Dr Arun Oommen : A top Neurosurgeon who is wedded to hisprofession and social work.
A young doctor who devotes his time and talent to help those in need. A noble soul who tries to give back to the community more than what he takes from it. It was with this intent that he began to work with the Sehion charity movement. One keeps hearing that the healthcare sector is losing the spirit of compassion and humaneness but Dr Arun Oommen is a living example of a person who disproves this theory.
He devotes a portion of his time in his daily routine to Sehion’s activities. Not just financially but also by becoming one of them, caring for the sick and delivering food to the hungry. When he dons this role, not many may realise that this is a person who is an accomplished surgeon. He performed this role to perfection especially during the phase when the lockdown was announced until the time when the lockdown was lifted on June 8; he was one of the volunteers attached to the Sehion Auxiliary team headed by Shri M X Judeson to deliver food to most parts of West Kochi. As the lockdown worsened, he set aside a good portion of his savings for food and other necessities for the neediest. With the result that nobody in West Kochi had to go to bed hungry, thanks to the efforts of Dr Arun and his Sehion team during the lockdown period.
Excerpts from an interview with Dr Arun:
1. Why did you choose the medical field?
My childhood dream was to become a pilot. But a deficiency in my visual acuity was a hindrance to my ambition. My parent’s dream, on the other hand, was to become a doctor. Ultimately his dream became my dream. We had no doctors in our family and this was a driving force. Thereafter my effort and focus was to become a doctor.It was always my dream to become a socially committed doctor.The belief that a doctor can make a difference in the society fuelled my desire to become a surgeon.
2. Why did you opt for Neurosurgery?
I loved taking up challenges. If someone said a task was impossible, I wanted to achieve that very task. “You can do this,” were the words that inspired me the most. That was the motivation to take up surgery as a subject of specialisation when I opted for medicine. Neurosurgery is no doubt challenging but that is why it proved to be a thrill. There is nothing in this world that we cannot achieve. “Impossible is a word to be found only in the dictionary of fools” – this quote from the French emperor Napoleon was very inspiring in my journey to become a neurosurgeon. Actually, I am still a student in this speciality. Every day, I am learning something new. To this day, I have worked very sincerely to take care of every patient who comes to me. I try my best to help those who trust me.
3. What is your main motivating force?
It is imperative that we have a belief in ourselves. In order to properly carry out the responsibilities entrusted to us, we must be able to properly understand the problems of each patient in front of us and respond empathetically to their needs. My father and mother were
teachers in Nigeria. I grew up seeing the suffering and hardships of the common people there. That is why I always try to see the problems of others as my own and work towards resolving them. In my opinion, a doctor does not become effective by virtue of his learning alone but when his knowledge is combined with good character. I firmly believe that we can make a difference when we try to act on the assumption that someone else’s difficulties and hardships are our own.
4. Can you share your memories of your first independent surgery after becoming a neurosurgeon?
It was a surgery performed at the Thrissur Medical College after becoming a neurosurgeon. The patient was a five days’ old baby boy. The baby had a genetic disorder called myelomeningocele that occurs when the child is in the mother’s womb. In such babies, the lining of the spinal cord and it’s covering is repaired by covering it with layers from the fascia and thus repairing the defect. The baby recovered after the surgery and was discharged. I was overjoyed when that boy came to see me after eleven long years. That baby had a genetic defect that makes it a little harder to walk than other babies. But that kid is a great artist today. He has already proved his talent on many TV channel programmes.
5.What made you think different from others in the medical field?
It was not a conscious decision but as British businesswoman and human rights activist Anita Roddick said, “If you do things well, do them better. Be daring, be different, be just.” It has made me think a lot. As doctors, we have a lot to do. To give an example, today’s perception about the healthcare industry is that there is no longer as warm a relationship between doctor and patient as there used to be. Changes in routine and the higher incidence of diseases have greatly increased the number of patients. Therefore, treatment responsibility and patient congestion are increasing. For these reasons, many doctors today are unable to maintain a healthy relationship with their patients. I am someone who believes that a good doctor-patient relationship is essential. That is why I try to help those who put their trust in me as much as I can.
As a doctor, I often have to make crucial decisions at different stages of a patient’s treatment. For example, once a patient with a brain tumour was brought to the hospital after a sudden collapse. He was unconscious when he was brought in. One side was not moving. He has bleeding inside the brain when we got the scan done. Surgery was required to be done immediately. The cooperation of the patient’s companions is crucial in such situations. So also is the confidence in the doctor. When the doctor believes that he can do whatever it takes to save the patient, there is a strong bond between the patient and the doctor. I still remember what the patient’s relative said in this case. “We are confident that he will be back in two days if the doctor acts bravely”. Then the man quoted the Bible and told a few stories, the story of Jesus resurrecting the dying. He got up and walked two days after the surgery. It feels like a divine blessing in moments like this. Remembering that we were able to do our work most beautifully. There is a principle that I firmly believe in. “A good doctor treats a disease, but a better doctor treats the patient with the disease.” I want to be a better doctor.
6. Any other unforgettable experiences?
A doctor has a lot of commitment and responsibility to the community. This is what makes a doctor very different from those in other professions.
