Dr S I Padmavati

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A brief biography

Dr O P Yadava, August 31, 2020: The Times of India

Born on June 20, 1917 in the dusty town of Magwe in central British Burma, the young Sivaramakrishna Iyer Padmavati was one of the brightest students at the Rangoon Medical College, graduating MBBS ‘magna cum laude’. However, Japan’s invasion of Burma in 1942 and forced Padmavati, her mother and sisters to flee Magwe for Coimbatore, leaving the menfolk behind. After three agonising years of no news of the men, the family was reunited in 1945 when the war ended. It’s probably these experiences and her indomitable spirit that went on to shape her career in cardiology, a field that hardly existed in India at the time. Such was her contribution that it earned her sobriquet of the ‘Godmother of Cardiology’, and many will mourn her death on Saturday at the age of 103.

Padmavati did her post graduate studies in London and acquired Fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians of London and Edinburgh. After a stint in Sweden under Gustav Nylin and Gunnat Bjorck at the Sodersjukhuset hospital, she headed for the mecca of cardiology -- John Hopkins in Baltimore -- and later to the Harvard Medical School, Boston, where she trained with the legendary Helen Taussig and Paul Dudley White.

On her return to India, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, the then Union Health Minister, appointed her to the faculty at the Lady Hardinge Medical College in Delhi. Subsequently she was elevated to professor and head of the Department of Medicine. She went on to establish North India’s first Cardiac Catheterisation Laboratory at the Lady Hardinge Medical

College in 1954. Besides her clinical responsibilities, she also did valuable epidemiological research. In 1967, she took over as director-principal of Maulana Azad Medical College and associated Irwin and G B Pant Hospitals. It was here that she introduced the first DM course in cardiology, the first coronary care unit and the first coronary care van in India.

Dr S Padmavati founded the All India Heart Foundation in 1962, and the National Heart Institute in 1981, developing it into a modern heart hospital in Delhi with the first cardiac catheterisation laboratory in the private sector in the southern hemisphere.

Awards and accolades came fast and furious, including the Padma Bhushan in 1967 and Padma Vibhushan in 1992. But having seen her as a rookie medical student, as a resident doctor, as a consultant cardiac surgeon and as the chief executive officer of National Heart Institute, one can testify to the fact that there was never a trace of arrogance. Instead, she was quiet, firm and ever-graceful in her silk sarees. Dr O P Yadava, August 31, 2020: The Times of India

It was the 1940s, and though cardiology was not taught separately as a subject, Dr Padmavati developed a keen interest. After finishing her studies in the UK, she decided to study cardiology further and received a fellowship with the Johns Hopkins University in the paediatrics department. But before leaving for the US, the doctor studied in Sweden for a few months where researchers were developing the echocardiogram. At Johns Hopkins, she got a chance to train under the legendary Dr Helen Taussig, a paediatric cardiologist who developed surgical treatment for blue baby syndrome and was also instrumental in banning thalidomide. Shobita Dhar, July 29, 2020: The Times of India

Dr Padmavati moved to Harvard Medical School in 1952 to train under Dr Paul Dudley White, known as the father of modern cardiology. She returned to Delhi in 1953 and started looking for a job. A meeting with the then health minister Rajkumari Amrit Kaur to explore employment opportunities resulted in her appointment as lecturer at Lady Hardinge Medical College. Shobita Dhar, July 29, 2020: The Times of India

“She was a very good teacher and very thorough. Her favourite quote was, ‘Hard work will never kill you.’ She is the reason why I took up medicine at a time when most women pursuing MBBS would specialise in obstetrics and gynaecology,” says Dr Saroj Prakash, who was in her 3rd year MBBS when Dr Padmavati joined LHMC in 1954. “She used to smile a lot. My friends used to refer to her as MDS — Million Dollar Smile,” shares Dr Prakash, 88, who retired from Maulana Azad Medical College as head of medicine. Shobita Dhar, July 29, 2020: The Times of India

She adds that Dr Padmavati had a special rapport with patients, and some would open up only to her. “She would come and stand next to patients, hold their hand and ask how they were doing. One day, a female patient said, ‘Aur toh sab theek hai bas pet saaf nahi hua’ (all’s well except I am not passing motions). She would turn to me and ask ‘Dr Saroj, can’t you treat her constipation?’ And I would tell her that I can but the patient has to first tell me that she’s constipated,” recalls Dr Prakash with a laugh. In her career, Dr Padmavati published over 300 research articles on preventive cardiovascular medicine. Shobita Dhar, July 29, 2020: The Times of India

