Well, Back in My Day… I Have A Dream, Oh But the Mountains I see

I Have A Dream, Oh But the Mountains I see

By Dr. Geeta Sundar, Senior Resident, Dept of Neurosurgery Batch of 2010

My father always brought me up with the mantra, that “be an ‘and’ person, not an ‘or’”- that translates to being that person who does this, and that, and that, and this, not just one or the other. Personally, when I embraced this ideology as a young gal, I had no idea the person I was committing to become; a jack-of-all-trades, the multi-tasker, the curiosity-monger, the person who could manage an umpteen number of things all at once.

But, now, looking back at the last decade and more, I can finally understand what I have become. And how glad I am that I pushed myself beyond all sensibilities to reach this level of maturity and experience I possess. Not an easy pass, mind you, but my biggest strength is my determination – once I set my mind on something, I will accomplish it at all costs, come high hell or water.

My undergrad days were stable and simple and I was in constant endeavour to outperform myself and my colleagues and spent hours chasing a goal I had defined for myself, based on societal norms. I was a nerd, a studious person who probably didn’t care about the first letter of the word fun during those MBBS days. It was plain kill or be killed, or in this instance, win or lose. I won all the checkboxes I created for myself. I was hard working, prepared, and aced my exams with all the gusto I had. But somewhere along the way in year two, I started questioning the end game…so MBBS, yes, then? Then what?

Pondering over the vast options in front of me, I saw a clear choice emerging, even before I had tasted the first lick into its vast empire. Maybe foolish, definitively infantile, but I had my heart set on it. Like first love. Suddenly, I knew what I wanted to be, what my dreams saw me doing, my passion for the Brain is a shackled love story in itself, coveted, hidden, brandished into the deeper fires of my heart, too scared to make it public, for I knew I’d be ridiculed to love something this dangerous, so fiercely, so crazily. So, in quiet pursuit, I made plans around building a lifetime of commitment to the Brain, working around finding excuses and instances to read, learn about neurosurgery, attend their OT more, work twice as harder, live around the Brain to learn its good, bad, and the ugly.

But I wasn’t content. I wanted to know about the world out there. More about the Brain outside India. More about the surgeries they did, the patient performance, the workup…Neurosurgery isn’t for the faint hearted, neither is it for those who can’t take and understand or empathise with disabilities, or poor prognosis, and I wanted to see what they brought to the table there, what was it about BrainLab, or Neuronavigation, or endoscopic surgeries, or interventional neurosurgical radiology that made such a stellar difference in the patient outcomes.

The US was my most logical choice. English speaking, easy to understand, and the world that the US represented had been portrayed through its various sitcoms I had binged. But I was in for a shock! Nothing was what it seemed like. Everything was new, different and so contrasting to what I knew and understood. And getting through interviews and shortlists for those clinical rotations in the US, via an agency (that would inevitably lie about details) or through an actual direct offer from a university college, was difficult, frustrating and a challenge to find dates for. I was advised to first rotate in medical branches – like internal medicine, or cardiology before I even stepped onto the understanding of surgical clerkships, or neurosurgical internships. And I did that. Those initial rotations paved me a path to learning about networking, making friends, adjusting to dorm mates, to the food, the weather, and overall, a stay of months. Each instance was an experience in itself. To be able to imagine a life here, required understanding US laws, their system, their goals, their healthcare and their patients, and it was not learnt in a day. But I was very enamoured with the outlook their world presented – the easiness in which healthcare worked, the fundamentals of having protocol driven approaches rather than resource shortage conditions, where research was such a big stake holder in determining evidence based outcomes, the knack of insurance and paybacks, the comfortable lives that surgeons lived, rather than running a thousand to a mile in seconds to establish some medical officer’s signature for a red tape defined on his terms, and so much more.

