Unless a person becomes a teacher, one may never have the experience of putting oneself in the shoes of those who taught them. I did my postgraduate training at the same institute at which I presently work, putting me in a position of having similar work experiences as my academic mentors. Dr. Mahashur, my teacher, passed away recently. I realize how incredibly challenging it is to be a physician, researcher, teacher, family man, and friend, and Dr. Mahashur was a rare embodiment of success in each of these roles. The grace, equanimity and foresight with which he lived his life serves as a beacon to pulmonologists all over the country.
Dr. Ashok Anant Mahashur came from humble roots. He was the first doctor in his family. After earning the MBBS degree from Nagpur in 1972, he received his MD in Chest Disease and Tuberculosis in 1976 from the University of Bombay. Further training at the City hospital in Edinburgh and at Yale University in Connecticut reflected his passion for learning state-of-the-art techniques in respiratory medicine, and the desire to bring these techniques to India. With his mentor, Dr. Kamat, he established an Intensive Respiratory Care Unit (IRCU) at the King Edward Memorial (KEM) Hospital, Mumbai. This was a novel unit and the first of its kind in India, with a specific focus on respiratory critical care.
He worked tirelessly for a decade from 1977–1987 at the KEM hospital, which is a public hospital serving predominantly the poor and the needy. Dr. Mahashur helped build a department in a public hospital that could compete with any private hospital in the country at the time. Even the short two-year stint as the head of department at the T. N. Medical College and B. Y. L. Nair Chest Hospital, Bombay Central, Mumbai from 1987–1989 is remembered by his colleagues and students as being a time in which the hospital was strongly sensitized to the importance of respiratory medicine. This was reflected in the upgradation of the TB clinic to a comprehensive pulmonary clinic, and increase in the number of allocated beds.
He returned to the KEM hospital in 1990 as Professor and Head of Department, and served in that role for the next decade. His foresight for respiratory medicine was reflected in every forum that he was a part of. He was one of the first pulmonologists in the country who lobbied for the field of pulmonary medicine to encompass diseases beyond tuberculosis. The specialty in India was originally developed to cater to the vast number of patients who suffered from tuberculosis. Visionaries like Dr. Mahashur realized that this was myopic. He knew that as socioeconomic factors improved, India too, like the rest of the world, would see diseases of poverty and malnutrition decline, and lifestyle/noncommunicable diseases predominate. He was among the first to research interstitial lung diseases in the country, which were often not diagnosed at the time, due to a lack of awareness. He did this while he continued to be an honorary physician at Group of TB Hospitals, Sewri, Mumbai, one of the largest TB sanatoriums in Asia, from 1982–2000.
He was a keen researcher of pollution-related lung diseases, and stressed upon the need to help individuals give up tobacco, much before this was common knowledge and practice. He was the chief of the EPRC (Environment Pollution Research Centre), which was set up to conduct surveys in Mumbai, and made some key recommendations to curb outdoor air pollution. The flyovers at Parel and Lalbaug in Mumbai were commissioned in response to the results of such surveys. Similar studies of particulate pollution in Chembur, a suburb in Mumbai, due to nearby petroleum and chemical factories, led to strong recommendations, which were then enforced. He was part of the medical team that visited Bhopal after the methyl isocyanate gas leak in 1984, and was a co-investigator in the I.C.M.R. project on the study of long-term effects on MIC on lung in subjects exposed to MIC in Bhopal from March 1985 to March 1987.
He joined the P.D. Hinduja Hospital and medical research centre in 2000 and was the head of department till his last days. In the two decades at the hospital, he helped strengthen the department with a postgraduate training program that shaped students to be pulmonologists of the highest calibre. Dr. Mahashur and Dr. Zarir Udwadia built a pulmonology service that has become synonymous with evidence-based ethical clinical practices, with a research track record that not too many private hospitals in the country can claim.
Almost every pulmonologist in the country has, at some point, experienced Dr. Mahashur’s generosity as an academician. He was never rushed with his students, willing to take any question, discuss a patient, listen to a case presentation, lead detailed clinical rounds with patience and eagerness. As a student, I have experienced his taking extra teaching sessions on holidays and at the end of long clinic days and was always in awe of how much he was ready to invest of his personal time for the benefit of his students. As an examiner, he had a reputation of being thorough, but never intimidating, firm, but ever accommodating when it came to grading. He always gave students the benefit of the doubt, and was never demeaning or critical of their foibles.
The Indian Chest Society, which represents thousands of chest physicians across the country, and has become a leading force for pulmonary medicine in India, and across the world, was founded by Dr. Mahashur and his colleagues in 1981. He was awarded numerous fellowships for his excellence in pulmonary medicine. These include the Fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow (F.R.C.P), UK, Fellowship of the American College of Chest Physicians (F.C.C.P.), and the Fellowship of the Indian College of Physicians (F.I.C.P.). He served on the editorial board of numerous academic publications, and was a counsellor, friend, and guide to academicians all over the country.
To his patients, Dr. Mahashur represented hope. He was an excellent listener, and paid attention to every minute detail mentioned to him. He knew his patient’s social circumstances, their day-to-day challenges, their aspirations which were often limited by their disease, and treated them holistically. I have heard patients often refer to him as a “family member”, and the outpouring of grief at his passing away continues to be witnessed by all of us now treating his patients.
Let none of the above deceive anyone to think of Dr. Mahashur as a grim or humourless person. He was an avid foodie (at a trip to Indore a few years back, I was told about how pulmonologists would often have a trip to Sarafa Bazaar for dinner with him after detailed academic discussions), loved cricket (would keep updating cricinfo between patients) and was a stationery geek – I would find myself talking to him about fountain pens, and he once mentioned how his trips abroad would often include visits to pen shops. He had a sense of humour that was in the same vein as Wodehouse or Pu La Deshpande – dry, deadpan, but would leave everyone around him in guffaws.
He was very close to his family, and this was even more evident in the last few years in which he was unwell. His wife, Mrs. Mukul, his son Nikhil, and daughter-in-law Abha, were constantly by his side as his pillars of support. He bore all his suffering with the same stoicism with which he possibly faced all the ups and downs in life. His passing away on August 29th at the age of 73 came too soon, and has left an irreplaceable void in the lives of all of us who have been touched by his presence.
In the field of healthcare in India, it is often assumed that one gets the best care in private hospitals and the best education in public institutes. Dr. Mahashur proved that with dedication and passion, excellence can be achieved no matter what the milieu. His life will always serve as an inspiration to patients, students, colleagues, family and friends. He will be sorely missed. May his soul Rest in Peace.