Adapt, achieve, excel: cultural upbringing creates resilient women

Dr Punam Bhende

By Dr Punam Bhende

Women in general, are many people in one form –this is perhaps even more so for Asian cultures. Balancing the role of caregiver – wife, mother, daughter, daughter-in-law; and increasingly taking on demanding professional careers, has become second nature to women in the subcontinent. Cultural influence, role-modelling mothers, and generations of  resilience has embedded this “adapt, achieve and excel” cycle in their psyche. It is this plasticity and flexibility, which more often than not, takes professional women on journeys that they have not planned for themselves; but they take them with grace, poise and commitment, and make each journey special.

I am Dr Punam Bhende, Assistant Professor in Medicine at Pramukhswami Medical College, Bhaikaka University, in India. As a child, I saw the respect and admiration my parents received as school teachers, and came to revere teaching as a profession. A large extended family and close knit community, at our ancestral home meant that ailing relatives and neighbours visiting the city for medical attention, stayed with us. My innate curiosity, frequent visits to hospitals, and exceptional local doctors, probably triggered my ambition to join medicine. I trained in Goa Medical College, and aspired to work as a teacher at my alma mater.

But this was not to be. My husband’s fellowship took me to beautiful Bangalore where I worked at Apollo Hospital initially and later Karnataka Institute of Diabetology (KID).  Large numbers of patients and academic engagements enriched the years, and long commuting hours made time fly by really fast.

When I became a mother, juggling full time work and home without compromising patient and child care became increasingly difficult. My husband, a paediatric cardiac surgeon was away at the hospital for days at a time. This meant that, after 5 fulfilling years at KID, I chose to change my workplace to one that was closer to home. Work as a visiting physician at a hospital (Shri Lakshmi Hospital) and two clinics allowed me flexible working hours.

Later, once my pre-schooler settled in, I joined Narayana Health, where my career again took an interesting turn. I got a chance to work in the intriguing world of digital health. Writing a regular health column in a fortnightly magazine, delivering talks and conducting health camps were soon added to the list of new experiences.

Working at so many places can seem like a liability, but these actually became key points in my career, and helped me grow both as a person and professional while I benefitted from great friendships along the way.

In mid-2018, my husband took up a job in Gujarat; we moved to Karamsad and here I am now, finally living my long-held dream of being a teacher at a prestigious medical school!  

I had spent little over 18 months in my new role when the first COVID-19 wave struck India. After the initial days of denial, worry and fear, my life settled into a routine. My typical day would start early morning – I cooked and cleaned, set up devices for my daughter’s online school classes, and meals to get through the day. Morning rounds in rapidly growing COVID wards would go on till noon. In the early days, the sense of defeat on losing patients despite our best attempts, and helplessness due to non-availability of treatments and due to lack of protocols loomed large. Witnessing patients face losing battles against the virus; the sinking feeling and the tears were the lowest points in my career, and will always remain a part of my psyche. Conducting training sessions and online lectures, and OPD consultations or evening rounds, would occupy the afternoons and evenings. Heading home, cooking dinner, and staying up late nights to review new evidence and manage WhatsApp consultations from family, friends and patients would mark the end of the day. I was exhausted, but took solace in doing my bit to help the community. However small, we were making a difference. And that was all that we had in our control.

During the second wave, I was part of the COVID core committee.  This work allowed me to be a part of the think tank, and participate in decision making. I brainstormed to implement solutions to myriad problems, worked with systems department, participated in preparing protocols, designed and conducted training, and managed clinical patient pathways. I learned the art of planning and execution in difficult times while staying true to ones values and beliefs.

Mine is just one story of a career with many turns. There are so many such stories which need to be told and heard - of grace, resilience and fortitude. Of women like me who adapt and continue to grow professionally. So, here is a big shout out to each and every woman in healthcare who takes on so many supportive roles and touches so many lives. “Umuntu Ngumuntu Ngabantu” -  this is a phrase which means ‘a person is a person through other persons’. You are who you are because of the way you relate to others.