An astute academician and a compassionate surgeon, Dr VP Gangadharan shares his story of carefree childhood, struggle for knowledge and success as a people’s surgeon
Dr VP Gangadharan was born to a textile engineer MNP Nair and Saraswathi Amma in Coimbatore. The youngest of the four siblings, three brothers and a sister, young Gangadharan was academically gifted. At the age of five, when he went for school admissions, his intellect was equivalent to a 10-year-old as he learnt lessons with his sister who was three years elder to him. Based on his knowledge, he was offered admission to class four. However, his parents thought it would be in his best interest if he started from class three and thus he embarked on this extraordinary journey of knowledge and learning and completed his schooling when he was 13-years-old. As the youngest boy in class, young Gangadharan tried to fit into the world but mostly found it socially awkward. And yet this did not deter him from enjoying his childhood.
Peshkar Road Gang
Dr Gangadharan had a wonderful childhood engraved on the canvas of time. The siblings lived at their grandmother’s house on Peshkar Road, Irinjalakuda. The area had many houses and many kids. Dr Gangadharan remembers the large joint family Vettiyattil house he grew next to, had a unique environment. All the kids in the vicinity used to walk to school and played together. Even though they were of different age groups there was a strong bond of friendship among them and they were fondly called Peshkar gang.
It was a time when discipline came naturally and teachers were vested in the education and future of their pupils. This carefree environment further nurtured Dr Gangadharan’s mind and moulded his personality. The idea of liberty, equality and fraternity was ingrained in his young mind. Even today, Dr Gangadharan lives by these values. Dr Gangadharan played all kinds of sports with his friends like cricket, football and badminton. As a sportsman he learnt to appreciate failure, he says.
Maharaja College Days
The academically gifted Dr Gangadharan aced his class at Christ College Irinjalakkuda at the age of 15. Incidentally, he could not pursue a professional course till he was 17, so he joined a degree course at Maharajas College, Ernakulam. In the 1970s, Maharajas College was the hotbed of social, political and cultural activities. Here Dr Gangadharan imbibed philosophy and immersed in Malayalam literature. He even scored the highest marks in Malayalam even though he did not enrol for the subject. In 1973, Dr Gangadharan pass BSc with flying colours and still, he was not sure what he wanted to do further.
Medicine and Textile
After graduation, Dr Gangadharan went to Coimbatore to join his father’s flourishing textile dye business. However, his lack of business acumen led him to abandon his business dreams. At this time, his mother reminded him of the maternal uncle who was a great doctor at the time. His namesake uncle had passed away and Dr Gangadharan’s mother wanted him to pursue medicine just like his uncle did.
Dr Gangadharan applied for MBBS and got through to Medical College, Kottayam. He remembers his MBBS days fondly. This is where he met his wife Dr K Chitrathara. During the first year of MBBS Dr Chitrathara was his anatomy class partner. This partnership became friendship and then turned into a lifelong commitment.
Dr Gangadharan says that his days at Medical College, Kottayam taught him important lessons of sincerity and empathy, something that is lacking in the doctors today.
He remembers that they had to be on call 24/7, but no one complained. Since the teachers and students stayed on-campus classes were held even late in the evening. The college was like a close-knit community where all festivals were celebrated with the same fervour, and the boundaries of religion and ethnicity did not exist. Service and ethics were instilled as a doctrine and still guide much of Dr Gangadharan’s work.
When Dr Gangadharan finished his MBBS, the choice for MD were few. He chooses to work post-residency and applied for MD outside Kerala. This was the time when AIIMS, Delhi had started and MD positions opened for students. By this time, Dr Gangadharan was married and Dr Chitrathara was doing her MD Oby-Gync at Safdurjung Hospital, Delhi. It was his background in sciences that helped him get MD radiotherapy at AIIMS, Delhi which he completed in 1984. He came back and did general medicine in 1986 and then went to Cancer Institute, Adayar, Chennai to do DM medical oncology in 1989.
This time in Dr Gagadharan’s life was very difficult. He remembers long work hours, staying in small hospital quarters and challenge of studying with a growing family. He even worked without stipend for free during his DM oncology at Cancer Institute Adayar. The work was challenging but it prepared him for the life ahead. He learnt a lot from stalwarts like the late Dr V Shantha.
Following training at Chennai Dr Gangadharan joined RCC, Trivandrum in 1989 as Asst. Professor & Head of Medical Oncology. It was here that he established the Medical Oncology Department, the first-of-its-kind in Art by patient Kerala. He further trained in Bone Marrow Transplantation programme in the US and the UK with NCI and WHO fellowships. He became the first oncologist to do Blood stem cell transplantation in Kerala. He became the first oncologist to treat paediatric cases in the days before specific specialities existed.
He established the Cochin Cancer Society to help needy cancer patients and to educate the public about cancer and conduct camps for early detection among women. After leaving RCC in 2003, Dr Gangadharan became the Head of Medical & Pediatric Oncology at VPS Lakeshore Hospital & Research Centre. He also works with Welcare hospital, Kochi and Caritas Cancer Centre, Kottayam.
Saint with Stethoscope
Dr Gangadharan has never refused a patient treatment for want of money. He is always eager to seek out and help cancer affected people who are marginalised. He says that the patient is his priority and his life’s earnings are the patients and families he has interacted with in his long career. This is the reason for his immense popularity not only in Kerala but around the world. His stellar reputation draws patients from around the globe. He has received several awards as a testament to his knowledge, practice and philanthropic initiatives. He is known as a valued, trusted and insightful teacher; his colleagues and students remember and appreciate the advice, mentorship and friendship that Dr Gangadharan provided to them.
Dr Gangadharan is the author of many scientific articles and has about 35 national and international publications. He has authored chapters in three textbooks. He has delivered about 60 scientific lectures as invited speaker in seminars and scientific meetings.
A book titled Jeevithamenna Athbudhamis is a compilation of Dr Gangadhar’s life experience with patients. Published in Malayalam by DC books in 2004, it opens up his heart and soul. The book is very well received and has helped many cancer patients face their fate.