NOTES FROM BHUTAN AND THE REMARKABLE DR LOTAY TSHERING: “Prime Minster should be a surgeon or think like one”
We went to Bhutan recently to launch the surgical skill centre by the IHPBA (International Hepato-Pancreato Biliary Association) foundation. Among the many interesting facts about Bhutan healthcare and education are free in the country. No wonder, the people are happy.
But even more remarkable is Bhutan’s Prime Minister. Here’s the story of our interaction with ‘Dr Lotay Tshering—the Surgeon Prime Minister of Bhutan.’
I wrote to him when we were ready with the surgical training centre, inviting him for the inauguration and not expecting a reply. I could not believe it when he replied within four hours, saying ‘yes, I will be there but not as a chief guest.’
Wow, here’s a PM who doesn’t want pomp and show!
When we went to the Jigme Dorji Wangchuk National Referral Hospital (JDWNRH), we learnt more remarkable facts. JDWNRH is the only tertiary care hospital and is teeming with patients from all over Bhutan. There are only three surgeons to look after elective and emergency surgeries. They literally work 24×7, 7 days a week.
They have another ‘honorary standby surgeon’—the PM himself. The staff told us with pride that he comes every week on Friday to operate. Though he is trained in urology, he can do all abdominal surgeries ‘as there is no one else.’
If there is an emergency or a difficult problem, just ‘call the PM’. He comes even if it’s midnight. The nursing staff is pretty happy to help their PM in conducting operations. No hang ups. Just normal scrubs and slippers for him.
After teaching the residents and interacting with staff. It was time for the inauguration. We were expecting the security staff to come and clear the place. There were no great arrangements. His seat was demarcated with a special robe. Everyone was relaxed.
The prime minister walked in with a beaming smile and just two people. His personal secretaries. No commandos, no paraphernalia.
He is obviously happy to be with his staff and students whom he knew by name. After inaugural by a simple untying of a ribbon, he explained ‘in Bhutan they never cut a ribbon or cut a cake with name. It’s not a good omen.’
He demonstrates his surgical skills to the residents and guides them to tie knots using the endotrainer. We commented that perhaps ‘he is the only prime minister who can tie laparoscopic knots.’ A loud laugh was the response. He was obviously happy to be teaching.
‘If you had come two years ago, you would have seen me working day and night at the hospital. Now I only come on Friday. This is the best stress relief for me. I sleep well on Thursday thinking about the number of patients I can help. We need more trained doctors,’ the PM says.
He gazes wistfully. ‘Distances in Bhutan are 16 hours from remote areas to Thimphu. I used to go on camps. We had to operate on three patients on the same bed. Start with a young patient at 6am and finally elderly by 10am and 5pm. We had to finish 300 surgeries and move to the next camp.’
We promised all help with training and technology. In fact, as I write this, equipment from all across the world is being collected for Bhutan.
What about politics, we probe. His tone turns serious. ‘I want to make Bhutan a developed country on par with other countries. That’s why I joined politics. I think like a surgeon—no dilly dallying. If you do have it, just do it. Don’t procrastinate. I also feel politics needs surgery to cut and remove obstacles like corruption and self-interest lobbies.’
A surgeon is best suited to be prime minister, or the PM should think like a surgeon.’
The writer is Head of Surgical Oncology, Lilavati Hospital, Mumbai.
By Kamlesh Tripathi
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