Born to a family of barrister on 20 Jun, 1917 in a non-descript town of Magwe in central Burma (Myanmar), Dr. Siva Rama Krishna Iyer Padmavati blazed a trail till her very last breath on 29th August, 2020. Nurtured by a privileged upbringing and blessed with a maverick brain, the young Padmavati topped the province in the final school examination. She went on to graduate from Rangoon Medical College with the MBBS ‘magna cum laude’ and began the journey of an illustrious career in Medicine and Cardiology, qualifying her for the sobriquet of ‘God Mother of Cardiology in India ’.
Hers was the story of an indomitable spirit, cultivated during the gory days of World War-II. Japan’s invasion of Burma in 1942 forced Padmavati, her mother and sisters to flee Magwe for Coimbatore, leaving the men folks behind. Till the end of war, there was no news of the men of the family, only to be reunited in 1945, when the war ended. Thereafter Padmavati left for England and acquired Fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians of London and Edinburgh. After her post graduation, she did a stint in Sweden under Gustav Nylin and Dr. Gunnat Bjorck at the Sodersjukhuset hospital in Stockholm, before moving to the John Hopkins in USA, where she trained under the legendary Dr. Helen Taussig. She moved on to train further under Dr. Paul Dudley White at the Harvard Medical School (Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women Hospital) in Boston.
On her return to India, she was picked by Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, the then Union Health Minister, and was appointed lecturer at the Lady Hardinge Medical College in Delhi. Subsequently she was elevated to Professor and Head of the Department of Medicine. She established North India’s 1st Cardiac Catheterisation Laboratory at the Lady Hardinge Medical College in 1954. Besides her clinical responsibilities, she engaged in research and her epidemiological research work in Rheumatic fever, Cor-pulmonale, Ischaemic Heart Disease and Hypertension still stand ground and is oft quoted. In 1967 she took over as Director-Principal of Maulana Azad Medical College and Associated then Irwin and G B Pant Hospitals introducing the 1st DM courses in cardiology and other super specialities, the 1st coronary care unit and the 1st coronary care van in India.
She donned numerous hats, a notable few being – President of the Cardiological Society of India and National Academy of Medical Sciences; Member Governing Body – Indian Council of Medical Research, All India Institute of Medical Sciences and Jayadeva Institute of Cardiology, Bangalore and Dean – Faculty of Medical Sciences, University of Delhi.
Dr. S. Padmavati founded the All India Heart Foundation (AIHF) in 1962 and set up the National Heart Institute (NHI) under the aegis of the Foundation in 1981 and developed it into a modern heart hospital for tertiary patient care, research and population outreach.
Awards and accolades chased her culminating in the award of Padma Bhushan in 1967 and Padma Vibhushan in 1992 by the Government of India. Other prominent awards were DSc (Hon), MGR Medical University, Madras, (1994); Harvard Medical International Award (2003); Antonio Samia Oration of APSC (2005); Ph D (Hon), Sri Venkateshwara University, Tirupati (2008); Sivananda Eminent Citizen Award (Sanatan Dharam Charitable Trust) (2012); Lifetime Award CSI (2012); Lifetime Achievement Award, National Academy of Medical Sciences (2013) and Exceptional Service Award of the Golden Jubilee of the GBPH (2014) and many others.
Seeing her from closest of close quarters, as a medical student, as a resident doctor, as a consultant Cardiac Surgeon and lately as the Chief Executive Officer of National Heart Institute, I never saw her to be arrogant, rude or socially inappropriate. Her virtuous qualities included a quiet, yet resounding and firm demeanour, a master of all she surveyed. I remember walking by the side of the trolley, 25 years back, when she was being wheeled into the operating theatre for an emergency heart bypass surgery, which I was called to perform. Sensing me stressed, she squeezed my hand and said,” Don’t worry , I shall be fine” and tightened her grip on my hand. I can palpably recall that squeeze, which gave me courage to put knife on my own teacher and mentor.
She led and mentored by example, I can’t help but recall another incident etched in my memory. Mr Frank Anthony, Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha) was admitted to NHI and was terminally ill. Mr Narsimha Rao, the then Prime Minister was to visit him and security personnels brought the dog squad into the hospital. Dr Padmavati was in her office, when this news was broken to her. Like a tigress she barged out and ordered security staff to leave NHI, and that she was not interested in Mr Rao’s visit, if it entailed dogs entering the hospital. Matters were quickly resolved and only men frisked the area. Then came the ‘lesson of life-time’ for me. When the protocol officer to PM, a sikh gentleman, asked Dr Padmavati where she would like to receive the PM, she asked a counter question, “Who is visiting, Mr Rao or the PM”. Protocol officer was taken aback and fumbled with words and asked for a 5 minute reprieve. However, in no time was he back, “Madam, Mr Rao”. Immediately she pointed towards me and said,” This young doctor will receive him at the porch and escort Mr Rao to the patient and I shall present myself at the bedside”. Later she explained to me, “if PM was visiting, I as Director of NHI would have received him. He was visiting in his personal capacity, so as a mark of respect, I presented myself, but as the doctor in-charge, and not Director of NHI”. Where on the earth will you find this breed of professionals, truly an extinct species with last remaining member gone.
Multifaceted, she was a sports freak, lapping 20-30 lengths of Ford Foundation swimming pool well into her 90’s. An afficianada of silk sarees and solitaire diamonds, an envy of any fashionista, she was passionate for a 30 minute dose of ‘BBC News’ with a glass of port every evening. With never a regret in life, the five foot nothing Dr. S. Padmavati, stood tall amongst all that have walked the fields of cardiology in this country and yet grounded and God fearing, with a tender and motherly heart.
Just as you march on Madam, we shall celebrate your life, taking solace that some of us have had more than our fair share of your love and affection.