I had my heart set on doing my post-graduation there. The main reason being the strong foundation on which I could build a bigger aspiration of mine…to be a component of global surgery and establish surgical domains, and techniques to the world to improve overall outcomes. This dream was in itself a revelation to me, as I happened to stumble upon it when asked a question from a colleague I met on one of my rotations in the US, as to where I could see myself in the next ten years, and somehow this answer made itself known. Just as shocked I was about what I mentioned, equally thrilled I was to understand the known end point on this curious exploit I had undertaken.

But life doesn’t quite work like you imagine. Somehow, US wasn’t in the stars for me. And it was a very bitter pill for me to swallow. I had imagined a life to such an extent that I could almost breathe, live, eat that dream and I had assumed with my capable CV in tow, that I deserved this chance, that there was nothing that could steal this dream from me. It was always drilled onto me that when one seeks for something from deep within and with no ounce of a doubt, the cosmos, the universe delivers it to him/her. Bang! But that prophecy wasn’t for me. And after cradling this dream like my own child, I had to move on, throw the baby away and get going onto the next chapter life brought. Which was sloppily, excruciatingly hard. I wasn’t on my best behaviour or my best days for almost a year.

But the thing is, I realised, Brain was still there, and so was I, albeit broken, albeit not complete, but still alive and moving, in inertia while the rest of the world continued to move. So, I decided to choose surgery, gave NEET and joined a program that would lead me once step closer to achieving a brilliant life with the Brain. Three years passed away in the blink of an eye, and Covid or no Covid, I was now a surgeon.

Come 2022, and life gave me horizons at freedom to explore. The Brain stayed coyly out of my sight, winking, flirting with me, while I examined the different versions of Brain in India, vs US, UK, Germany or just about any other country that would give me a licence to work there in the shortest time possible. Yes, yes, I know what you are thinking, I’ll say it out loud, I was desperate to learn and get out of India whilst I could at 27-30 years, coz this was my shot at going ‘global’. I mean, there is no global surgery if I stay in India and can’t leave to do fellowships or work out there, isn’t it? And foreign degrees are better regarded than Indian ones. (Don’t even get me started on the discrimination, I’ll stay out of that one, before I walk into a debate that might take years to clear out).

So came the next path in the pursuit to this madness, of an aspiration that I couldn’t even explain to the closest people around me (My parents, bless their beautiful souls, have been extremely kind, generous and understanding of what I wish to achieve, but it was taken a toll on them in finances, in sleepless nights, worrying about where their daughter is headed, especially when the going is so tough). The UK was my next target. MRCS exams. The Brain was slushing away, sending me pictures of chilling in Hawaii, waving me goodbye, as if telling me a sayonara of this sort meant I would not get to the Brain anytime soon. But yet I plundered on; in my persistence, I cared not for sleepless nights, or low-income days, or for that matter any amount of hearsay. I have given over 10 competitive exams in the last 5 years, and across three countries, nonetheless. I have been at the books, over and over again, reading and rereading, learning and re-learning techniques, solving over a gazillion questions, understanding concepts in a different spin – kind of like learning the whole alphabet system in the opposite way or starting from the letter J, for example, something that fundamental that could create mayhem and chaos in understanding pillars of words, sentences or books made from them. And all for what? Global surgery.

And then the universe just decided to dangle the Brain again in my face in December 2022. And here I am, finally engaged to the Brain in an old fashioned Indian way; but I am happy, content and have a sense of satiety filling my every tired pore, exhausted cell because I am doing what makes me happy.

Will my dream of global surgery ever become a reality? Will my dream of watching my research plough tirelessly into the field of neurosurgery ever become true? Will I stay here in India or go places like how I imagine it would be? Will there be a sense, serendipity, stability in this gorgeous love story I have with the Brain?

I know not. But I will dream. And dream. And hope. And dream again. One day, surely, when the time is right, so many of my energised thoughts in the universe may coagulate to give me the power of getting my dreams done. Till then, I shall dream, despite the mountains I see, and the boulders to climb.

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