Leading from the front
Remembering Dr S Padmavati — a trailblazer and an exemplar who tirelessly worked to expand the field of cardiology in India
Born to a family of barristers on June 20, 1917, in a nondescript town of Magwe in central Burma (Myanmar), Dr Siva Rama Krishna Iyer Padmavati blazed a trail till her very last breath on August 29, 2020. Nurtured by a privileged upbringing and blessed with a maverick brain, the young Padmavati topped the province in the final school examination. She went on to graduate from Rangoon Medical College with the MBBS 'magna cum laude' and began the journey of an illustrious career in medicine and cardiology, qualifying her for the sobriquet of 'God Mother of Cardiology in India '.
Hers was the story of an indomitable spirit, cultivated during the gory days of World War-II. Japan's invasion of Burma in 1942 forced Padmavati, her mother and sisters to flee Magwe for Coimbatore, leaving the men folks behind. Till the end of the war, there was no news of the men of the family, only to be reunited in 1945, when the war ended. Thereafter Padmavati left for England and acquired Fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians of London and Edinburgh. After her post-graduation, she did a stint in Sweden under Gustav Nylin and Dr Gunnat Björck at the Södersjukhuset hospital in Stockholm, before moving to the John Hopkins in the USA, where she trained under the legendary Dr Helen Taussig. She moved on to train further under Dr Paul Dudley White at the Harvard Medical School in Boston.
On her return to India, she was picked by Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, the then Union Health Minister, and was appointed lecturer at the Lady Hardinge Medical College in Delhi. Subsequently, she was elevated to professor and Head of the Department of Medicine. She established North India's first cardiac catheterisation laboratory at the Lady Hardinge Medical College in 1954. Besides her clinical responsibilities, she engaged in research and her epidemiological research work in rheumatic fever, cor-pulmonale, ischaemic heart disease and hypertension still stand ground and is oft-quoted. In 1967 she took over as Director-Principal of Maulana Azad Medical College and Associated then Irwin and G B Pant Hospitals introducing the first DM courses in cardiology and other super specialities, the first coronary care unit and the first coronary care van in India.
Dr S Padmavati founded the All India Heart Foundation (AIHF) in 1962 and set up the National Heart Institute (NHI) under the aegis of the Foundation in 1981 and developed it into a modern heart hospital for tertiary patient care, research and population outreach.
Awards and accolades chased her culminating in the award of Padma Bhushan in 1967 and Padma Vibhushan in 1992 by the Government of India. Other prominent awards were DSc (Hon), MGR Medical University, Madras, (1994); Harvard Medical International Award (2003); Antonio Samia Oration of APSC (2005) and many others.
Seeing her from the closest of close quarters, as a medical student, as a resident doctor, as a consultant cardiac surgeon and later. as the Chief Executive Officer of National Heart Institute, I never saw her to be arrogant, rude or socially inappropriate. I remember walking by the side of the trolley, 25 years back, when she was being wheeled into the operating theatre for an emergency heart bypass surgery, which I was called to perform. Sensing me stressed, she squeezed my hand and said," Don't worry, I shall be fine" and tightened her grip on my hand. I can palpably recall that squeeze, which gave me the courage to put my own teacher and mentor under the knife.
She led and mentored by example, I can't help but recall another incident etched in my memory. Frank Anthony, Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha) was admitted to NHI and was terminally ill. Narasimha Rao, the then Prime Minister was to visit him and security personnel brought the dog squad into the hospital. Dr Padmavati was in her office when this news was broken to her. Like a tigress she barged out and ordered security staff to leave NHI, and that she was not interested in Mr Rao's visit if it entailed dogs entering the hospital. Matters were quickly resolved and only men frisked the area. Then came the 'lesson of a lifetime' for me. When the protocol officer to the PM, a Sikh gentleman, asked Dr Padmavati where she would like to receive the PM, she asked a counter-question, "Who is visiting, Mr Rao or the PM". The protocol officer was taken aback and fumbled with words and asked for a five-minute reprieve. However, in no time was he back, "Madam, Mr Rao". Immediately she pointed towards me and said," This young doctor will receive him at the porch and escort Mr Rao to the patient and I shall present myself at the bedside". Later she explained to me, "If the PM was visiting, I as Director of NHI would have received him. He was visiting in his personal capacity, so as a mark of respect, I presented myself as the doctor in-charge, and not Director of NHI".
With never a regret in life, the five-foot-nothing Dr S Padmavati, stood tall amongst all that have walked the fields of cardiology in this country and yet, was grounded and god-fearing, with a tender and motherly heart. Just as you march on Madam, we shall celebrate your life, taking solace that some of us have had more than our fair share of your love and affection.
The writer is the Chief Cardiac Surgeon & Chief Executive Officer at the National Heart Institute. Views expressed are personal