My Kind of Medicine: Real Lives of Practicing Internists: Suchitra Behl, MD
Growing up in Mumbai, India
Were you born in India? Tell us about your childhood.
I was born in Mumbai, India and spent the initial ten years of my life there. Mumbai is a densely populated metropolitan city with a long coastline. Going to the beach on weekends is one of my earliest memories of the city. We have a small family—I have one sister who is four years younger than me. People in Mumbai are very friendly and many neighbors often become part of an extended family. We lived in a high rise building and every evening was filled with activities in and around the neighborhood.
My father worked in a financial institution and one of the privileges included home visits by a physician. My earliest memories of medicine involved our physician visiting us for childhood fevers. He carried a briefcase with various bottles, a thermometer, and spirit swabs and it seemed that he was no less than a magician with hidden secrets.
When I was ten years old, my father joined the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and we relocated to Africa. The city of Kampala in Uganda was a quiet, beautiful, spread out city. I became interested in nature and wildlife photography and took my camera along on our various trips to national parks and the countryside.
When and how did you make the decision that you wanted to be a physician?
I returned to India and enrolled in high school. At that point, I was undecided on what I wanted to do. Due to a good memory, I was among the top scorers and I was interested in mathematics and biology. At one point, I wanted to pursue a career in finance; however, a senior school educator convinced me that I had more aptitude towards medicine.
What made you choose internal medicine?
In India, medical school residencies are decided on the basis of scoring in a combined entrance exam. I initially joined pathology, but got bored looking through a microscope all day. I soon realized that I derived personal satisfaction from interacting with patients and solving their medical issues. This made me give up pathology and join internal medicine.
Who do you consider the most influential person(s) in your life and why?
There are various persons who have influenced my life. Dr. Shobhana Chaudhari was the program director of internal medicine when I was doing my internal medicine residency at Metropolitan Hospital Centre affiliated with New York Medical College. She was a source of encouragement and provided guidance. Professor Anoop Misra, who is the Chairman of FORTIS C-DOC, Centre of Excellence for Diabetes, Metabolic Diseases and Endocrinology is another mentor. Not only did I learn from him the importance of examining a patient head to toe and noting the minutest detail from nail growth to chest expansion, but he also encouraged me to start a separate program dedicated to obesity management.
A Career in Internal Medicine
Can you describe the work you do? What is a typical day like?
I work at a Centre for metabolic diseases. Most of the patients I see have type 2 diabetes mellitus, thyroid disorders, obesity or COPD. I also practice and admit patients in internal medicine. About one and a half years ago, I started a three-month obesity management program called ‘Thinner’. In recent years, there has been a tremendous increase in the prevalence of obesity in India, mostly due to lifestyle issues. We have achieved success with many of our patients, and the young adults are much happier.
What do you find most rewarding about your career?
I feel the most rewarding moments are when I am able to make a patient feel better. While acute medical problems are easy to diagnose and treat, chronic care problems like diabetes, obesity, vitamin deficiencies, hypertension, and headache greatly impact the quality of a person’s daily life. Once they are accurately treated, however, a sense of well-being is achieved. When patients, who have been dealing unsuccessfully with weight issues come back and tell me about how much happier they are, that is a rewarding moment.
I often get diabetic patients who are unhappy about their sugar control and do not know what they are doing wrong. Once the medications are adjusted and they are properly educated, they feel empowered. I teach my patients to be in charge of their lives by providing them basic education about their ailments.
What achievement(s) are you are most proud of?
My path to my current position and career was not a straight-forward path. I have lived on three different continents, and because of this, I had to repeat certain parts of my education. Also, when I was about to start my internal medicine residency in New York, my husband had to move back to India. I was faced with the choice of not starting the residency in New York and moving back with him to India, or staying alone in New York. The choice was difficult because my son was three years old at that time. Finally, I decided to join the residency program. Although the three years were tough, because my son spent a good deal of time with my husband in India, we were able to juggle our schedules enough so we could spend time together. Today, with all of us together, I am happy I made that decision because who I am and how I practice today has been shaped by my different life experiences.
What do you find most challenging about being a physician?
One of the most challenging things as a physician is balancing the financial issues related to treatment in India. Medical clinic visits are normally borne by the patient. Judicious diagnosis involves doing tests one step at a time and avoiding unnecessary testing. Taking a patient into confidence and sharing my plan ensures my patient will be compliant with follow up care.
Is there any advice you would give to medical students?
Approach each patient as a learning experience. The more patients you see the more confident you will be when practicing on your own. Development of good clinical judgment is based on both theoretical learning and practical experience. Follow your heart when choosing what you want to specialize in.
Does everyone in India have access to health care?
Most people in India have access to health care through a combination of government owned free and subsidized hospitals and private hospital set ups. However, at many places the cost of medications and tests is borne by the patient.
What are the biggest challenges facing the health care system in India?
One of the biggest challenges in the Indian health care system is ensuring uniformity of health care practices.
How did you get involved with the American College of Physicians?
I was introduced to the American College of Physicians in the second month of my internship by my program director Dr. Shobhana Chaudhari. I presented a poster at the annual meeting. Since then, I have been involved with ACP. I was very excited to hear about ACP’s presence in India.
Are you married? Any children?
My husband Amber Malhotra runs an asset management firm which is developing building technologies to provide economic housing. My son Aadi is ten years old and keenly interested in outer space and robotics.
What are your interests/hobbies?
One of the fixed things in my life is going for a walk in the City Forest that is close to where we live. We are often greeted by peacocks and other wild birds. I love reading, and various autobiographies, contemporary Indian literature, and general light reading are always on my bedside table. I love cooking and make it a point to cook for my family at least once a week. I usually pick a new recipe to try out.
What did you miss most about India when you were living in New York?
Apart from family and friends, the thing I missed most was Indian culture—our openness and our easy and whole-hearted acceptance of strangers. I missed celebrating Indian festivals like Diwali, Holi in the Indian way.
Is there anything you miss about New York or America?
I miss New York City in general, but what I miss most are Sunday walks in Central Park and going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Is there anything (beyond medicine) that you feel committed to, or are passionate about?
Apart from medicine, I have made it a point to improve awareness of health at the earliest level in schools. I give talks on nutrition and healthy eating to school kids and educate teachers on healthy eating habits. Soon, we hope to improve the food offered in the school canteens.
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