Once, a North Indian who came to Kerala for a business meeting was brought to Lakeshore hospital in critical condition after he suffered an unexpected brain haemorrhage at the hotel
where he was staying. The patient was in a critical condition. He had to undergo emergency surgery and had no relatives with him. Usually, any hospital is reluctant to admit a patient in such cases. But the surgery put an end to these obstacles and a life that could have been lost was saved. He was hospitalised for about 15 days. After full recovery, he returned to his hometown. He has been doing regular phone reviews for the last four years. Needless to say, this was a case that gave me a lot of joy as a doctor.
I also remember another incident that gave me a lot of satisfaction. One day, an accident patient was brought to the hospital with a serious brain injury. Those who brought him did not know who he was. Such cases are usually referred to the general hospital. But the patient was brought to Lakeshore Hospital in a critical condition with heavy bleeding. Emergency surgery was the only option failing which patient may face death.The patient was from a financially distressed family with wife and three daughters and the eldest child was engaged to be married. By the time the surgery was over, all of his relatives had arrived including his wife and three children. The condition of the family would have been deplorable if they had lost their father in that situation. There is something his daughter said during the review after the surgery. “In our prayer room, there is a photo of doctor along with God,” she said. What better honour can a doctor receive?
7. Why did you pursue MBA in Hospital Administration after becoming a doctor?
While working as a neurosurgeon, I felt that I needed to study hospital administration. This is an area that most people do not choose after studying medicine. In my opinion, in order to be a good doctor, the person must know everything about a hospital and its rules and procedures. That way, they can work better. So, I completed a two-year MBA at the Indian School of Business.
8. People, in general, know the need to consult a gynaecologist, paediatrician, or physician. But under what circumstances should a neurosurgeon be approached?
Neurosurgeons perform surgeries on the brain, spine, and nervous system. A neurosurgeon treats them if they are injured in an accident or have a brain or spine tumour and other mass lesion like abscess,etc. Hydrocephalus, brain tumours, and some congenital brain disorders also come under their purview. Another crucial area is functional neurosurgery. If diseases like Parkinsonism (Parkinson’s) are not treated with drugs, the disease can be cured to some extent by strengthening certain cells in the brain. Similarly, neurosurgeons perform all the keyhole surgeries performed for problems such as disc bulges in the spine, spine instrumentation and hydrocephalus.
9. What motivated you to do charitable activities?
As I mentioned earlier, I was born in Ethiopia and raised in Nigeria. My parents were schoolteachers there. We know that many countries in Africa are still backward. Countries in Africa do not have adequate food, water, education or safe living conditions. Ethiopia and Nigeria were no different. As my parents were teachers, we had the basic necessities of life. But the situation in the neighbourhood was very different. I saw in those faces a little hope when people, who had no food at all, no proper clothes to wear, reached out to us for food. Those pitiful faces are still in my memory. My family used to feed helpless people as much as they could. It was there that I saw the most horrible state of hunger. That’s why I grew up knowing the value of food. Later, it became an inner desire to do something for the hungry. Whenever possible I work towards this aim.
Once I saw a mentally ill person eating rotten raw fish waste. Even the foul smell was nothing
compared to the hunger, for him. Many such factors motivated me to work for people who are suffering. It was at this point that he met Mr MX Judeson (Mr Judeson). When I learned more about the Sehion team that he was leading and their activities, I decided to join their Fellowship team. The Sehion team works for the homeless and mentally ill people in West Kochi and delivers daily meals. As its managing trustee, I am able to participate in such highly effective projects. During the Covid lockdown time, our team delivered food to Kochi and surrounding areas three times a day. My greatest desire is to do the best we can for others.
10. Can you please tell us about your future plans and ideas? What are your suggestions to improve the medical field?
The medical profession has to be at its best since it deals with people’s health and life-saving situations. Hence, the best talents with the right attitude and approach should join the profession. Unfortunately, due to different reasons, the medical profession is not considered very attractive nowadays. We should initiate steps to make it a very satisfying profession that can attract the best possible talent. Also, it’s high time that all citizens get the best possible treatment without paying from their own pocket. This can be made possible through a well-structured, government-run health insurance scheme that is available for all citizens.
Educating the public about the various first aid options in emergency situations is also very important as it would improve the standard of healthcare drastically. At a personal level, I would like to publish health books for the public if time permits. The first one was published recently.
11. Tell us a little about your family.
My wife is Dr Roja Joseph, Medical Oncologist, VPS Lakeshore Hospital. Athenn and Aiden are my children. Both are students of KalamasseryRajagiri Public School. My father VG Oommen and mother Susan Oommen were teachers. Ajay, my sister, and my brother-in-law Oommen K Mammen are both Chartered Accountants.
12. What would you tell those who are aspiring to join the field of healthcare?
To all the young people who aspire to be good doctors, I want to say,
1. Become a doctor only if you are really interested. Do not give in to anybody’s pressure.
2. The patient’s certificate that ‘you are a good doctor’ makes you outshine from other doctors. Salary, status, fame, awards, etc. are all very small things when compared with people’s recognition. Always strive to get their blessing. This is what I want to say to today’s youth.