119 years of Trust Interview THE TRIBUNE
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Sunday, September 5, 1999
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"Good guys do not finish last"

DR NARESH THEHAN has acquired a cult figure status in India. As the founder of the Escort Heart Institute and Research Centre, he has fulfilled a dream and a vision. The high and mighty of this land want to befriend him, and everyone else wants to know him. EHIRC has made Indians feel a little more reassured about the fact that good heart care is being provided in the country itself.

Dr Trehan is not only a good cardiac surgeon but an excellent administrator. In India, where the word discipline is not known, he runs his hospital with clock-work precision. There is no laxity, and no excuses are heard or made. Everyone has to be on their toes and give their 200 per cent. He is the unique creator of a "Single Centre Concept" where investigative and interventional facility is available round- the- clock.

Dr Trehan has a high profile lifestyle. He and his wife Madhu Trehan (a media person) are celebrities on the social circuit,too . He took out time from his very busy schedule to answer questions on himself, his work and the institute. Excerpts from an interview to Belu Maheshwari:

Was it parental pressure which made you opt for medicine?

On the contrary, my parents did not want me to be a doctor. They felt that doctors could not give time to their kids and had no time for themselves. But the more they discouraged me, the firmer grew my resolve about joining medicine. I was always a gregarious person, not a loner. Medicine suited my psyche -- my nature is to relate to people, to interact, to share. I went to King George’s Medical College, Lucknow, for MBBS.

How did you choose to specialise in cardiac surgery?

After my MBBS, I realised my natural talent and interest lay in the field of surgery. I decided to go to America to get exposure to the new frontiers in my field. Those days neuro-surgery and cardiac surgery were the two emerging fields. The former is technically a good line but depressing in some ways. Even if you have done the best job, the patient might or might not lead a healthy life after the operation.

In cardiac surgery, you see the results on the operation table. A very sick patient becomes fully functional under your care. I got attracted to the challenge of seeing life and death made in the operation theatre. The responsibility was mine only.

In America, I was told Frank Spencer was the best teacher. He was the Chairman of New York University Hospital and he had 5 years waiting list of students. I wrote to him and was called for the interview. I got the job. We were 32 when we started and were told only eight would become Chief Residents and only one or two would become cardiac surgeons. It was a steep pyramid. Fortunately, I made the cut and I joined the faculty of New York University in 1977.

What made you come back to India ?

The desire to come back was always there. It was a stated goal. Even before (I came back), my wife and I were part of a study group of 40 -odd people -- we had a conscience, we were determined and committed to helping society. We had adopted a village in Patparganj. Money making was not the only aim in our lives. Then I was wanted in India, lots of Indians used to come for treatment to the University and ask me to come back. I was looking for opportunities in India.

How did the turning point come?

In 1980, Shanti Lal Mehta, Director of Jaslok Hospital, came to New York for his daughter’s treatment. He said, "I want to take you back."

I came to Bombay in 1981. Jaslok is an excellent hospital but it fell short of what I had in mind. I wanted a place where the research, teaching and clinical aspects went hand in hand. It was a running hospital, set in its ways and I found certain disturbing things amongst the staff.

Look, at no point did I think that I was so great that I will succeed. I studied the whole system thoroughly. I knew why many good surgeons had come and left in disgust. I also saw that there is something in the Indian psyche which did not allow people to progress freely. For every guy who goes up, there are 10 to pull him down. Around that time I met Hari Nanda. I gave him my project report of three pages. I found the terms suitable and we decided to work together.

Were there any initial hiccups while dealing with a corporate house?

Ihave had no great problems in the course of setting up EHIRC. Even before my coming to India, Mrs Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, who had visited New York many times, had asked me to come back. They had encouraged me a lot. Contrary to what others say, I had a very, very good experience with the bureaucracy. They put no stumbling blocks. In fact, even later I have seen if they see a good project coming, they help out fully.

The EHIRC is a trust. Rajan Nanda has a vision. He participates in the deliberations on our future course but support us and there is no interference in the day- to- day functioning or in the critical parts.

I also believe you cannot have an arrogant attitude and win. If you communicate with people well, most of them will understand your point of view. I do not allow ego hassles to crop up as far as possible.

How does it feel to be revered like a god by people?

I do not think it is like that. My patients respect me for a job well done. As for myself, I believe in two things: (1) Do positive actions your self, (2) Shun negativity. If you can follow these and approach everything with good faith, you will not lose. I do not subscribe to the slogan — good guys finish last. It is not true. If you have the knowledge and you are the best in the field, you will command respect.

By all this I do not mean that one has to be naive. You have to be streetsmart; you must know the ground realities to be able to operate.

You are micro-managing the show. What is your principle of management?

There are no fixed concepts of management. You work and devise your methodology. What is important is to train people well so that they can give their best. The fact is that there is a huge gap existing between our life-style, upbringing, training and expectation. Take the example of a servant who comes from a village and we expect him to become perfect as soon as he enters the kitchen. We do not invest in his training. In the same way, we Indians never invest in upgrading our systems. We have a warped thinking.

When I came here, some people used to say, ‘Naresh akela kya kar lega’. Whoever we have hired, we have trained them our way. Over a priod of time, those we recruited from overseas or from India, they have all come on par. Most we have trained are as good, if not better, than anyone in the world. I have great bunch of surgeons and cardiologists. The question is that in India they are deprived of good infrastructure and the opportunity to research. When I started, some doctors used to advise me, "Naresh, don’t pass all the knowledge. They will bite your hand one day." I used to say that it is not my way of living.

All around you, there are people who respect you. How do you maintain your balance?

I respect Frank Spencer everyday more and more. The first lesson he taught us was "On any given day your patients and their relatives will make you feel like God, never believe it and the day you believe it, it is the beginning of your end." My thinking has been moulded by my father and by Spencer and, fortunately, I have a family which walks on the ground. Daily, I get a levelling effect at home. If you have psychophants around you, it is the worst disease you can acquire.

Do you at times regret coming back?

If you go beyond your work, you get frustrated. Why is this not happening? Why is government not doing anything? We are facing a crisis of leadership. There are no role models, none at the national levels. We want things done well without working out the systems. Outside of your work, you are depressed. I believe, people should start working. We have taken up the cause of pollution. Everyone should do one thing beyond their regular job and we would be a great nation.

What are your priorities in life now?

We have five fingers — we can prioritise keeping them in mind. Mine is i) health, ii) family, iii) work and wealth, iv) goodwill and friends, v) the little finger represents the joy of life, it stands for giving some thing back to society. This will give more gratification and joy than anything else.

How do you unwind?

I enjoy my work. I do not need an escape. There is no need to really unwind. I switch off. I have the capability to go inwards. I do yoga and exercise and, when I can, go to the health club in the evenings.Back

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