Choose the road less well travelled

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Dr KK Aggarwal, Editor in Chief eMedinewS and IMA News in conversation with Dr Mammen Chandy, Director, Tata Medical Centre, Kolkata

Dr Mammen Chandy has been honored with Dr BC Roy National Award for the year 2008 under the category of ‘Eminent Medical Person’.

How does it feel being conferred one of the most prestigious awards in the medical field?

It feels good to have been honored in one’s own country and it has been great to receive so many congratulatory emails from colleagues from all over the world.

Tell us about your journey so far.

I joined the Christian Medical College Vellore in 1967, and graduated as the ‘Best Outgoing Student’ of my batch. I then joined the Dept. of Medicine at CMC for postgraduate studies, during which time I developed an interest in the field of Hematology. India at that time did not have any formal training in hematology so I went to the Westmead Center, Sydney, Australia and obtained the FRACP in medicine and the FRCPA in hematology from the Australian College of Medicine and Pathology. On my return to CMC, I worked to establish the Department of Hematology, which was formally inaugurated in 1986. It was indeed a challenge to develop a new clinical speciality but I received full support from CMC.

The first bone marrow transplant In CMC was done in 1986, and since then the bone marrow transplantation programme in CMC, Vellore has progressed to become the leading programme in the country – more than half the bone marrow transplants in India are done in CMC, Vellore. Our team at Vellore also performed the first bone marrow transplant for Thalassemia in the county. In addition, the Dept. has contributed significantly to the science of transplant in the world in terms of research publications. I knew that we could get physicians interested in this field only if we had a formal training program in India, so I worked hard to initiate the first MCI-approved DM programme in Hematology in 1999, and this remains one of the most coveted courses in the country. I also realized that without a strong research program attached to the clinical unit we would never be competitive or provide the best service for patients with blood diseases so with the help of research grants from ICMR and DBT we developed the infrastructure for molecular hematology and now offer a wide range of molecular tests including antenatal diagnosis for blood disorders.

The rigorous research environment continues with many doctoral students. The Department remains at the forefront of research in Hematology in the country with significant publications in the field of stem cell transplant, Hemophilia, Thalassemia, Leukemia and hemostasis/thrombosis.

As the current chair of the ICMR Stem Cell Task force and also the chair of the Dept. of Biotechnology Task Force on human genetics, I have been able to contribute to the development of research and infrastructure in these areas in the country. After 42 years in CMC Vellore. I retired in 2009 and now have the challenging task of developing a world class cancer center (the Tata Medical Center in Kolkata).

What were the early challenges faced by you in your career? How did you manage to overcome them?

When I returned from Australia these were some who said “this will not work in India”. One should never believe such persons and I know that with innovation and persistence it is possible to develop in India, the best practices available anywhere in the world.

Tell us about your family. How important has been the role of your family in your journey?

Very important! My wife Mrs Anu Mammen was almost a single parent because I had very little time for my family and it is largely to her accepting my punishing schedule that I have been able to achieve anything for hematology in India. She continues to support the work I am engaged in by running a great facility for children with cancer and she has been doing this for many years in Vellore and now in Kolkata. My eldest son Ajit trained in Vellore and is now a pediatric intensivist in the US while my second son is a computer engineer working for IBM in Austin.

What would be your message to the community?

As doctors we have an important function in society as role models and sadly we are not living up to these expectations. We need to demand a little less for ourselves as we strive to provide the best possible care for patients within the resource constraints under which we practice.

Given a chance, what changes would you like to bring about in health policies?

Medicine is India is changing but I feel that a majority of our population does not have access to good basic health care. So, while we develop technologies like hematopoietic stem cell transplantation we must ensure that all our people have access to immunization, sanitation, clean water, primary education and good treatment for common illnesses. Many of our health programs are intrinsically good but the political will to implement them properly is lacking.

What advice would you give to youngsters?

Choose the road less well travelled and with persistence and hard work you will have the satisfaction of contributing something to the welfare and progress of your own country and its people (with apologies to Robert Frost and Louis Pasteur!).