# 5 Devi Prasad Shetty: Surgeon with a big heart

In March 2019, Bangalore based cardiologist Dr Devi Prasad Shetty received a call from Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina asking him to come to Bangladesh to treat Obaidul Quader, Road Transport and Bridges Minister of Bangladesh. The premier extended her sincere thanks to Dr Shetty for quickly responding to the call for the treatment of Obaidul Quader.

Dr Shetty's experience and record in performing heart surgeries is acknowledged world over. Dr Shetty s team has performed over 70,000 major heart surgeries out of which 15,000 operations have been on children, many of them new born babies. He trained to be a heart surgeon at Guy’s Hospital, London where his colleagues would call him an “operating machine” since he loved heart surgery and could do them endlessly without tiring.

Dr Shetty worked as a thoracic surgeon under National
Health Service UK at Brompton Hospital and Guys Hospital London between
1983-1989. He is Professor of International Health – University of Minnesota
Medical School, USA and Rajeev Gandhi University of Health Sciences, Karnataka,
Bangalore. He is the first heart surgeon in India to perform heart surgeries on
new-born babies, using a micro-chip camera to close holes in the heart.

When desperate parents meet him they often begin with the line, “I heard
you love children.” Dr Shetty always replies, “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.”

On the completion of his 4,000th free
paediatric surgery, Dr Devi Prasad Shetty wrote a letter to all his young
friends on whom he had performed a heart surgery when they were barely 10 days
old. His letter to the children of the world, which went viral, goes:

“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.”

“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 new-born babies in India.”

Dr Devi Prasad Shetty

Most of the children
Dr Shetty has operated on come from poor families and regardless of their backgrounds
he treats every child 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.”

Dr Shetty became a
doctor due to the recurrent illness of his parents. He writes in his letter, “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.”

After his training in
England, Dr Shetty returned to India in 1989 to start a state-of-the-art heart
hospital called B. M. Birla Heart Research Centre at Calcutta, which would
become one of the best heart hospitals in India. And Dr Shetty became a hero
not just in India but also in neighbouring Bangladesh.

When one went to Manipal Hospital in Old
Airport Road in Bangalore, where Dr Shetty used to work in the early 1990s one could
see many Bangladeshi nationals waiting in the lobby to meet the only person
they believed could cure their child.

When one went to Manipal Hospital in Old Airport Road in Bangalore, where Dr Shetty used to work in the early 1990s one could see many Bangladeshi nationals waiting in the lobby to meet the only person they believed could cure their child.

Immediately after the Research Center was set
up, he set up the paediatric cardiac surgical facilities to take care of
children suffering from heart diseases. Dr Shetty’s mother used to live in a
small town near Mangalore at that time. On the day of his father’s death
anniversary, his mother was sitting in the prayer room the whole day. In the
evening, his sister called out to her to show her son on national television.

Dr Devi Shetty with Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina

“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.”

When Mother Teresa
suffered a heart attack Dr Shetty was put in charge of her heart care. One day
she saw him examining a blue baby, and remarked that he had been sent to this
world to relieve the agony of children with heart disease.

Speaking to CSP, Dr
Shetty says, “Cardiac surgery is the most exciting profession in the world and
if I have to come back to this world many times in the future I would like to
be a heart surgeon nothing else. I get the unique opportunity to interact with
hundreds of patients in need of help and become a hero in real life. Fortunately
this profession today gives you an opportunity to bring someone out from the
jaws of death just by using your skill and passion. I wish lot more youngsters
take up this wonderful profession.”

Contribution to Healthcare

Dr Shetty’s team is the first in the world to coin the
term ‘Micro Health Insurance.’ He helped the Karnataka State Government to
launch Yeshashwini Micro Health Insurance considered as the largest Micro
Health Insurance Programme in the world. He also started Arogya Raksha Yogana
in association with Kiran Majumdar Shaw of Biocon.

Additionally, his was the first team to coin the term
“Health City” and is in the process of creating 5000 bed Health cities in every
state capital of India. He manages the world’s largest Telemedicine Programme
through Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), as well as a chain of Rural
Clinics in Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh.

“India can become
the first country in the world to dissociate healthcare from affluence. However
for this to happen, first we have to liberate medical nursing and paramedical
education and digitise medical records. Apart from this, India desperately
needs an affordable health insurance for middle-class people. Ayushmann Bharat
will of course cover poor people and rich people can buy the regular expensive
health insurance,” says Dr Shetty.

Dr Shetty has also
inspired many youngsters to get fitter, a subject close to his heart. “For a healthy
life everyone past the age of 30 must undergo a CT scan of the heart to find
out very early coronary artery disease which is rampant. CT scan of the heart
can predict heart attack 10 years in advance giving enough time for patients to
change the lifestyle. Your health is directly related to what you eat, so eat
healthy food and avoid tobacco in any form.”   

Even at the end of
a very tiring day, Dr Shetty’s finishes his round with a pleasant smile. His
very presence is calming and very reassuring to anxious families, including
mine at one point of time as he operated on my father two decades ago.

Asked about his
utter calm in the face of what can only be extreme stress in the ace of high
expectations from family members, Dr Shetty says, “Regular half an hour to 45
minutes of exercise is extremely important not only for the heart also for your
mind and the musculoskeletal system. Most important advice for everyone is to
be spiritual, I am not asking you to be religious. Belief in God is the most
stabilising factor for everyone in their daily life.”