Nirvikalpa Natarajan of Chennai has notched up so many formidable accomplishments that her peers in medicine find it hard to believe that she is only 30 years old. A practitioner of oral and maxillofacial surgery—one of handful of women in her field—her accomplishments include performing hundreds of surgeries, and treating hundreds of patients in India, Ireland and the UK.
That distinction, of course, attracts praise from her colleagues at Chennai’s Apollo Hospital. It sometimes also invites envy. The envy invariably comes from the less-accomplished people, and it takes the form of whispers that perhaps Nirvikalpa is too young for her position, or that she’s a relentless seeker of success. Such criticism doesn’t affect her. She lives by her simple credo: “My work speaks for itself.” It does indeed. Last Saturday, her work was recognised when she was presented the prestigious award—the Dr MSN Ginwalla Trophy for the Best Scientific Paper—at the 37th National Conference of the Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons of India. More than a thousand surgeons from across India and abroad had gathered for the conference at the Hyderabad International Convention Centre, a facility where the auditoriums are so cavernous that a speaker on the stage can seem dwarfed. But, not Nirvikalpa. Attired in a striking green sari, the tall surgeon, with flowing black hair, glided to the podium and delivered a 10-minute oration that had the audience riveted to her lucid language and self-confidence.
That self-confidence has been hard-won. A graduate of the Government Dental College in Mumbai, Nirvikalpa went on to do post-graduate work at the Saveetha University in Chennai. She has received two memberships at the Royal College of Glasgow, and a coveted fellowship from the Royal College in Ireland. She has been selected for a fellowship in cranio-maxillofacial surgery in Hannover in 2013.
“Oral and maxillofacial surgery is the next big thing,” Nirvikalpa says. Why? Because it’s a super speciality in medicine, and because the technologies are advancing so rapidly that opportunities to serve more people are increasing exponentially. Moreover, there’s a shortage of surgeons with requisite experience and skills in the field. It is a multi-disciplinary field, one that requires surgeons like Nirvikalpa to be deeply familiar with neuroscience, ophthalmology, dentistry and audiology, among other fields of medicine.
It is a field that pays surgeons far more in the West than in India, and Nirvikalpa could have just as easily joined the 400,000 physicians of Indian origin who practise medicine in the USA, the UK, Europe and Australia. But she chose to work in her homeland
because of the rich diversity of patients, because of patients’ needs, and
because, ultimately, “one has to give back to one’s own country.”
There’s also the fact that India—an economic giant, sorely needs more doctors. Some 45,000 doctors graduate from the country’s medical school each year, and about 3,000 of them go abroad annually. Even though India is a major supplier of physicians and nurses to industrialised countries, there are just about 600,000 registered allopathic physicians in India, according to the Union Ministry of Health. That translates into one doctor for every 2,000 of the total population in India.
There’s one more thing that certainly keeps Nirvikalpa in India. That’s the benevolence of the man who founded the Apollo Hospitals nearly 30 years ago, a cardiologist named Dr Prathap Chandra Reddy. Both Dr Reddy, and Apollo’s director of medical services, Dr N Satyabhama have been her mentors. Another mentor is Dr Vinod Narayanan—who is highly experienced in oral and maxillofacial surgery, and is a consultant at the Apollo Hospital. Nirvikalpa also looks up to Preetha Reddy, managing director of Apollo Hospitals which has 55 institutions around India, and is one of the world’s largest healthcare systems.
So, is she a relentless seeker of success? It is not a question that Nirvikalpa will answer. After all, her work speaks for itself. And the fact that she’s still single at 30 also speaks for itself. One is tempted to add that she’s a very eligible 30-year-old surgeon. Anyone aspiring to change that situation should be prepared to put up with Nirvikalpa’s 18-hour work schedule, seven days a week, and the fact that she shows no signs of slackening.
(Pranay Gupte is an author and veteran journalist)
ORAL AND MAXILLOFACIAL SURGERY
Oral and maxillofacial surgery is a unique speciality that deals with conditions, defects and aesthetic aspects of the mouth, jaws and face. It is especially relevant in India which has the world’s largest number of traffic accidents that often result in severe distortion to the head and face. What sets oral and maxillofacial surgeons apart from other specialists is their in-depth understanding of the skeletal and dental framework of the face. Much as the foundations of a building are made from iron, the foundations of the face are its bones and teeth. Knowing the subtleties of this allows them to deal effectively in areas of cosmetic jaw surgery, facial trauma, craniofacial surgery, oral pathology, temperomandibular joint surgery, oral implantology and oral cancer.