Most of us may remember Dr. S. K. Shankar as a neuropathologist of excellence, a father of neuropathology in India, as a brain behind the Brain-bank, as an excellent researcher, as an able administrator – but for me Dr. Shankar was an impressive teacher, an able doer, a giver, a clean mind, a pure soul free of malaise, a generous heart and a great visionary. I am indebted to Dr. Shankar not only for being my teacher in Neuropathology, but also for being a teacher in basic human values which he never preached but always practised.
I had gone to Bengaluru to spend some time with my husband who was pursuing M.Ch. in Neurosurgery at NIMHANS. As an inquisitive postgraduate in Pathology at GMC Srinagar, I sought permission to be an ‘observer’ in Neuropathology NIMHANS for a month.
That month transformed my perception of pathology as I got an opportunity to ‘observe’ and learn from the best minds in neuropathology. I had never seen a nerve cell before, never witnessed an autopsy, never touched ‘live brain’ or never seen an ‘electron microscope’.
NIMHANS allowed me to have a glimpse of everything – thanks to Dr. Shankar who allowed me ‘in’.
I was asked to join a group of students who had come for the observership to NIMHANS and was required to see all the slides that would come to the department for reporting.
Neuropathology reporting room was the kernel of pathology and neurosciences where all consultants, residents, residents from clinical specialities sat together, discussed the cases together, commented on their findings and asked each resident and observer for an opinion.
No case was left untouched and no aspect or possible diagnosis was left unexplored. Every participant was given an opportunity to present his point and every opinion was respected. It was like a ‘clinical round’ with the wholesome view of a case and the ultimate pathological diagnosis.
There were many microscopes in the reporting room and you could use any. Trembling with the fear of not being able to diagnose the cases, I saw my first slide of neuropathology with Dr. Shankar sitting next to me. Noticing my discomfort Dr. Shankar pulled out an atlas and told me, “Try to correlate what you see in the slide with the atlas”. That gesture and caring advice unlocked neuropathology to me.
As I went back to Kashmir after a fruitful observership I wanted to be back at NIMHANS. Neuropathology NIMHANS was a temple of learning - I did not want to miss. I wanted to be a student of ‘great’ teachers at NIMHANS and pursue Neuropathology. I came back a year later to pursue ‘postdoctoral’ course in Neuropathology. The work was tougher as a ‘fellow’ than as an ‘observer’. Dr. Shankar was a tough task-master. He meant ‘business’. He would take ‘no nonsense’, no ‘irresponsible behaviour’ and no ‘lies’. If you failed to do the work assigned to you, he would ensure that the work was done – all by him, himself!
The old fashioned doors of NIMHANS Neuropathology would open with a ‘creak and click’ every morning before 8 A.M. and welcome their lover Dr. Shankar. He would sit in the reporting room and ‘see’ all the slides and write his opinion legibly on the corner of the ‘”Card’. He would instruct all the students not to get up when he would be around. Books from his personal library were meant for ‘all students’ interested in Neuropathology.
I have not seen a human being like Dr. Shankar. His will and conviction to do the seemingly impossible had no match. His physical limitations and challenges did not prevent him from doing what physically robust people younger than him could do. He would rush to open the ‘lift’ for you, rush to open the locks and put ‘on’ or ‘off’ the lights if you happened to accompany him ‘into’ or ‘out’ of the department.
Dr. Shankar had multiple facets, in the afternoons at the department he would slowly mould from a strict disciplinarian into a sensitive human being who would care for his ‘family’ at NIMHANS. His refrigerator was always loaded with ‘sweets’. He spoiled our taste buds with his ‘Mysore Pak’ which was always available for the students who stayed back to see the slides. We all would storm into his room every afternoon and rob his refrigerator of everything everyday and would be surprised to find it full – the next afternoon. Feeding us every afternoon was his favourite past-time. Sometimes if he wished to have a different afternoon snack, he would take a student along and treat us with ‘samosas, pakoras, chat, mangoes or apples’.
Dr. Shankar liked the background noise of radio – All India Radio would be playing in his room non-stop. The ever mobile Dr. Shankar would never stop to listen to music, news and views or any other programme aired. The radio was always ‘on’ -perhaps it stimulated him to move ‘on’. We had got so much used to working in the background noise of his radio that if radio was ‘off’ we would hate the ‘quietness’ of the department.
NIMHANS Neuropathology was known for its hectic schedule for residents. You had reporting, grossing, screening of slides, clinicopathological meets, brain cutting sessions and most challenging of all ‘autopsies and autopsy presentations’ on Saturdays. As a resident, I had all this and a small child to look after. My husband pursing M.Ch. Neurosurgery hardly had time for the family. My child along with the maid trespassed once into the corridors of Neuropathology. Dr. Shankar saw her and immediately held her in his arms, one arm gripping her firmly and the other holding both the crutch and her with care. He played with her, showed her the things around and ordered me ‘bring her to Neuropathology every day after 4 PM’. I did that without fail. While I would screen the slides, Dr. Shankar would take care of the baby – play with her, run around with her and empty his seat for her. When I would see his room messed up he would judge my discomfort saying, “Don’t worry! She has sanctified my room”. I remember him holding the baby outside the mortuary while I was doing autopsy inside.
Dr. Shankar lived a life of total commitment and dedication to Pathology especially Neuropathology. He was instrumental in making a CJD (Creutzfeldt Jacob Disease) register, in development of India’s only brain bank, in creation of a Neuropathology museum and opening it to the school students. He was a champion of organ donation and worked vigorously for it. Dr.Shankar was an able guide, a keen observer and a researcher of excellence. His teaching skills were unmatched. He would take a class on neuroanatomy for not less than an hour and explain the most difficult and boring aspects of it in a simple language. His classes had many lovers among neurosurgeons and neurologists. He was always keen to have mind boggling brain cutting sessions in the department. He published his work in almost all leading neuropathology journals. He would never deny credit to any contributor-usually prefer to be at the tail-end of the author list though having contributed the most. I wrote my two original articles under his tutelage, he taught me how to write and how to crop the article, taught me how to write honestly without exaggerations and insertions.
Dr. Shankar was keen that I go back to Kashmir and start Neuropathology there. His motto in life was ‘either lead or follow or get out of the way’- clearly written on a board in his room. He advised me, “don’t refer the cases to me, try yourself, face clinicians, patients and you will not make mistakes”. It has been almost eighteen years since I left NIMHANS but his advice is still ringing in my years, I tried to follow his advice and did a satisfying work in Neuropathology for myself, my students and my community without any referals to any institution outside.
As I parted from the department Dr. Shankar handed over to me an album with all the photos that Dr. Shankar had of him and my daughter. He also painfully tied the silver anklets to my daughter – telling me to remind her who gave them to her.
It is difficult to comprehend Neuropathology NIMHANS without Dr.Shankar- his audible tap, his aura, his magnanimity and his devotion. NIMHANS will miss this giant dancer who tap danced with his crutch along the corridors of neuropathology –Neuropathology will miss a visionary. Students will miss a teacher of class and we who looked upto him from a distance will miss his inspiring presence.
There cannot be another Dr.Shankar, let us reconcile to this fact. But, let us mend our lives today and bend our ego to develop some element of devotion that overwhelmed Dr. Shankar.
Dr Rumana Makhdoomi, MD (Path), Fellowship Neuro-oncopathology [NIMHANS], Professor, Dept of Pathology SKIMS, SRINAGAR
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.
The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.