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Out of the comfort zone
In his practice as an onco-surgeon in Mumbai, Dr P Jagannath has met some of India's famous personalities. India's first superstar Rajesh Khanna was a patient. Cricketer Sachin Tendulkar met him during his mother's treatment and agreed to a fundraiser for cancer-affected children. When Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan's intestinal complication (the complex sounding diverticulitis, a condition in which the inner lining of the intestine bulges out and becomes infected ) drove the nation hysterical in 2005, Lilavati Hospital chose Jagannath to perform the surgery. The doctor, however, is wary of the celebrity tag: "Every patient is a VIP for me, " he says.
In fact, it was his father's VIP tag in Andhra Pradesh that prompted him to leave his comfort zone. "I wanted to be a surgeon but not in the state where I couldn't escape the fact that my father was the director of health services, " he said. He got into PGI Chandigarh's plastic surgery course. "As I didn't enjoy the field, I boarded a train back to Hyderabad. "
Fate intervened: he misplaced the bag containing his certificates. "It was later found and I had to come to Dadar station to collect it. " Here, he read about openings for resident doctors at the Tata Memorial Hospital in central Mumbai and signed up. That was in 1982 before the beginning of surgical specializations. Ten years later he was sent to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre in New York to pick up the nuances of a rapidly growing field - gastrointestinal cancers - and set up the first such department at Tata.
Today, he is considered the best in the hepatobiliary field (of liver, pancreas, gallbladder and so on) - a tag justified by his becoming the first Indian president of the International Hepato Pancreato Biliary Association.
Ask him about the toughest challenge in cancer care and he promptly replies: finances. "My foundation, with help from the people like Sachin Tendulkar, provides 50 per cent of treatment cost for some patients. But there are always heart-wrenching stories, " he says, recalling a much-decorated retired police officer who had no money to seek liver cancer treatment. "We should work out ways to offer affordable treatment to all patients and that too, close to their home. Nobody should need to travel to Mumbai or Delhi for treatment. "
A confirmed Apple junkie, he is constantly working on the medicine-technology interface (he is also an unabashed fan of Steve Jobs who succumbed to a rare neuro-endocrine tumour, a sub-specialty in which Jagannath has the world's largest pool of patients: 124 at last count). He is currently working on a programme to make communication for ICU patients as easy as pressing an iPad key. And it's iTunes that plays classical music when he's operating. "Surgery is a symphony where the surgeon is the conductor directing everyone in the operation theatre to a wonderful outcome. "
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