Following his 4,000th paediatric heart surgery—all without charge—Dr. Shetty wrote the following letter to his paediatric patients and to the children of the world.
My Dear Children,
I have been planning to write this letter for quite some time. Maybe I was just waiting for you all to grow up to understand what I am trying to convey. The story goes back many years. When God sent you to this world it was perhaps the best thing that had happened to your parents. Every little nudge and kick in your mother’s womb opened up a new world of happiness and expectations. Then one day, a miracle happened. You were to begin a new journey. From the warm, happy, secure world of your mother’s womb to a world that is cold and full of insecurities. Nevertheless, the joy that your parents felt after this journey knew no bounds. They were on top of the world. But, unfortunately, this happiness was very short lived. That very day you started turning blue in colour. The doctors had found a hole in your heart that shattered the dreams of your parents. They were devastated and could not understand why they were being punished in this way. They had no choice but to accept the inevitable reality and decided to give you the best possible medical care.
Before that they had to overcome two major hurdles. They could not afford the cost of your heart operation and they could not wait since you were turning blue every time you cried. I guess this is a penalty you have to pay for being born in a third world country. Yes, when you were 10 days old you had a price tag on your life. If your parents paid the price, they could have you; if not, you would have to go back to where you came from.
Your mummy and daddy went through phases of self-pity, denial, mutual accusations and anger towards society, which was indifferent to their problems. Your daddy was most upset since he knew that the price tag on your life was less than what his boss would spend on a Saturday evening party. But that is life and one has to accept it. Time was running out and your daddy was getting desperate until he came to know about me. The first thing he told me when we met was, “I heard you love children.”
Yes, I love children and I have four of my own. My profession is giving hope to people suffering from heart diseases and giving them a chance to start life in a fresh new way. I am essentially a technician who can cut and stitch people’s hearts; they call me a heart surgeon. When I met you first, you were barely 10 days old, cuddled in a warm blanket close to your mother’s heart. Except for a bit of rapid breathing and bluish nails on your fingers, you looked like an angel. I am sure you cannot remember but I asked you a question, “Do you want to be my friend”? This is the question I ask all the children I see. I did want to be your friend and I worked so hard to gain your friendship.
I clearly remember your mother’s face when she was handing you over to the operation theatre nurse. She kissed you and looked at my face with an expression that said she is handing over her most precious possession to me; and with the total confidence that I will take care of you. It was a different sort of love triangle between your father, mother and myself with you at the centre. We would have done anything in this world to get you back. It took me six hours of intense concentration to operate upon your heart and so many sleepless nights before you started smiling again.
God was kind to you that time and you made a marvellous recovery. It was a big day for your family when you were being discharged from the hospital. Both your mummy and daddy would have thanked me a million times before they left the hospital. But they didn’t have to tell me anything since I knew every word that they wanted to say. Tears of joy rolled down their cheeks. But you were blissfully unaware of what was going on, clinging to your mother’s chest. My eyes began to swell with tears, and I turned my face the other way since a cardiac surgeon is not supposed to cry. Through the corner of my wet eyes I saw your face one more time and I knew I found one more friend. Your friendship and love is the only fee I expect for treating you.
As a heart surgeon I have performed 4,000 operations on children like you suffering from heart disease. Most of them came from poor families. Regardless of their backgrounds, I treat all for free. I think this is the best way I can repay God who has given me everything I wanted—a good family, a wonderful wife and loving children. For me this world is such a happy place to live in and in my own small way I strive hard to make it happy for others around me who are not so fortunate.
You must be wondering what inspired me to take this path. I guess I became a doctor because of the recurrent illness of my parents. My childhood was spent with the fear of losing my mother. My father, who was a diabetic, had multiple episodes of diabetic coma. In the lives of the nine of us, God’s clear image was that of Doctor who could save the lives of our parents. Another childhood incident left a lasting impression on my young mind. I remember: It was a Saturday afternoon; I was trying to build a car, I think, out of matchboxes and sticks, like all the other children in my village.
My mother was speaking to a distant relative of ours in Bombay. This lady was telling my mother about a particular surgeon who, apart from saving her child’s life, also offered his service completely free of cost. I could hear my mother blessing the mother of that surgeon for giving birth to such a wonderful person and ended up saying that this world is still a wonderful place because of people like him.
That was the time I found the purpose to my life, the purpose of bringing happiness to all the children of this world. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. I was trained to be a heart surgeon at Guy’s Hospital, London. My colleagues there called me an “operating machine” since I loved heart surgery. I left England in 1989 to start a state-of-the-art heart hospital called B. M. Birla Heart Research Centre at Calcutta. It was a great experience to set up a heart hospital, which soon became one of the best heart hospitals in India.
And almost immediately after we set up the research centre, we started the paediatric cardiac surgical facilities to take care of children suffering from heart diseases. Little did I know that this centre was to rewrite medical history! My mother at that time was living in a small town near Mangalore. It was my father’s death anniversary and she spent almost the entire day in the prayer room. In the evening, my sister, who was watching the news at the national network, all of a sudden screamed out for my mother. My mother hurried to the living room to see her son on TV with a 9-day-old baby who had undergone a successful open-heart surgery. He was the youngest baby at that point of time in India to undergo a successful open-heart surgery. It was the beginning of heart surgery on newborn babies in India.
Let me tell you about another incident. Do you know the definition of a paediatric cardiac surgeon? The dictionary says he is a surgeon who specializes in the treatment of heart ailments in children. A few years ago, when Mother Teresa suffered a heart attack I was put in charge of her heart care. One day, Mother, who then was convalescing in the intensive care unit of the hospital, saw me examining a blue baby. After a few minutes of thought she turned towards me and said, "Now I know why you are here. To relieve the agony of children with heart disease, God sent you to this world to fix it.”
To my mind, this is the best definition ever given of a paediatric cardiac surgeon and perhaps the best compliment that I have ever received. One day you will become an adult and probably a very important member of our society. You will have a lot of responsibilities and commitments. All I ask you for is: Can you spare a few moments of your precious time every day for someone who needs it? And that, too, without expecting anything back in return. Do you know, to save your life, a few hundred people worked sincerely without expecting any remuneration other than the joy of making your family, friends and relatives happy? Dear children, we are all creations of God, and He is in control of all the events happening in this world. Unfortunately, He is not supposed to be seen, heard or felt. So, He runs this world using people like you and me. And when you do your work without expecting anything in return, just for the joy of bringing happiness to others, that’s when you’ll realize it is not your hands which do the job, it is the hands of God.
Dr. Devi Shetty