A slightly breathless Dr JS Rajkumar zips into the room with an energy that belies his sixty years. When asked if he wanted a moment to catch his breath (he had been on hospital rounds), he declines, and instantly, launches into a dialogue peppered with concerns about the status of democracy, book recommendations, and Bharathiyar couplets.
"Oh, I love literature, rock music, drama, teaching, painting…," Dr JSR rattles off, while also revealing a list of social initiatives that he has squeezed into his schedule. It’s impossible to not feel super-enthused as one listens to the chief surgeon and founder-chairman, Lifeline Group of Hospitals.
His many passions notwithstanding, DR JSR is one of the few surgeons in the country skilled in a wide range of specialisations, including laparoscopic (key-hole), robot-assisted, bariatric, diabetic, and metabolic surgeries.
The healthcare entrepreneur routinely juggles between his practice in Dubai (where he and his wife Dr Chitrakala Rajkumar did 12-hour shifts at the onset of COVID-19), and at Kilpauk, where CE caught up with the indefatigable man.
Decades of surgical practice, hospital administration, books, blogs, lectures, social initiatives… What keeps you going?
I’d like to borrow the title of Irving Stone’s book on Van Gogh - 'Lust for Life' to answer that! I belong to a romantic generation of medical professionals; we throw ourselves into our jobs of saving lives. Also, I have always had 25-30 interests besides my work. It's just how I am wired.
Share with us some memorable surgeries from your career.
There are oh-so-many! I even have an upcoming book that compiles my experiences at the surgery table ('Behind The Bloody Mask'). Do you know I performed the first Google Glass-assisted surgery in India, in 2013? I live-streamed the surgery to students nearby; it was a great teaching tool.
One of my special surgeries is a Wertheim hysterectomy which involved the removal of the uterus and lymph nodes. The patient was up and about in two days! I also remember a patient who had a cyst in the heart.
Heart surgeons had scrubbed in, ready for open surgery, but we were able to do the job with a bloodless thoracoscopic procedure instead.
Can you share a few words of wisdom that you have passed on to your son?
When you have to don two hats all the time, there can be a clash. Doctors tend to use the lens of compassion which is patient-friendly but as an administrator, there should be a focus on the system, too. Until recently, most people went to doctors who commanded a certain presence in the field. Today, they’re going to recommended hospitals, not individuals.
So, it is vital for all hospitals to have an efficient process in place. To accommodate this paradigm shift, which prioritises patient safety and expert practices, you need to keep running a set of processes until you achieve perfection. This is what I tell my son Dr Anirudh Rajkumar, a robotic surgeon, and joint managing director at Lifeline.
How do you maintain a work-life balance?
My idea of 'unwinding' means doing some activity vigorously. I can't just close my eyes and relax as one would do at a spa. That is uncomfortable for me. I keep doing something on my iPad even if the television is on, or I'll hyperfocus on painting. Now, that is relaxing for me.
I wouldn't recommend it though. I used to work all seven days a week, and I was going mad. Doctors who work full-time in the Middle East tell me they have weekends off for family and themselves. Our country doesn’t allow our doctors to have a work-life balance.
People call us on Sunday evenings, too. Do you do that with a DGP? Doctors have families, we need rest, too. The next generation, like my son, has learnt to have an actual balance.
Any words of advice for millennial doctors?
Do not be demoralised by the attitudes towards doctors in the country, especially by fellow doctors in the fraternity. The number of suicides of young doctors and aspirants here distresses me… This is how disillusionment sets in among the young.
You want to serve as a doctor in a village? Work in the US, send cheques back to the village instead. There are so many ways to serve. Hold onto your idealism. And for that, have multiple streams of revenue. To stand apart, arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible.
Don't be isolated and concentrate only on your practice. Participate in collectives. I'm part of the Indian Medical Association and a host of other bodies; these interactions are worth your time. Be a part of the larger whole.
To reiterate, the excitement and adrenaline keep us going to an extent, but one day, when burnout hits, you'll wonder if it is worthwhile? I have had bypasses, so, there is a toll. People will thank you for saving the lives of their kin but it is your wife and kids who will be there with you. Make sure you take breaks, and spend time with family.
Tell us about your ongoing passion projects
I'm currently doing a series of live educational talks on the constitution and facets of Indian history in colleges across the state. My upcoming health super app, Healia, is my passion.
It is an AI platform that records data from patients using health monitoring devices connected to it. It will work like a preventative tool to help assess who is at risk of a stroke (before the actual stroke can happen). I'm also going to shoot for Udhayanidhi Stalin's Angel. I’m playing a doctor in it!