On a September evening in 1998, Dr. Satish Amarnath was preparing to take his wife and children out for dinner. Life had been sweet to the good doctor, who recently had to move from Pondicherry to Bangalore and taken up a position with Manipal Hospitals. His enormous professional success had been the product of a difficult childhood and intense hard work. Now that he was finally reaping the good fortune that the fates owed him, a sudden terrible tragedy changed his life forever.
That evening a couple of unidentified thugs threw acid at his face, permanently blinding and disfiguring him. In one disastrous moment, his perfect life was turned upside down and everything he had worked for thus far was snatched away from him.
Coming from a middle class family, Dr. Satish says all he wanted as a child was the next meal. The joint family system in those days made sure that a huge amount of emphasis was on education. After finishing his ICSE exams Dr. Satish enrolled for B.Sc. in Botany and Zoology. The only well known professions in those days were medicine and engineering. Fortunately there was a 10% reservation for B.Sc. graduates when it came to MBBS and Dr. Satish went for it. But when you choose to become a doctor, you become a life-long learner. Dr. Satish went on to do his MD in Microbiology in 1983. During his viva he was offered a job by his examiner himself.
Dr. Satish credits most of his learning to the fact that his parents never put much pressure on him. “You are stealing the childhood of a kid by putting pressure on him to excel”, Dr. Satish adds.
Dr. Satish has an open outlook towards life. He says, "I never used to confine myself with boundaries. Even when it came to work, I knew most things about departments in the hospital apart from mine."
After his MD, Dr. Satish joined JIPMER (Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education & Research) in Pondicherry where he played an instrumental role in shaping up the culture. He started as a resident doctor and went on to become an Associate Professor at JIPMER.
He says, “Earlier, the doctors at JIPMER never used to work at nights and holidays. But patients don’t have holidays, and I asked my friends to work overtime for them. We started working voluntarily on night shifts and discussed the cases over a cup of tea. We would start at 7 am and stop working only when we were tired. I would take up responsibilities when others would shirk them. It was while working in the HIV lab that I got exposed to the stigma attached to the disease because nobody volunteered to work there, I took it up as an opportunity to learn.”
When the era of internet came around Dr. Satish was at the forefront again. He was chosen by JIPMER to spearhead the digitization of medical and patient records. During his stay at JIPMER he published 12 research papers.
The accident that changed it all
In 1996, Dr. Satish's father passed away and he had to move to Bangalore to take care of his family. He joined Manipal hospital. Doctors and staff were pleasantly surprised to see a lab geek interacting with patients. Things were just getting better for him and his family after his father's death. But destiny had something else in store for him.
Life took a u-turn for Dr. Satish on the evening of 5th September, 1998, while he was returning from a tailor shop near his home, two unidentified people threw acid at him, burning his whole face and blinding him for life. It was a shock for the entire family.
It was a tough time for the family as Dr. Satish was the sole bread winner. His daughter was in 6th standard and son in UKG at the time of incident. He was immediately taken to the ICU. Nobody told him about the extent of damage he had suffered. “There were many things running in my mind, I didn’t know what to do”, Dr. Satish adds.
"One day when my children came to visit me, I touched my daughters cheek and could feel her tears. I found out that she was crying. I realized that I need to do something about it and decided to take charge of my life."
Dr. Satish started learning things from scratch. "My colleagues helped me a lot in this process. One of my assistants was very instrumental in helping me regain my confidence and inspired me to move on."
As he recovered in the hospital, his colleagues would keep him occupied by asking suggestions and seeking his advice on various cases.
Usually it takes months, even years, for victims of acid burning to reclaim their lives. Vision is everything in the field of medicine. How was a doctor to practice his profession without his eyes? Perhaps, in his lowest moments of hopelessness, he too might have felt the same. But when confronted with his little children’s broken spirits, he could not allow himself to wallow in self-pity at all. Dr. Satish pulled himself up and made a spectacular success of putting his life back together. Today, not only has he managed to reclaim the life that was snatched from him, but is so much more than that.
Even after his accident, Dr. Satish helped Manipal Hospital in implementing ISO 9001-2000 for quality procedures. He ensures that these procedures are strictly adhered to. He has written over 40 research papers in collaboration with his colleagues apart from a book on pathology. At present he is writing another book on pathology.
Dr. Satish speaks about accessibility, "In India, a lot of things need to be changed especially mobility and navigation. They should be standardized. There are small things like toilets in restaurants where it is quite difficult to ascertain whether the seat is on left or on the right side of the door. It would be great if these things are standardized. Other countries have a comparatively better infrastructure in place when it comes to mobility, be it sidewalks or any other place."
Talking about lessons from his journey Dr. Satish mentions two very important things:
1) Life is fragile, you can never make everyone happy if you are working for a cause.
2) Conviction and action will both take you across. Absence of even one of these will not yield desired results.