadership plays a critical role in the way a country, a sector, or an organization shapes up. India was lucky to have many transformative leaders – J R D Tata, Dr. G Venkataswamy, Narayanmurthy, to name just a few – who transformed the landscape of the industry they worked in. If the country, especially talking of the healthcare domain, is to make progress in the right direction, the educators, teachers, and mentors have a great responsibility on their shoulders to build leaders of tomorrow. The question remains as to how will that happen? The doctors who are leading the transformation today were educated in a system that had many other people studying along with them. Then, what triggered in them the need to walk a certain path that others did not connect with? If the nation is to be given a set of transformative healthcare leaders for the future then it is important to identify these triggers. The answers can be found in the defining moments that shaped the thought process of the current healthcare leaders.

This article shares defining moments of three current leaders from different domains of healthcare with the hope that these moments may shine a light on developing good leaders.

I: Act of courage and the response

Dr. Ravi Kannan was a shy boy during his school days but a moment that demanded courage changed the way he approached life.

Dr. Kannan, Medical Director at Cachar Cancer Hospital (CCH), narrates the incident:

“In school, you know, I used to be afraid of my own shadow. I was not an extrovert. I was shy and I would be afraid to ask anybody for anything. So much so that I was tired and sick (sic) of myself. But then it was very difficult to change in a familiar environment. So what happened was in class eleven, my father got transferred. That was the advantage of being with an air force family. Every two, three years one could go and choose a new life.

My father got posted to Tambaram. That was when I decided that I was going to change. So before going to school, I made friends with some fellows from my colony. In those days we used to have a biology section and the math section. So what happened was that all my friends whom I had befriended before coming to school, were in a different section. They (School) had put me in a different section.

I do not know why and how I picked up the nerve to ask the admitting teacher that if I could go to the other section.

She said, “why?”,

I said, “I have friends in the other section.”

“No, but you’ll make new friends in the other section”, she said.

I said, “No, I want to go to that section.”

That lady looked at me for a few seconds and said, “okay, you go to that section.”

To me, that was a defining moment. The teacher was supposed to be a disciplinarian,
but the fact that I could ask and somebody would say yes. That was for me, a very defining moment. After that, I changed completely. I stopped hesitating to ask for anything.”

Dr. Ravi Kannan later went on to play a critical role in uplifting CCH in Silchar, Assam, and taking cancer care to everyone in the northeastern states. Anyone requiring cancer care could get treated at CCH irrespective of whether they could pay or not. For his efforts in taking cancer care to everyone in the northeast, Dr. Ravi Kannan was awarded Padmashri in January 2020. The staff at CCH can be seen proactively telling the patient not to worry about the cost and that the hospital would take care of it. Many of the patients visiting CCH are not in a position to pay for their care. In such cases, on being asked how the hospital finances the care they provide, Dr. Ravi Kannan said, “We write to everyone who can contribute. We ask for it.”

II: Facing the reality

Dr. Jennifer Vaid Basaiawmoit, Founder and Director at Bansara Eye Care Centre was fed up due to poor infrastructure, unavailability of resources, and the hollow promises of the bureaucrats and was about to resign from her job as an ophthalmologist at the Government Hospital in Meghalaya. She planned to return to Delhi to work at AIIMS. That was when her mother who was involved in various voluntary activities asked her for a favor. Her friend, a nun, was not getting an ophthalmologist for an outreach camp. She introduced Dr. Jennifer to the nun who was organizing this camp who asked Dr. Jennifer if she could help.

Dr. Jennifer Basaiawmoit, narrates the incident:

“The Nun said, “See before you go, you just come with me to these camps, I need a doctor. I have one doctor, but he is very old, and he cannot manage the whole camp alone.” I had seen many patients in the hospital, but I did not know the reality of the place where we were about to do the camp. So at that time, I went there. It was a very small village. The camp was organized at a Christian School run by brothers. The brothers had managed to get patients who needed to be seen during the camp. They had come to the school the night before and were waiting to be seen by the doctor the next day.

When I reached there the way they treated me was as if I was some Minister. They brought in all the problems- about the road, about the water, about electricity in the village, etc. This was in the 1980s. They gave me a garland. And all that was happening was so strange because I was such a small person. Then suddenly I think the realization came and I told them that I am nobody that they were imagining. I was just a doctor and I could not do anything. But all of them had written letters to me with so many petitions to speak to the government. I didn’t know what to do but I kept them. I thought let me do whatever I could.

Then I saw the patients. They were completely blind and nothing could be done. I think I saw 25 to 30 such patients. It was a traumatic experience for me. They had come with hope and I had to tell them that I could not do anything for all of them. So I just burst into tears and ran away from there. I cried and cried inconsolably. Then this sister came and she said, “maybe you’re very young so you’re emotional. This is life.”

