#6 Dr. Tufail Patankar - The Doctor From Dongri

Dr. Tufail Patankar is a renowned intervention neuroradiologist who once lived in one of the most dangerous localities in Mumbai at the time - Dongri. He talks about his mentors in the US and UK, Tae Kwon Do, his outlook on life after achieving success and obtaining the state of 'flow'.


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Tufail: Medicine is getting so progressive and there's so much advancement that has happened in the last few years and centuries. There are some of these things which I do, but it exists. Wasn't even in my reader or when I started medicine. Things that I do didn't exist at that time. 

Aamer: That was Dr. Tufail Patankar who is a renowned intervention neuroradiologist who once lived in one of the most notorious regions of Mumbai and probably India. Dongri. At one point, he wanted to leave medicine and take up Taekwondo, eventually wanting to do more damage than damage repair. This is his story.

Aamer: Hello there and welcome. I'm Aamer Khan, and this is the Zed Medium Podcast, a podcast that talks to people and about them, too. We narrate people's journeys in the simplest way we can. In the previous episode, we talked to Hasib Shaikh, a finance professional who works out of the Burj Khalifa. His rise was meteoric in a way. Do check that out. It's one that cannot be missed. Let's start, shall we? 

Tufail treats brain aneurysms, AVMs, spinal AVMs, and spinal vascular abnormalities. And for a person who has derived all of his information from Grey's Anatomy, this was really fascinating to hear. 

To break it down. He operates on blood vessels in the brain and in the spine. And these are pretty complicated surgeries. One step wrong and you've officially got a coma-induced patient on your hands. He has treated over thousands of patients over his career, first starting practice in 1990, basically. 

He's been doing this for a very long time now, but let's see how he started. 

Tufail: I finished medical school at Grand Medical College Interior Hospital. It was amazing. Then I moved and worked at Bombay Hospital. I started working in cardiovascular surgery. I had an uncle who was very rich in India, and he basically wanted me to do radiology because he had all these radiological practices and he was a very influential person in the family. Kind of brainwashed a little bit about me going to radiology. 

Aamer: Tufail comes from a family where almost everyone was a doctor, so it was kind of a given that he was going to get into this field eventually. It was embedded into him from a very young age, so his path was clear from the very beginning. What he could not predict was how much he would love doing what he does. This field is all about having great people to look at and learn from. Medicine, more than any other profession, needs the passing of skills from one individual to another. 

And he found some really great mentors along the way. It was as if they were waiting for him. When he got into Kem Hospital at the time.

Tufail: I was lucky. I got into Kem, and I think that was a turning point in my life. It was one of the best places to do radiology in India at the time. We had a professor called Ravira Mahandan. We had a teacher, they all were amazing teachers. They were highly driven and they motivated most of us to do really the best we can do. That's also where I met Professor Osborne, who used to come from America as a teacher and used to spend a lot of time with KEM and trained a lot of people like us. And she was a great mentor and inspiration and I learned a lot. 

And she was the one, probably the main driving force for me to move into Neuroradiology. 

Aamer: If you Google Anna Osborne, you would know that there couldn't have been a better mentor for the failure in the world of radiology at the time. And this is a prime example of what influence great teachers can have on others. Because she took Tufail and new graduates like him under her wing, Tufail spent more than eight years at KEM and Bombay Hospital combined and had earned a name for himself because he had such a great support system in the mentors he had found over the years in Kem. 

In fact, Anna Osborne was so impressed at the time that she invited him to the US for a fellowship there and that is where he met Michael Akman. 


Tufail: I remember the US opportunity came because Anna recommended me to go and do some training in the US. And that was one of the first times I was exposed to somebody to the American system or Western system I met and worked with Michael Huckman, and these were amazing people. Sadly, Michael passed away very recently and he's one of the very important people in my life. He was an amazing person. I learned so much from him. I learned how to be a human, how to be good, and how to be a nice person more than also Neuroradiology. 

That's what he was trying to teach me. He was trying to groom me to be a nice person along with being a good Neuroradiologist. One of the things which I saw, it was very different from the Indian system when I went to the US was how everybody was treated equally. 

I remember once Michael had somebody in his office and he was a porter. And Michael, as nice you are, he was talking to me later and said  Tufail, this guy is a porter, but what's the difference between a porter and you?

I was trying to help him because he wants his son to get into medicine in the US. And he needs some references. And at the end of it, he is looking after his family and I'm looking after my family. And we should all think that we all coming to work to help our family, to sort our family out, sort of things. 

I remember I remember he helped me out to get into the UK and I remember him telling me, I'm going to help you, of course. And I think he told me, you've got a huge potential, you're going to be doing well, but I want you to remember you should help the next person, help as many people, and you should tell the people to help other people. 

Nobody takes away your money or your income or your love. Everybody comes with their luck. I've learned that when you reach a position where I am, you should not keep that position for yourself. You should share it with everybody. 

Aamer: After spending a few years in the US, he moved to the UK in search of more in the field that he wanted to pursue. He loved intervention and he loved diagnostics, and in the UK he had the opportunity to do both. So he left. 

