On this World Heart Day, let us for once imagine that the heart is the centre of emotions.
We should fill our heart with things that we will be proud of when anyone opens our hearts -- fill it with love rather than hate, fill it with confidence rather than fear, with care rather than apathy, with warmth rather than indifference, suggests Cardiac Surgeon Dr Sanjeeth Peter.
Chitra* heaved a sigh of relief when I told her that Satish*, her daily wage labourer husband, had undergone surgery and was doing well.
I went on and gave her a few details of the surgery, by which time I realised that she was not listening anymore and like most relatives had heard what she was waiting to hear and the rest was just a formality.
So abruptly concluding mid-sentence, I said 'He will be shifted to the ICU soon' as a parting shot and was about to turn around when she said, 'Doctor, one more thing...'
I saw the look of hesitancy on her face. Silence. When my eyebrows accordioned towards the base of my nose, she realised she had to say something to keep me there and she blurted 'You opened his heart, no?'.
I calmly said, 'Yes, and replaced his valve.' It was the turn of her eyebrows now as they crumpled towards the center of her weathered face and she asked 'Did you see what's inside?' Seeing my face go blank, she again blurted out 'I mean, does he love me? Did you see me inside or was it the other woman?'
Very few occasions catch me at a loss of words and this was certainly one.
I could have easily finished my conversation with her and even told her a white lie, but my recent encounter with Radha* left me unnerved about 'white lies'! Radha had barged into my OPD room and thumped her fist on my desk so hard that half of the pile of charts of patients waiting to be seen fell to the ground. 'What happened?' I demanded.
Shouting at the top of her voice, she said 'You lied to me!' Sheepishly I asked, 'When? About what?'.
Sometime during this conversation her mother walked in to the room giggling, looking amusedly at me as if thinking 'Let me see you squirm out of this one!'.
'Buffaloes are black!' Radha roared. 'My grandmother told me that your doctor doesn't know anything. All buffaloes are black'.
Now I remembered. 'But calm down, sit down, you've just had surgery. How're you?' I reassuringly said.
All of 6 years, this sprightly girl was here to see me for her 3-month post surgery check-up after undergoing major open heart surgery for multiple defects on her small heart. But she would now have none of my 'calm down, sit down, etc' as she stood in front of me with her left hand on her hip and the right arm swinging wildly, chest puffed up while she stared at me demanding to know why I lied to her.
Everyone in the room was giggling -- the nurses and Radha's mother -- while I sat like a 'bheegi billi' listening to her rant.
When she finally docked even her right hand on her hip, it was time for me to speak up.
I remember her coming for her one month follow up, brought in by her complaining mother that she sits the whole day.
She had walked in clutching onto a small pillow against her chest which the ward sisters had given, shoulders pointed forward and slouched, with her head straight as stiff as a rod.
The physiotherapist had complained that she didn't do any exercises and that at the rate she's going, she will develop frozen shoulders.
While writing all these points down, I asked her how many people live in her house.
'My parents, younger brother, my grandmother and four buffaloes,' she managed to squeak.
That's when an idea struck me and without looking up and continuing to write I casually asked 'What colour are your buffaloes?' She confidently answered black.
'Are all of them black? That's surprising usually at least half of them are white,' I remarked.
Everyone in the room had thought I was mad, but they dare not contradict.
I signaled to her mother to play along and I said 'Well, that means the buffaloes are not being washed well. Maybe if you yourself wash them well at least twice every day, their true colours will show and you will know how many are white.'
I gave her clear instructions that unless she does exactly as I say, the buffaloes will continue to be black and she will never know how many are white.
She had to raise her hand and scrub them in circular movements, both hands together and then one at a time.
I told her mother that she had to pour water on the buffaloes while Radha scrubs. And now while I sat there in my chair aghast at how even a 6-year-old girl was fuming at me, I saw that my trick had worked.
Definitely no frozen shoulder! It didn't take long for me to win her over -- an apology, chocolate and a selfie!
But those few minutes while I faced her wrath were enough to scare me off 'white lies'.
My escape from the question on Chitra's predicament wasn't going to be a lie.
Chitra, like many others, believed that the Heart is the seat of all emotions -- love, anger, hate, sadness and fear.
For our breed of surgeons -- Cardio Thoracic and Vascular Surgeons to be precise -- the heart is a fascinating, wonderfully functioning organ -- working tirelessly from the 5th week of life as a small embryo in the mother's womb to the final appointment with death.
It is made up of specialised, powerful muscles which, facilitated by 4 valves, pumps blood in one direction and the muscle gets its nutrition from blood supplied through coronary arteries.
Every single one of the more than 10,000 hearts that I have literally touched and cut open and repaired, has had blood in it.
I wasn't even looking for love or hatred in the heart. That as far as I'm concerned is in the brain, so a neurosurgeon's forte -- but I doubt even that -- after all, neurosurgeons are heartless!!
So the question of 'What did you see in the heart?' flummoxed me.
What I see fascinating about the heart, in addition to its function to maintain life, is a startling and yet profound truth.
I have operated on Indians -- all castes and communities, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Jains, tribals, atheists, operated on people from several ethnic races; Indian subcontinent, Australian, Asian, European, Americans -- but what fascinates me the most is how each one of our hearts are made from the same mold -- all hearts are the same!
Do you realise how difficult it would be if each Creator, who we refer to as God, be it Lord Shiva, Jehovah, Allah, ..., decided to make their followers 'unique'? As soon as I open the sternum, I'd know -- this person is a Hindu, or a Christian or a Muslim, or a Jew or maybe find something else in case of atheists.
There would be so much more we'd have to learn to practice medicine or surgery. But thankfully it is not so. Each one of us is the same.
So, the heart can never be used to divide humans according to their religious belief. The heart is there to find commonality in all of us and unite us!
On this World Heart Day, let us for once imagine that the heart is the center of emotions.
Like Chitra maybe it's time to ask ourselves what do we harbour in our hearts? While World Heart Day is an excuse for many to announce packages to check out our physical heart, it's time for us to check what's inside our heart as well.
My suggestion is that we fill it with things that we will be proud of when anyone opens our hearts -- fill it with love rather than hate, fill it with confidence rather than fear, with care rather than apathy, with warmth rather than indifference!
A tearful reunion with Satish in the ICU as soon as he woke up which was specially arranged, was enough for Chitra to put aside fear and suspicion and embrace a new loving heart.
They are overjoyed to see me each time they come for a follow-up, talk like long lost friends and have concluded that though it is blood that is found inside the heart, it is love that resides in that blood!
*Names have been changed to protect their identity.
Dr Sanjeeth Peter, a cardiac surgeon with 25 years of experience in critical care, is the director and chief cardiac surgeon at the DDMM Heart Institute, Nadiad, Gujarat.
Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/Rediff.com