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Interview: J. V. Peter, Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Vellore

04 June 2021

‘What I’ve been learning from the pandemic is that God is always faithful’

Christian Medical College (CMC), Vellore, was founded by an American missionary, Dr Ida Scudder, in 1900. While she was on a visit to India to see her parents, she was shaken by seeing the death of three women in labour in one single day. Although her father was a doctor working in that region, tradition prevented women seeking medical help from male doctors.

Ida had never wanted to become a doctor, but this event moved her so much that she decided to become a doctor to help Indian women. She went back to the USA and was among the first women doctors to be trained at Weill Cornell University. She started a one-bed dispensary in Vellore in 1900. From that, our hospital has since evolved into a 3000-bed tertiary care, university-affiliated teaching hospital.

Frankly, when I was a child, I didn’t want to be a doctor, either. I wanted to become an engineer. But a few incidents made me want to become a doctor, and I was also inspired by the dedicated service of a few of my family members who served as doctors. I felt that this would be a very meaningful way to serve God in the healing ministry.

Like everything around us, the pandemic has changed our working life. All elective work had to be put on hold, both in the outpatient setting and for surgeries. Emergencies were attended to, however, including emergency surgeries.

We have not suffered from the same shortages of oxygen as some other hospitals. We did experience some supply issues for a few days, but we never dropped to critical levels. We had support from the government for regular supply of oxygen. In addition, we had made provision during the first wave of the pandemic to install two PSA oxygen plants, and also bought portable oxygen concentrators. These helped mitigate the risk. We also have adequate PPE for the staff.

These days, the working day does not finish till about 9 p.m. It has become busier, with much pressure on the creation of beds, ensuring staff welfare, the need for frequent and timely communications to the staff on the changing scenarios, and multiple planning meetings.

By God’s grace, out of over 10,500 employees at CMC, we have lost only one health-care worker with Covid, so far. Unfortunately, that individual had not taken the vaccine.

I believe that Covid has really brought out the differences between non-profit charitable institutions and the corporate hospitals. There was an overwhelming response to the Covid pandemic in the many network mission hospitals of CMC. People rose to the challenge selflessly to meet the increasing needs. It was sad to note that some — thankfully, only a few — private hospitals exploited the situation. Sadly, there are always some that tarnish the image of the rest.

The practice of medicine has changed since the time I started my medical career as a student, nearly 40 years ago. For one thing, the technological advancements in medicine have given us much better diagnostic tools and treatment modalities. Survival rates have improved for many diseases. Complex surgeries are now performed with greater ease, with less pain, and with faster recovery times.

However, all these advances have come at the cost of the personal interaction that was so pivotal between the physician and the patient in the days gone by. I have sometimes seen rounds happening without the clinician actually touching a patient.

Medicine was once considered a vocation, but now it is called the “medical industry”. CMC Vellore has striven hard to protect its core value of medicine as a vocation. This is exemplified in CMC’s motto: “To minister and not to be ministered unto”. Indeed, our founder, Dr Scudder, said: “We are not just building a medical school, but the Kingdom of God.”

As I try to understand what God is doing in and through this pandemic, I do agree with the biblical principle that God sometimes does send plagues to discipline his people. However, it’s important to understand that such events may not always be retributory. These things happen, but not as punishment for disobedience. We will only know the exact purpose when we meet him face to face.

I believe that the overarching purpose of God is to bring his people back to him. I believe that many of us have turned back to our Creator to find the deeper meaning of our life and existence through all this pain and disaster.

I think the thing that most surprises me is how short our memory is for the good things, and how we sometimes hold on for such a long time to the memory of the not so good things, or grudges. I am no exception.

The hardest thing to bear is when friends close to you let you down. And cynical people with a negative approach to life are what really make me angry.

My best memories of childhood were of growing up in a secure environment, surrounded with love. What I am able to do now is mainly because of the sacrifices of my family then. They have always been very supportive, mentally and spiritually.

From a very young age, my parents, and particularly my mother, instilled trust and dependence on God in me. This has only matured and deepened with every experience that I have gone through in life. I have always felt God’s abiding presence and guidance.

What really makes me happy is when I see someone who — in all standard medical terms — is an unsalvageable patient survive their critical illness and go home. I have witnessed several miracles in my medical career.

I think the thing I’d really like to do now is take a break with my family, and spend some time with them, without the pressures of work. The pandemic has certainly turned my life upside down, but all these changes, I believe, are only temporary. We will get back to better times soon.

What I’ve been learning from the pandemic is that God is always faithful, whatever the circumstance; and that he has created each one of us with a very special and unique purpose, however seemingly small it may appear here on earth.

I love music — period.

I most often pray for wisdom.

My hope for the future is that, unlike for us, nothing takes God by surprise. He is seated on the throne.

If I was to find myself locked in a church for a few hours, with any companion that I could choose, I’d like to be there with my wife, Jayanthi, because there is so much power in agreed prayer.

J. V. Peter was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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