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  • Thiagarajan Arunachalam
    From: kv chari Dr Sivaramakrishna Padmavati: Meet India’s first & oldest woman heart specialist By Ullekh NP, ET Bureau | 30 Jun, 2013,
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 2, 2013
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      From: kv chari <kvchari@...>

      Dr Sivaramakrishna Padmavati: Meet India’s first & oldest woman heart specialist
      By Ullekh NP, ET Bureau | 30 Jun, 2013, 06.18AM IST
      Dr Sivaramakrishna Iyer Padmavati, who, at 96, is as active now as she was when she started treating patients in India 60 years ago.Dr Sivaramakrishna Iyer Padmavati, who, at 96, is as active now as she was when she started treating patients in India 60 years ago.

      She is not just the mother figure or godfigure, but she is the god of cardiology in India," says renowned cardiologist Dr Ashok Seth of Fortis Escorts Heart Institute about DrSivaramakrishna Iyer Padmavati, who, at 96, is as active now as she was when she started treating patients in India 60 years ago.

      A recipient of the Padma Vibhushan, the country's second-highest civilian award, and Padma Bhushan, Padmavati not only trained herself in cardiology from the UK and the US in the late '40s and the early '50s, but also taught several of India's best cardiologists, notes Seth. "She is profoundly knowledgeable. She created the whole concept of heart treatment in India from scratch," he adds.

      "I have seen the world of cardiology grow under my eyes," says Padmavati, seated in her office in the hospital. The cardiology veteran has many firsts to her credit: she is India's first woman cardiologist; she set up the country's first cardiology clinic; she created the first cardiology department in an Indian medical college; she founded India's first heart foundation meant to spread awareness about diseases of the heart.

      Such a Long Journey

      She was born in Burma (now called Myanmar) in 1917, on the year of the October Revolution that redrew the world's political map, the year the late Indian prime minister,Indira Gandhi, was born and a year before anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela's birth. Her father and older brother were barristers and she grew up in Mergui, near the oil fields of Burma. A brilliant student, she stood first in the province in her final school examination. Thanks to her exemplary performance, her "local school" was "upgraded", she remembers.

      Dr Sivaramakrishna Padmavati: Meet India’s first & oldest woman heart specialistAnd then she went on to study medicine at the Rangoon Medical College where she was the first female student. The young maverick completed her MBBSmagna cum laude, earning the best outgoing student medal and several other distinctions. "I won so many honours that I can't remember all of them," says Padmavati, who picked up what she calls her "craze" for swimming during her "Burma days".

      She has kept at it: she swims every day for six months a year at the Ford Foundation's exclusive swimming pool in Delhi. In Delhi's winter and for the rest of the months of the year, she prefers long walks.

      She learnt the art of reading from her dad whom she says was devoted to books. "I am the custodian of the library here [at the National Heart Institute in south Delhi] and reading helps me keep abreast of the latest developments in cardiology," she says.

      Enduring the War

      Just after she completed her medical studies in Rangoon, Japan invaded Burma at the height of World War II and she had to return to India. "We had to run for our lives, literally," says the noted cardiologist. "My parents were told to vacate the house in 24 hours. My father was there for many, many years. Then we had to fly out from Mergui by the last flight. The men were left behind and only the women went. Things were quite bad," she recalls.

      Padmavati, her sister Janaki and their mother came to Tamil Nadu and bought a home in Coimbatore. For the next three years, until 1945, there was no news of the men of the family. When the war ended, the family was reunited. Padmavati left for postgraduate studies in London. Soon, she became a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, London, and of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh.

      Matters of the Heart

      Padmavati remembers that she was deeply attached to her family, but also wanted to study medicine under the masters. She joined Johns Hopkins University in the US to train under Dr Helen Taussig who performed the first surgeries on blue babies — children born with a congenital defect of the heart — which was a milestone in modern cardiology.

      Having finished her stint at Johns Hopkins, Padmavati went to study under Dr Paul Dudley White at the Harvard Medical School in Boston for the next four years. White is widely regarded as the father of modern cardiology. She also studied in Sweden before returning to India in the early 1950s. She points out that it was Swedish scientists who pioneered the concept of the echocardiogram (used for scanning movements of the heart), drawing inspiration from equipment used in deep-sea diving. "I missed my parents a lot. I came to Delhi and started staying with my sister [Janaki] whose husband was a career diplomat," Padmavati says.

