Some Reflections on Healthcare in North Bengal and Dr N C Banerjee : By Dr Gurdip S Flora

Gurdip Singh Flora ( his facebook profile picture appears below))  was my classmate at the Medical College,Calcutta. Soon after we graduated, he migrated to the USA.However his roots were in North Bengal. Little did I know that more than 25 years after that I would end up in North Bengal  and make it my home. I caught up with him after all of 35 years thanks to Facebook.  We have occasionally talked about North Bengal and I had asked him to write a guest post in my blog. However it has been a long time coming and I am posting this piece from his pen ( or computer) which has however seen the light of day elsewhere. I hope that I will be able to publish many more in the future.

During the later days of British rule in India, it was felt that the people of the northeastern region were facing a shortage of qualified medical practitioners to tend to the sick in that part of the world. The physicians graduating from the Campbell Medical School of Calcutta and the Mitford Medical School of Dacca were not sufficient to meet the medical needs of the growing population. In consideration of the dire need for qualified healthcare practitioners and physicians, a third medical school was established in the region in 1924. The Earl of Lytton, Governor of Bengal, laid the foundation stone of what was to later become the Lytton Medical School in Mymensingh. The school conducted a rigorous four-year curriculum of medical education that led to the awarding of a Licentiate of Medical Faculty (LMF) degree to its graduates. The LMF course of study and training continued until 1962, when it was upgraded to a five-year undergraduate medical course under Dhaka University. The school was renamed as Mymensingh Medical College.
The LMF doctors were the pioneers of modern medicine in many parts of India. While graduates of the more prestigious five year medical schools in Calcutta and other cities dreamed of more glamorous lives and the pursuits of more prestigious degrees from the Royal Colleges in London and Edinburgh, these physicians took medical care to the local communities. Doctor Narayan Chandra (NC) Banerjee was one such physician who moved to Mal from Dacca and made his home there after the partition of India. Dr. Banerjee was a complete physician. For a long period of time, he was the only doctor within a wide radius, and patients came to him seeking his advice and treatment recommendations. Wisdom and the yearning to serve the community came naturally to him. The term “doctor” is Latin for teacher, advisor, scholar, and church elder. It infers more closely the Hippocratic ideal of what a physician should be like. Doctor Banerjee was a perfect example of what a true and dedicated physician should be like.
In modern times, medicine has been transformed by waves of discovery that have brought marvels like sophisticated diagnostic imaging techniques, interventional radiology procedures, robotic surgery, diagnostic and therapeutic endoscopy procedures, invasive hemodynamic monitoring , advanced cardiac and cerebral interventions, antibiotics, vaccines, cardiac and other vascular stents, and scores of other modern procedures. Dr. Banerjee compounded his own medications, made concoctions with formulations learned in his Pharmacology class and did his own dressings and wound care. As he got busy he employed a “compounder” to assist him with sterilization of the needles, forceps, and other minor surgical paraphernalia that he used. I remember a quaint little microscope that he had on a side table which he often used to diagnose malaria, infectious diarrhea, urinary tract infections, and other basic diseases. He functioned as a diagnostician, a minor surgeon, a pathologist, a pharmacist and a wound care specialist, all wrapped in one. He pursued an intuitive, pragmatic, result-oriented search of relevant and useful information to improve his knowledge base by subscribing to prestigious journals like Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine. He had stacks of medical journals and periodicals which he avidly read. Although he sought sources with academic credibility, he maintained his primary interest in practical and experiential knowledge. He had the ability to challenge any physician to a duel of the latest knowledge in medical science.
Dr. N.C. Banerjee was a role model and a mentor to me. He was someone I could identify with, who had qualities I dreamed of having and was in a position I could only hope to achieve. A man of deep faith and conviction who participated in all the festivals and traditional religious ceremonies in the community, he extolled the importance of physicians’ virtues such as intellectual honesty and fidelity to patients as the ethical basis of the physician-patient encounter. I remember how he would come to our home for house calls with his medical call bag filled with a tuning fork, a percussion hammer, an extra stethoscope, syringes, first-aid medications, anti-nausea and anti-emetic medications, injectable pain killers, and the famous mercury Baumanometer sphygmomanometer. He would dress impeccably in his British style suits and almost always sported a tie. As he disembarked from the rickshaw in front of our house, he would ask loudly in his typical firm voice, “Hamara Chotta Daktar Babu kahan hai?” (“Where is my Little Doctor?”) as he would seek me out and then wrap his heavy stethoscope around my neck, while my parents broke into broad beaming smiles on their eager faces.
Like most LMF certified physicians, Dr. Banerjee identified with the local people in the community. He celebrated with them, prayed with them, suffered with them and cried with them. He was an integral part of the community. He sponsored the local boys and girls schools and contributed generously to Puja celebrations and other functions. He never declined to treat anyone irrespective of his/her ability to pay. He was known for his integrity and his generosity and was hugely respected and honored in and around Mal. Following introduction of the five year curriculum of medical study, the M.B., M.B.B.S., and the advanced graduates of the Royal Colleges of London and Edinburgh gradually took over, bringing their modern brand of medicine to the arena. Despite being pioneers and the founders of modern medicine in Northeastern India, these kind hearted, compassionate and knowledgeable physicians were relegated to the status of second class professionals by many in the community. But the support and blessings of the majority remained with Dr. Banerjee and his intense band of LMF doctors. Providing further credibility and support to their faith in the expertise of these LMF doctors, the elite Tea estate managers and their families, the prosperous Marwari families, the foreign missionaries and others of stature chose to stay with Dr. N.C Banerjee’s practice. By the time I left Mal and Dr. N.C Banerjee behind, there were two M.B.B.S. physicians in private practice and an additional one with the Primary Health Care Clinic.
As I sit in my study in faraway Chatsworth, California, I battle with the overarching regret of having abandoned my community in Mal, the people with whom I share a common beginning, a common bond and the people who had high hopes that I would someday return from Calcutta with my M.B.B.S .degree and work to heal them and to pray with them, to celebrate with them, to suffer with them and to share with them. I remember the words of Mr. Parimal Mitra, Minister of Forestry and Tourism as he assured my father that he would open a “big hospital” in Mal when it would be promoted to the status of a Sub-division, and on how he would appreciate my work in that dream of his and that of many others in Mal. My dreams, unfortunately, did not align with theirs as I boarded the Blue Mountain Express from Station Road, Mal on my way to catch the Pan Am flight to Los Angeles in 1983. The expectations of many were shattered by the one that they hoped would be there for them, the first student from Mal to graduate from Calcutta Medical College, but no longer for Mal but for his own. The most  disappointmented were  N.C Banerjee, LMF, Bhai Nanak Singh, priest of the Mal Sikh Temple, and the residents of Gurdwara Road. With the natural excitement of coming to America and with my career here now muted, I am staring down the barrel of guilt and disappointment. I have come to the bitter realization and conclusion that my career, and indeed my life in the US, did not serve a purpose beyond the mere superficial.

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