Tufail: But when the opportunity came, when I moved to the UK, I was lucky that I could move into intervention neuro and also do diagnostic neuroradiology. When I came to the UK, I had to do the whole radiology training again. I basically was lucky because I got one of the most pivotal jobs that people die for and I was given an appointment at Manchester Delivery, but I had to retrain from year one and already had done many years in India. But I was happy to start retaining. 

But I also was given the opportunity to continue to work, to do radiology and Ph.D. at the same time, which is what I primarily wanted to come, which is why I had to come here. After spending years in one of the best hospitals in India, moving to the US, and training under the best over there, the fail had to go back to university. And that really was a different experience. It was a little bit awkward sometimes because you were the experienced radiologist new radiology fellowship and meanwhile already done a fellowship in the US and had come back. 

And then I was with first-year radiology trainees in Manchester. 

Aamer: You already worked with some of the best people in your audiology. You were in the best unit in India. 

Tufail: I was a lecturer there for some time and then you're back into year one, but it was a great experience. I made some really good friends here. I learned a lot. I learned things that I thought weren't right and it went okay. And then I got a neuroradiology fellowship. 

After I took a fellowship, I took intervention because there was an opportunity. In the UK, you can do diagnostic neuroradiology and interventional neurobiology at the same time. So I was happy. 


Aamer: Becoming a doctor is a difficult task on its own. Becoming good at it is another task.

Finding the right people to help you become great at it. It's a ball game. It's another ball game altogether. And Tufail got all of that in one go. 

Tufail: This is some luck. It's not all luck. The thing with luck is that it tends to find people who are working harder than anyone else who is doing good for people around them without any specific benefit to themselves and to those who are genuine in their offerings and intentions. Michael was the president of Asnr. I was born to the best neurobiologist in the world. So for me, who would give me a job? 

When you have a reference from the two best people in the world, you know what I mean, where I think some of the prayers of different people, your parents, are important, it's a blessing because I did a lot of work when I was there. I would help people. I remember I used to work in CT and I was kind of running the CT scan and Robbie had given me a free hand, complete freedom to do what I want. 

And to be honest, a lot of people would come, poor people who needed the scanner more than money. And I want permission to sanction free scans. I had to sanction a lot of free scans for a lot of people coming from my pocket. These people deserved it. They were poor. 

Help them. If somebody comes and says to me, somebody needs a scan, doesn't have the money, I wouldn't worry about it. I wouldn't question because the people who come with you also knew they were genuine. And it's important. They say you should never stop learning in life. Your personal growth should not be stagnant at any point. Constantly learning helps you in being up to date with everything that is going on around you. It's like climbing a mountain with no peak. 

Even in medicine, that holds true, no matter who you are, where you are, what position you are, or what age you are, you cannot stop learning. In medicine, that's very important. You got to constantly be aware of the chain to progress because, at the end of it, you're trying to make the best of what you can do for your patients. 

Aamer: For your patients. That's the most important line in that sentence for your patients.

 Doctors, unlike any other profession, have little to no margin of error in what they're doing. They cannot afford to make mistakes. They cannot afford to have a bad day at the office or rectify their error later so that it never existed. 

Tufail: You are playing with fire. You're going to burn your fingers. Sometimes you got to learn to stop. But you also learn to learn from mistakes, learn to get on with it. You want to get better. You know that you're going to treat thousands of patients. They're going to be better, but one or 2 may not do better. 

Or sometimes you might make a different judgment call or make a different decision. Sometimes that can be tricky. But that's life. That's your practice. And you've got to learn to live with it. So that if you do an error or mistake or you're not done well, you got to learn from it and move on with it. 

Because you have to remember you've heard you might have not helped one, but you might have helped thousands of other people. 

Aamer: To get what Tufail has gotten is extremely difficult, almost impossible if you put that in the bigger picture of his life. He comes from a place called Dongri, and very early on, he had one of the most significant turning points of his life. But before that, some context. 

Tufail: I'm very proud of where I come from. I come from Mumbai. Congregate Muslim. I grew up in a place of Pendy bazaar and Dongri. From where we are, if you know, in the 1990s, this was a complex environment to be living in. And so there are a lot of factors that could influence. I got into medical school. I had a lot of friends, some good, some bad, some notorious ones. 

But I was young and I thought I was invincible. You don't really listen to anybody. Sometimes, I got into some trouble, I used to do martial arts professionally. Honestly, I wanted to leave medicine at one stage and go into professional boxing. I did taekwondo, and at that time, I thought, taekwondo is the most important thing in my life. 

So after medical school, I used to go after days of school to Taekwando for hours. In fact, I got third place in all of India in Taekwondo at some stage, I was, like, really crazy. 

And there was always a little bit of family pressure that I need to continue medicine. Don't make this professional. Keep going, keep going. You're young. You get insurance, basically. 

Aamer: Tufail did some taekwondo when he was not supposed to. And at that age, people don't know any better. Yes, when you look back at it, you realize what a stupid mistake you made. But at that time, you don't have time to reflect on what you've done. Tufail's parents, his uncle, and some of his other relatives had to get involved as he sat there and contemplated whether this was a forceful end to his education, to medicine. 

