Dr. Bhowani Dass

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Born in 1941, Vinod was brought up and educated in Amritsar. He attended Government Medical College, and subsequently trained as a surgeon at PGI, Chandigarh. He left for USA in 1969, and retired in 2003 as Director of Critical Care Services at a teaching hospital in Michigan. Married with two grown sons, he continues to visit India at least once a year.

He did not look like a doctor. He was a tall, round- headed, athletic looking man with very short hair, which would today qualify as a buzz-cut. His features were thick; hue dark that in north India is charitably termed ‘wheatish', and his face had the appearance of healed pockmarks. Yet his cultured voice belied his appearance. He had a look of constant amusement on his face. He usually wore white shirt and pants. 

His clinic was located past D.A.V School (in Amritsar) that I attended. After crossing Hathi Gate and actually in what was known as Katra Praja, his clinic did not inspire much confidence. The usual brown painted wooden benches for the waiting patients were often empty.  The compounder's enclosure behind which his non-descript assistant mixed elixirs and medicines was also unprepossessing. A sign in white letters on a small wood panel indicated that Dr. Dass's consultation fee was 5 rupees. By itself it was an unusual sign, as general practitioners in town were not ‘consulted.' They were simply paid for the medicines that they dispensed.

His examination room was in a small curtained alcove two steps above his table. He sat on a chair facing the bazaar, as was the usual custom of private practice doctors. It appeared that in the early days he had a lot of time on his hands. In those days, the doctors rarely ordered x-rays or laboratory tests. Of course, they did not have any facility for running tests in their clinics.

Dr. Bhowani Dass looked more like a wrestler than a nerdy spectacled doctor! He rode a bicycle, and later a motorcycle. He did not have a car like all other doctors in town. I did not know at the time the meaning of the word maverick. But that may be the best explanation as to who Dr. Bhowani Dass was. He studied all kinds of journals. That is what my father had told me! Just as most young doctors claim to be influenced by their family physicians for pursuing a medical profession, so could I claim to be influenced by Dr. Bhowani Dass. But it was not so simple!

First of all, I do not remember how my father had found this doctor. After all, my father was the scion of a well-known family in Amritsar and had family doctors like Dr. Bodh Raj Nanda and Dr. Manohar Lal Chopra who for years had looked after the extended family.

I remembered as a young school kid of being mortally afraid that I had contracted diphtheria of a fatal variety, and how the unusual looking Dr. Bhowani Dass reassured me that I had a bad case of throat infection! Some medicines he prescribed along with steam inhalation made it easy to swallow my spit. I recovered and was eternally grateful and miraculously saved!

But the brilliant Dr. Bhowani Dass did not even have a formal medical (MBBS) degree. Instead he carried a diploma of Licentiate of State Medical Faculty (LSMF). I was to learn later that the diploma required only two years of medical school after premedical education.

He had the temerity to diagnose that my father suffered from Parkinson's disease and not the usual thyroid disease of over-active thyroid! My father told me the story after I joined the famous local medical school in town. He often regaled us as to how the legendary professors of medicine at Lahore and Amritsar medical schools had measured and re-measured his metabolic rate to look for an overactive thyroid gland and not finding one labeled him a neurotic. Exasperated, they had even asked him to consult the saintly psychiatrist Dr. Vidya Sagar. That was at a time when only overtly crazy people were taken to see him at the big mental hospital located outside the city. One can simply imagine the terror of having to endure poorly controlled electric-shock treatments. After all, there were few medicines at the time that were available for mental patients.

Moreover, Dr. Bhowani Dass insisted on treating my father with medicines that had to be imported. Even with the expense and difficulty of importing medicines in a newly free and poor India, my father benefited from the medicines. His symptoms appeared to improve.  He could function for years. I recall writing to a friend who had immigrated to America for graduate studies to help us obtain some medicines that Dr. Dass had prescribed. This friend obliged us for a few years.

One hot summer day, my mother started to have severe pains in her side. She started to roll around on the floor as none of the home remedies seemed to help. She was in excruciating pain. I was dispatched to get Dr. Dass. I still remember the long run through Goal Bagh with the sun beating down mercilessly overhead. It was almost half a mile before you found shade. As I told him about my mother, he packed his black bag. He had me ride his motorcycle behind him and hold his bag. My mother was still writhing on the floor. He got a long glass syringe from his bag and gave an injection to my mother. He told us that my mother had a kidney stone and was trying to pass it. He left some pain pills for her.  "She is going to sleep for two hours. She will feel better when she wakes up."

He was right. She passed a stone next morning! Dr. Bhowani Dass had not ordered any X-rays or other tests to locate the kidney stone. He had diagnosed the condition simply from description of the symptoms and by examining my mother.