After that suddenly while sipping coffee I decided that I was not going back. I thought let me try whatever I could. At that point, I did not know what I was going to do to change such a grim picture but I thought let me give it a try.”

Dr. Jennifer Basaiawmoit, the first woman ophthalmologist from the state of Meghalaya, went on to work with the government, changing the landscape of the eye care at the government hospitals across the state. After retirement from her services in 2009, she started Bansara Eye Care Centre in Shillong that is now reaching out to everyone in need of eye care in Meghalaya.

III: Inspired by the actions

Dr. Pavitra Mohan stumbled upon the defining moment(s) of his life during his residency at University College of Medical Sciences in Delhi.

Dr. Pavitra Mohan, Founder, Basic Healthcare Services, Udaipur, narrates:

“During my residency at University College of Medical Sciences in Delhi, while working at the paediatric ward, electric suction equipment to remove oral secretions of babies was not working due to power outage; and manual suctions were not functioning as they were not used for a long time. I was quite angry, annoyed and irritated. I felt helpless. If we did not remove the oral secretions of the babies in time, they could end up choking. I reported this to my professor. He listened to me and then directed me to pick up one of those manual suctions. We then walked to a repair shop around a kilometer away from the hospital. My professor directed the mechanic to repair the suction and asked me to pick it up after an hour. Had we raised a complaint, it would have taken ages for the government bureaucracy to get this equipment back in working order.”

Citing another incident, Dr. Pavitra Mohan added:

“Intravenous cannulae, also referred to as the infusion set, were used for puncturing veins to start a patient on drips. They were premium devices and expensive. The patient’s family had to buy this device from the adjacent medical store and give it to the hospital for use. Most patients could not afford these devices. Even in cases where the patients could afford to buy the device, precious time would be lost in buying it and giving it to the duty nurse. One of my seniors used to purchase them on his own and carry them in his doctor’s coat pocket at all times. He would use these when required, without waiting for the patient’s relatives to buy and give it to the nurse. He would ask patients to pay him if they could afford; otherwise, he used to bear the cost out of his pocket. This simple action would take away some of the feelings of helplessness that patients and their relatives often feel in a hospital situation.”

These incidents taught Dr. Pavitra Mohan not to wait for anyone or anything; instead, do what was under his control. Dr. Pavitra Mohan went on to start a healthcare NGO that provided primary healthcare in the rural parts of the Udaipur district. He was awarded Ashoka fellowship in the year 2019 for his contribution in the area of primary healthcare.

The Implications

These incidents shared by these leaders raise multiple questions. It also makes one wonder what would have happened to Dr. Ravi Kannan’s confidence had the teacher rejected his request? Would he have gone on to bigger challenges in the future? What would have been the state of eye care in Meghalaya today had Dr. Jennifer Basaiawmoit not been moved by the plight of the patients she met during the eye camp? How would Dr. Pavitra Mohan have responded to the situation of the poor state of primary healthcare in Udaipur had he not been inspired by his professor and his senior by the way they responded to the situation in the hospital? While anything could have happened, the defining moments shared by the leaders do have some lessons in them:

Every student is different

Students of different nature can be found in a class. The ones who are extroverts do not face any issues while expressing themselves but the ones that are introverts have to struggle to do the same. thus, making them go unnoticed in the class. A different approach would be required with the introverts to help them come out of their shell; an approach that would build their confidence. This means that the teachers and educators will have to study the nature of the student and use different methods such as one-to-one mentoring, to help them grow into a rounded individual.

Transformation takes place outside the classrooms

It is doubtful if Dr. Jennifer Basaiawmoit would have read about poverty or the plight of patients in the rural hinterland during her medical education. What transformed her mind was not what she had read in her class but what she experienced first hand. As they say, there is no substitute for the experience. Medical education, especially in terms of building character, needs to move in the direction of experiential learning. Otherwise, it will be hard for a city-bred student to empathise with the problems faced by rural people or for a person who has grown up in rural India to understand the problems of city life. They would only know about the issues but would not be moved to do anything about it. Well designed voluntary fellowships at the place of students’ choice, during the graduation, and not the compulsory duties assigned at the end of their graduation, can be a good way to start.

Students are watching you

Imagine an educator or a mentor who talks about simple living and serving people but drives an SUV into the organization and has never done any act of service in his life. Would the lesson stay with the student? What stayed in Dr. Pavitra Mohan’s mind was what he had seen his senior do. Thus, the current leaders/ educators need to step up and lead by example.

If the next generation of youth has to be inspired, then the education system and the educators may well have to look beyond classroom teaching. The current leaders had their share of defining moments that changed their lives. Now the question is how will the current crop of students get their share of defining moments? How do we live and work to create these moments for them?

In our lives, we come across several such incidents that make a paradigm shift in the way we think or the way we approach life. If you have any such incidents to share then please write to Devendra at He’ll be happy to listen to you. You never know your story may inspire someone or create a positive ripple somewhere.

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