      India Calling

      She had plans to return to the US to start her practice, but she decided to try her luck in India — she sought an appointment with Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, the then health minister, who offered her a lecturer's position at Delhi's Lady Hardinge Medical College. She accepted the offer. "Lady Hardinge used to be a primitive place then. They had only girls. There were no male patients at that time. Anyway I decided to stay back," she says, emphasising that she was enamoured of the "Gandhian qualities" of the leaders and ministers of the time.

      Within a year of joining, in 1954, she was promoted to professor of medicine and she also set up north India's first catheterisation lab, which housed diagnostic imaging equipment for inspecting the arteries and chambers of the heart for abnormalities. Men also started visiting the hospital, much to the anguish of the "old-timers who bristled with anger", laughs Padmavati who is glad that many of her students of the time are now heads of cardiology departments in various institutes including Savitri Jain (in the US); Saroj Prakash at Delhi's Maulana Azad Medical College (MAMC); and Santosh Sud, cardiologist at Auburn University, Alabama.

      Lady Hardinge was where she did most of her research because she was shocked by the number of diseases that she could discover outside of medical textbooks. "I got awards for that — I got money from the Rockefeller Foundation to do research into such diseases," she maintains adding that she received "PL 480 money" to do medical research. Through this scheme, India bought grains from the US and the money was given back to India; part of the proceeds was used for medical research. "I did a lot of work on rheumatic fever and lung diseases. There was no cardiology then. It was I who started the first cardiac clinic at Lady Hardinge."

      More Responsibilities

      Thanks to her pioneering research in cardiology, Padmavati was much in demand as a professor and an administrator. In 1967, the government of India asked her to take over as director-principal of MAMC where she also set up a cardiology department. She also helped set up the cardiology department at GB Pant Hospital, which was on the campus of MAMC.

      She also held additional charge of Delhi's Irwin Hospital (now called Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan Hospital). MAMC had 26 departments and it was Padmavati who introduced the DM course in cardiology, which admits postgraduates. "It was a big undertaking," Padmavati recalls. But then times were different and things much less complicated back then, she adds. Padmavati feels that the bureaucracy was bad then and is worse today. What helped was her direct access to the Lt Governor of Delhi, AN Jha, who helped her tide over bureaucratic red tape.

      Mission Possible

      After retirement from government service in 1981, she helped set up the National Heart Institute (NHI) in Delhi. As director, she had no doubts about her role: to promote research and spread awareness about diseases of the heart. She has been founder-director of the All India Heart Foundation, "a sister concern of NHI" since 1962. In India's rural areas, the foundation holds "heart camps" to familiarise people with the disease and its causes.

      It was India's — and Asia's — first exclusive heart institute; its rich successor Escorts Hospital was built in 1988. According to WHO, 17.3 million people died worldwide from cardiovascular diseases in 2008. Of this, 80% of deaths take place in low- and middle-income countries, especially in India, which accounts for 21% of the world's disease burden.

      From 20 beds, the institute has now grown to 100 beds. "But it can grow further. Unlike many new hospitals, we don't have money from elsewhere. We get money from what we earn," she says matter-of-factly. She didn't elaborate. She finds it heartening that though heart diseases are on the rise in India due to a variety of reasons, technology and biochemistry have shown rapid growth in combating the menace. "I still touch and use my eyes and ears to treat patients, but I have to know technology, too. You can't stop the march of technology," declares Padmavati, who says she attends at least two global heart conferences a year to keep herself "updated".

      As regards the use of medicines to treat heart ailments, this renowned cardiologist, who is also an expert in non-invasive surgery, says, "Treat medicines as your servant. You shouldn't let them become your master." Padmavati sees patients 12 hours a day for five days a week. It helps her that she is a polyglot who speaks Hindi, Tamil, Burmese, a smattering of German and French besides Telugu and Mayalayam, she says. "I never married, but I never felt bad about it either because I am always busy with patients and my research," sums up Padmavati whose paternal grandmother lived up to 103. She attributes her longevity to genes, luck and hard work.


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