Then there was the scary time when my older brother Ravi was poisoned by chlorine gas. He was working at the woolen dyeing department of a well-known factory in Chaertta. In the summer evening as dusk was settling over the city, my uncle Dewan Chand accompanied him to the house. Ravi was coughing, hacking and was obviously short of breath. His eyes were watering and shiny red.

Uncle Dewan Chand laid him on a cot and promptly left. He had told us that Ravi was overcome with fumes at work. He was informed to pick him up and that is what he had done! To me, my brother Satish and servants it looked like Ravi was in huge distress and may die! "Do we take him to the big hospital?" we were asked. Since my father had not returned from the shop, I was dispatched to inform him. My mother washed Ravi's face and hair with cold water and sent for Dr. Bhowani Dass.

By the time I came home with my father, Dr. Dass had things under control. He had given some medicines to my brother to drink and asked for a dozen eggs. The servant had to run to the market to buy the eggs. When the eggs were brought, Dr. Bhowani Dass instructed to separate the yolk of eggs and thoroughly beat up the egg whites. Then he made Ravi swallow almost half of the liquid egg whites. He checked him, smiled, and picked up his black bag. As my father walked out with him, Dr. Dass reassured him about my brother. Ravi seemed to improve perceptibly and was on his feet next morning. But he had decided he was never going to work for someone else, a promise he kept to himself for many years. Now I understand that chlorine gas can be easily inactivated with water and soothing antacid medicines but it appears quite toxic when it affects the face or mucous membranes. But at that time we marveled at Dr. Bhowani Dass.

By now, my extended family was convinced that Dr. Bhowani Dass was a great doctor. So his reputation spread. Many of our relatives began to see him, and swore by his skills. When my aunt Kamla Bua's family started to see Dr. Bhowani Dass, his reputation and practice seemed to improve perceptibly. This rich, well-connected and influential family had a lot of clout in the city and a good word from Lala Yog Raj, my uncle seemed to matter a great deal.

However, I am convinced that it was the influenza epidemic of 1957 which established Dr. Bhowani Dass's practice in the city. I recall going to see him for prescriptions for my mother or brothers when several them got sick at the same time. One heard of similar stories from relatives and friends in town. Dr. Bhowani Dass's clinic was now full of patients and their anxious relatives. The previously empty brown wooden benches seemed to be crowded. Of course, true to form he insisted on not prescribing Penicillin shots and gave medicines only for helping with the symptoms. But the total volume of patients was large not just at his clinic but also at every other doctor's in town.

In later years, my father would insist that I go and see Dr. Dass first when I entered medical school and later when I passed my final exams. In later years, I would also have the amusing   experience of being pressured to see Dr. Bhowani Dass for some minor ailment while visiting home. I would have to remind my mother that now I was a full-fledged doctor and could diagnose the reason for coughs and fever myself.

It was in the middle of my training after medical school that my father suffered a stroke. I left my M.S. studies at PGI Chandigarh for several weeks to be at my father's bedside. Dr. Bhowani Dass, being the family doctor was the first to be called. Later we would consult better-known doctors as well. As my father recovered a little after several weeks, Dr. Dass seemed to take charge of his treatment. When my mother complained that in addition to other problems, my father did not seem to have much of an appetite, I was asked to see Dr. Dass about it.

He prescribed a tonic and said it would help with the appetite. On a repeat visit home, I looked at all the prescriptions, and for the appetite-tonic found a mixture that contained strychnine. I was aghast! How could he! I knew that strychnine was a bitter poison, not knowing at the time that the old-fashioned doctors prescribed small doses of the medicine to enhance appetite. So I blurted out to all of the relatives my reservations about the prescription. My faith in Dr. Bhowani Dass was shaken. Moreover, there was little he could do for my father.

I had begun to hear rumors and innuendos about Dr. Bhowani Dass. A cousin Nirmala implied in a roundabout way that Dr. Bhowani Dass was on the sauce! "He makes his own wine." She said. That was an activity we did not know anyone else indulged in. But Dr. Dass had served in the army and maybe he had picked up this hobby in the army. But to the uninitiated Indians like us there was no difference in brewing illicit liquor and making homemade wine! So even an obviously catty remark like my cousin's conjured up visions of a dissolute Dr. Bhowani Dass so drunk that he went around prescribing strychnine for his patients!


He seemed to fade from our lives. After I left India for the U.S., my father died within a few months. In subsequent years, on my visits to Amritsar, I heard little about the unusual Dr. Bhowani Dass.


© Vinod Puri 2016

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