Eventually, the problem got sorted, and so did the mindset. He felt very embarrassed about letting his parents down, especially when they were putting in a lot of effort, time, and energy into making sure he wouldn't get influenced by his environment and made sure he made something of himself. That realization was very important for him at that moment. From then on, he was as straight as an arrow. He became one with medicine. 

He was dedicated, driven to the point of no return, and so engrossed that as he ran forward in life, he realized pretty late that he had left something behind. 

Tufail: I became so focused at work, and driven because I was taught when I was in the US. If you want to be good in the Western world, you have to be ten times better than white people. You got to be very good. Otherwise, why would a white guy in the Western world give you a job? 

Asian guy, coming from India, you don't even have a right to live probably in that country. Why would he give you unless you are better? You can do better than most people. Ten times better. It's a process, I think, somewhere. And I'm sure many people forget about a lot of other people around you. Your family, your friends, your parents. Forget everybody. You are just driven, good or bad. 

But I didn't think at the time a little bit too much about how we in India work so much and so hard. And you just think you have work, that you forget about everybody. But then you look back and you see so many people have gone. You left your family behind, your parents have passed away. And sometimes those people are not there who matter at the time, who cared about you, they were gone. You don't know what's in the future, right? 

You know, when I left India, I never realized my dad will pass away. But from the time I was leaving the house, working at Km and I was boarding the flight, I had friends as junior doctors, I tried to write papers, and publications. You're always about work, getting things done, getting articles sorted, which was going where a lot of people had come. I know when you go from India for a long time for a new job, you got like uncle, auntie's, family, everybody is there, but you are spending time on work. 

I'm grateful for all that, but you don't spend too much time. And with these people who care. And my dad passed away after I came here. And I never thought that this was the last time when I'm going to leave India, I'm going to see him. It's hard to predict the future. It really is. And the guilt of not spending more time with his father still remains. It's not all glory. In life, there is some pain, some resentment that stays. 

The problem with making work your life is the same as having horses with blinders. It restricts your vision to see only one thing. And we're not saying that is bad in any way, not at all. Having a vision, a dream, and working relentlessly towards it is one of the best things you can do. But sometimes it is good to remove those blinders and look around you. Make sure that the people around are okay. 

Spending some time with people who love and care for you the most won't take away from what you're trying to achieve. It will give you great strength knowing that the people in your presence are looking out for you. 

One of the things that Tufail also wished he could do differently when he looked back at his life was his marriage. Let's hear from him on a personal level.

Tufail: One of the biggest mistakes that I feel about is my marriage failed. I knew the marriage wasn't working and I knew this was going to end, I knew. I always knew that for years. And I always regret that. I wish people had told me before that this could be a problem. I never listened. Quite a few people had told me this in the beginning and later on. So you don't listen because you're in love and you don't realize it, but it is very important. 

I learned that because I learned that it wasn't the right person. Different views, different thought processes, different thinking. It's very important that you marry the person when you know the person is right for you. Very important. But anyway, I think that's destiny. It wasn't right, shouldn't have been. But I have a very beautiful son and that's more important. 

Aamer: I think it's a wonderful way of looking at it. And his son is doing pretty well in life. Touchwood. He's starting to become a doctor and is getting into Oxford soon. He's paving his own path and Tufail couldn't be more proud of him. Tufail can look back at his life and say he did well and continues and would want to continue to do so in the future. 

He says he has about 15 to 20 years left in him to do surgeries and to carry on the wonderful work he's currently doing. He's been doing this for over 32 years now. And to say that really takes determination and willpower. Or does it? There is something that we've kept till the end because Tufail describes this as the reason why he can continue to do what he does after all these years. 

Tufail: If you have got this combination, then you'll have the feeling that you can do this for free as well. Because that flow you obtain is a way of life that you don't want to exchange for any kind of currency. The combination that he talks about is what you love doing and what you're good at doing. The state in which you are so engrossed in what you're doing that the world around you comes to a standstill. 

Nothing matters anymore. It's just you and what you love doing. A lot has been written about obtaining the flow, but not everyone has been able to achieve that. It's a different kind of feeling, one which transports you. It changes you. At that moment, you can think of nothing else, nothing can distract you. And that's wonderful.

Aamer: That's the flow that Tufail was talking about. That's what kept him at the top of his game all these years and what takes you from being good to being great. And that, for you, was the Doctor from Dongri. If you liked that episode and want to receive the latest updates, go onto Instagram and LinkedIn and follow us at Zed Medium.

There are a lot more stories to come and ones to look out for. Next up, we have Bharat Nain, a facilitator who is helping shape the future of youngsters, middle ages, and seniors. All the same, here is a snippet from that conversation:

If you come across someone who's different, nonstandard, approach the person and say I'd like to spend ten minutes with you. I find you very interesting. I'd like to spend ten minutes with you. Once you leave a message in the universe that you're seeking a mentor by these acts like this universe will respond to you. You'll get a mentor.

Stay tuned and goodbye for now. Bye.