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Never say die
Dr V Shanta is as close to being a legend as possible. At 85, she is still driven by the need to cure and care.
On her bookshelf sits a dog-eared copy of The Words of God right beside the bookmarked 1970 edition of Clinical Oncology. It makes you wonder what comes first in Dr V Shanta's life. Medicine? Service to humanity?
It's possible even Shanta doesn't quite know the answer. But that's because for 58 years, Chennai's most famous oncologist has made the Cancer Institute her home in more ways than one. The 85-year-old doctor lives by herself on the top floor of the hospital, in a makeshift home. "I used to live in just one room, but now I have got myself a living room, bedroom and study, " she says. And in the hours that she isn't at home, reading, she is downstairs, by her patients' bedside.
Life's been the same since 1954. That was the year Shanta decided to join her mentor Dr Krishnamurthy, the son of Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy (India's first woman doctor), at the Cancer Institute WIA. "We started with just two doctors, two nurses and 12 beds. Today, we are a 423-bed hospital. That's the biggest change I have seen. "
The only other change she says she has seen over the years is in the way doctors treat patients, and she does not mean that in medical terms. "I cannot stand to see a patient lying on a bed with doctors marching up and down, not taking notice. Earlier, I used to get very angry with callous doctors, but now I am quieter. But I still let them know my displeasure, " she says. "We need to always remember that the patient has entrusted us with his life, " she adds.
Shanta says she had made up her mind to dedicate her life to her patients at the beginning of her career. "I felt it gave them that much more confidence to know their doctor was right there in the hospital all the time, which was why I chose to live here, and to never marry, " says Shanta. At the Cancer Institute WIA, of the 423 beds almost 300 are 'free' beds.
As to what got her here, she says it was both destiny and opportunity. The Cancer Institute-WIA was the first comprehensive cancer centre in South India and the second one in the country. "Oncology as a subject was pretty much new terrain in India. I knew there was a lot to be done, " she says, and adds that it took them ten years from 1972 to get the Medical Council of India to approve of oncology as a specialty. "I used to make 'pilgrimages' to New Delhi every year to appeal to the MCI, " she says.
Over the years, Shanta has received several awards, including the Ramon Magsaysay Award, the Padma Shri and the Padma Bhushan. The awards lie scattered around the flat, some hang behind cupboards, the Padma Bhushan isn't even displayed, Shanta says it is put away. "I can't even remember some of the ones I have received, " she says.
What is on display though, in a glass case by the entrance to her home, are three conches, hand-painted by one of her patients, a driver, who still visits her every time he is in Chennai. "I remember Narayanan very well. He came here in 1960, " says Shanta, and proceeds to talk in detail about him. And that's when you realize you've got the answer to the question of what comes first in Shanta's life.
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