At LHMC, she set up north India’s first cardiac catheterisation lab with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. Although it was a women’s college and hospital, the lab became a huge success and started attracting male cardiac patients as well. During her stint there, she worked on a number of research papers. She would unwind by swimming every day at the Ford Foundation swimming pool near Lodhi Garden. Dr Prakash says that as students, they would often drop by her place after work to have tea.

In 1967, she was invited by the government to be director of G B Pant hospital. Here she went on to set up a cardiology department and start DM cardiology for the first time in India. Shobita Dhar, July 29, 2020: The Times of India

Dr Padmavati counts the setting up of cardiology departments at these two institutes as her biggest accomplishments. She went on to become director of G B Pant hospital, and was also appointed the dean of MAMC later. She also set up MAMC’s cardiology department. During her career, she also treated many international dignitaries. Shobita Dhar, July 29, 2020: The Times of India

Dr M Khalilullah, a colleague at G B Pant, remembers her as an extremely progressive doctor with a vision. “We found her encouraging and inspiring. At one point, she conceptualised the department as an autonomous unit. Under her leadership, it became one of the best in India and produced some of the country’s best cardiologists. It is all her legacy,” says Dr Khalilullah, who developed India’s first pacemaker and retired as director, G B Pant hospital. “Dr Padmavati also pioneered the concept of pre-hospital care in India. At LHMC, she started a mobile coronary care unit which would attend to patients in the golden hour,” he adds. She also became the first woman to become president of the Cardiological Society of India in 1965. Shobita Dhar, July 29, 2020: The Times of India

“At a time when there were no instruments and devices available, she could arrive at the correct diagnosis just by clinical examination,” says Dr Khalilullah. Shobita Dhar, July 29, 2020: The Times of India

For her immense contribution to cardiology, Dr Padmavati was awarded Padma Bhushan (1967) and Padma Vibhushan (1992). She retired in 1976 and then started living with her youngest sister, Dr Janaki, who was a neurologist. Both sisters stayed single. Dr Padmavati has ploughed her personal assets into a trust that provides free heart surgeries to financially poor patients at the NHI.

Despite such achievements, Dr Padmavati has one regret. “My biggest regret is that in recent years, I could not persuade the authorities to standardise medical education and healthcare so that it becomes accessible and affordable for the masses.” Shobita Dhar, July 29, 2020: The Times of India

As in 2020: at age 103

Shobita Dhar, July 29, 2020: The Times of India

Walk into the cardiac wing of any big hospital in India or even the US, and you’re likely to see men in blue scrubs poring over ECGs, or rushing to OTs to thread catheters through blocked arteries. This medical speciality, characterised by long working hours and high stress, has traditionally had a lopsided gender ratio. But despite these odds, one of India’s first cardiology departments was set up by a woman — the legendary Dr S I Padmavati. Now 103 and retired from active practice, Dr Padmavati was working 12 hours a day, five days a week till late 2015 at the National Heart Institute in Delhi that she founded in 1981. She still comes to the institute once or twice a week to see some of her older patients.

So, what’s the secret to her longevity? Dr Padmavati credits it to her genes and disciplined lifestyle. “My mother lived to 105 and I followed her footsteps in adopting a healthy lifestyle. Remember, we are products of our environment,” she says.

Dr Vinod Sharma, senior cardiologist at NHI, says that despite her long innings, she rarely flags in energy. “We could get tired but not her. During the late 1990s and the early 2000s, she would sit with me till late at night to complete research papers and articles. Even today, whenever she comes to the hospital, she catches up with the latest medical journals and research. She’s well versed with technology and writes her own emails,” says Dr Sharma, who has worked under her as a resident doctor and a consultant.

Dr Padmavati was born in Rangoon in 1917, and completed her MBBS there. Her family moved to India to escape the Japanese invasion of Burma. In 1949, she travelled to the UK for higher studies in medicine, and became a fellow at the Royal College of Physicians, London, and the Royal College of Physicians, Edinburgh.

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