Home / Opinion / Views /  Opinion | The missing spirit of sacrifice among some doctors

Doctors in several hospitals across India are agitating for security after two interns in a Kolkata hospital were beaten up following the death of an old patient. The patient’s relatives were of the opinion that the death was because of doctors’ negligence. While one must condemn violence on doctors, it is also time for doctors in India to introspect. In an article titled White Coated Corruption published in the Indian Journal Of Medical Ethics, Vijay Mahajan writes, “India is said to have one of the most corrupt medical systems in the whole world. The situation has become so bad that patients today approach doctors with mixed feelings—of faith and fear, of hope and hostility." Mahajan offers details showing how greed for money and utter callousness afflict a large section of the medical profession. While there are many upright doctors, no doubt, others have no ethics, some heartlessly fleecing patients, prescribing unnecessary drugs hand in glove with pharmaceutical companies, performing unnecessary operations, as highlighted in George Bernard Shaw’s play Doctor’s Dilemma, and even indulging in the illegal organ trade , as depicted in Robin Cook’s novel Coma. No wonder that a large section of Indians have no respect for doctors, a few even resorting to violence against them.

To regain social respect, doctors must remind themselves of their Hippocratic Oath and develop a spirit of service, empathy with patients and sacrifice, as exemplified by the life of Dr. Dwarkanath Kotnis. Here follow excerpts from an account of his death written by his Chinese wife Guo Qinglan:

“On 27th November 1937, at the suggestion of an eminent American correspondent Agnes Smedley, Zhu De, Commander-in-Chief of the Chinese Eighth Route Army, wrote a letter to the Indian National Congress leader Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru expressing gratitude for supporting the anti-Japanese struggle of the Chinese people and requesting… a medical team from India. Consequently Pt. Nehru proposed that a Medical Mission be sent to China…Dr. Kotnis, who had qualified as a doctor from Bombay Medical College, joined this Medical Mission. He went to Sholapur, his home town, and told his family about it. At this, his brother Mangesh said, ‘For the sake of our education father had to borrow a lot of money. Now our parents are old and need a helping hand.’ However, when his father saw that he was adamant, he said, ‘So, Dwarka, you have decided to go. I would like to remind you not to let the Indian people down. Since you have decided to go, you must do a good job and good things to the Chinese people, and win laurels for your family and country.’

In September the team of five Indian doctors went by ship to Hong Kong. They travelled then to Chongqing. There Dr. Kotnis received a letter from his brother in India, which said, ‘Father has passed away suddenly.’ This was a bolt from the blue and he could not stop crying. His colleagues tried to persuade him to go back to India, but he said he will never let his father down and the best way to commemorate him was to help the Chinese people eject the Japanese invaders. So he continued with the Mission to Yenan, where they lived in caves. They spent the next four years treating the wounded and the sick Chinese.

During these four years Dr. Kotnis had overloaded himself with work for a long period until his health completely broke down…He went without food and sleep for long periods and endured extreme pain during this period and sacrificed all he had till his last breath…

On 8th December [he] suffered an attack of epilepsy… At 8pm he went to his room to be with me and our 108 days old child. As he was talking he remembered that the younger brother of his landlady was seriously ill. He went there to treat the patient and returned after two hours totally exhausted…At midnight he asked me for some boiled water as he was thirsty. An hour thereafter I was suddenly awakened by the groans of his pain, only to discover that all his four limbs were severely twitching. His complexion had turned pale. He had suffered another attack and it was serious. A senior doctor was called and he gave him morphine and camphor liquid, but to no avail. The doctor then tried spine puncturing, but it was of no use. Dr. Kotnis breathed his last at 6.15 a.m. on 9th December 1942…He was just 32 years old. He had spent over four years in China during the War of Resistance against the Japanese, treating the wounded and sick Chinese.

The sudden demise of Dr. Kotnis left everyone in Tang County in grief and even the Tang River wept. The people in the county felt they were rendered orphans. An atmosphere of grief shrouded the entire valley. The villagers of the Ge Gong valley came to our place from all directions. Everyone who came was crying in the streets and in the courtyard, where his body lay.

[At the] memorial ceremony…Some people sang a song which they had composed for the occasion:

You came from the shores of the warm Indian Ocean

To brave the cold of North China

For the world of tomorrow

You fought four autumns in China

Alas! At the end of a long night

The fountain of your life ran dry

Oh, Comrade Kotnis, our beloved

Your image will always be with us

And your memory will live forever in our hearts..."

Markandey Katju is former judge, Supreme Court of India

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