Heart-to-heart with the PM's doc

Updated on: Apr 26, 2012
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All praise for his VIP patient, cardiac surgeon Dr Ramakanta Panda shares the passion he brings to his life-giving work.

He is the man credited with giving Dr Manmohan Singh a second lease of life.

Dr Ramakanta Panda, who led the team of surgeons that performed a complicated heart surgery on the Prime Minister in early 2009, is all praise for his VIP patient.

“Dr Singh was absolutely relaxed during the entire process. We asked him to choose between surgery and angioplasty, and all it took him was 15 seconds to decide. He said he had complete faith in us,” Dr Panda, Vice-Chairman and Managing Director of the Asian Heart Institute, says.

It was not the easiest of surgeries but the Prime Minister was ‘absolutely fantastic' right through. “The first thing he asked when he was conscious was if things were all right in India and, particularly, in Kashmir! Quite often, he said he could not get sleep thinking of the country,” he recalls.

According to Dr Panda, the Prime Minister is generally a quiet person, but it would be wrong to interpret this trait as a weakness.

“I do believe he can be authoritative if he chooses to. What will constantly stay in my memory is Dr Singh's house, which is literally bursting with books. Each time I gift him one, I end up discovering he already has a copy,” he quips.


Dr Panda is rated among the world's top heart surgeons. After working for many years in the US, he set up the Asian Heart Institute in Mumbai a little over a decade ago. By his own admission, what keeps him going is his passion. “I love what I am doing and if I have to relive my life a 100 times over, this is exactly what I would opt for as a career,” he says.

In fact, he was determined to become a doctor right from childhood. “It started off as a fascination when I was very young. Years later, when I began doing surgeries, this fascination turned into complete passion,” he says.

There is no other branch of medicine where the “patient's life depends on you to the extent that you cannot afford making even a microscopic mistake”, he says, describing the kind of involvement he feels towards his work. By the same token, the recovery process is near-instantaneous and does not take weeks as with other surgeries. “What makes heart surgery fantastic is that a life-and-death situation is dealt with in seconds,” he explains.

While agreeing that experience helps build one's skills, he believes what is even more important is a commitment to excellence and a vision to be different from the rest. “You need to have a mindset for excellence even while getting on-the-job training,” he reiterates.

India's unhealthy hearts

Typically, most heart surgeons in the US, on average, do 300 cases annually, while it is nearly four times that for Dr Panda in India. Tragically, there are more people here who cannot afford surgeries, compared to the US, even though medicare costs are lower than in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. The other obstacle in India is the shortage of hospitals to cater to the vast numbers of people.

What is equally interesting is that for a country associated with junk food and obesity, the incidence of heart diseases in the US actually fell by 27 per cent between 1996 and 2007. This was largely due to changes in dietary habits, more exercise and a ban on smoking in public places.

Dr Panda is, however, not too happy with the state of affairs in India where “people are doing what the US did 30 years ago”. Smoking, he says, has increased and this is true for men and women. While there are some who go to gyms, many others are glued to the Internet and television.

“Our average lifespan is 67 years while this is 85 in the US and marginally higher in Japan. Though there is higher awareness in India, the pace of change is slow. We still have a long way to go,” he rues.

Power of prevention

The best bet going forward is awareness and prevention of heart problems, he says. If detected early, there would be no need for angioplasty in a large number of cases. “Medicines work nearly 80 per cent of the time, and I am of the view that preventive treatment is always a better option, especially when a surgery is a lot more expensive. Opt for the healthy alternative instead of going under the knife,” the heart expert advises.

Blood pressure and diabetes are ‘silent killers' that need careful monitoring. He advocates a yearly check-up to rule out abnormalities. “At the end of the day, one only needs to modify one's lifestyle,” he adds.

The surgeon is also quick to dismiss the ‘myth' that non-vegetarian food is more lethal for the heart. “Nothing could be further from the truth, especially when hardcore vegetarian communities like the Marwaris and Gujaratis have among the highest cases of heart attacks in India,” he says. The big culprit here is high saturated fat and transfat. Down south, the use of coconut is equally bad for the heart. “The incidence is lower in the coastal belt thanks to fish, which is the staple diet,” he points out.

On a global scale, Japan and China continue to be healthier countries thanks largely to the fish and less oil in their diet. However, things are gradually changing (for the worse) in China, where smoking, stress, lack of exercise and eating the wrong food are becoming the rule rather than the exception. He believes the next generation in the US is likely to see a rise in heart complications due to intake of high calories and obesity.

Work and other interests

The doctor spends nearly 16 hours in the hospital daily (from 7.30 a.m. to 12.30 a.m. the following morning). He sets aside half his Sunday for his family. “I love photography and own a whole lot of cameras, which keep me contented. Old Hindi songs and Western classical music also help me relax,” he says. Twice a year, he takes off with his wife and kids on a safari or cruise, which also keeps alive his zest for photography.

As for the future, plans are under way for the next Asian Heart Institute in hometown Orissa which is expected to become a reality in the next 2-3 years. A medical college is also being planned there. Mumbai will, however, continue to be the centre of excellence. “It is difficult to duplicate such levels (of excellence) elsewhere,” he says.

Published on April 26, 2012

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