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What do sculpture and surgery have in common?

More than money, the bigger rewards for a doctor are the gratitude of patients and the respect they evoke from their peers and society, says Apeejay Sheikh Sarai alumnus Dr Thomas Zachariah



Apeejay Faridabad and Sheikh Sarai alumnus Dr Thomas Zachariah is Consultant Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon and Professor of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery with the Meenakshi Ammal Dental College and Meenakshi General Hospital, Chennai. In an interview, Zachariah says the time he spent at Apeejay Sheikh remains one of his most memorable and cherished memories from his schooling days. Read on:

Did you always want to be in the field of medicine and academics when you were young? How did you choose this career?

Yes, pretty much. I had a lot of doctors in my family and that was an inspiration early on in life. Later when I was in High School, I realised that I had a flair for accumulating information – and retaining it; probably because I was a lot into quizzing those days. I wasn’t too creative or good at the analytical subjects. I was better at fathoming information and that definitely helps in the field of Medicine. The interest and passion in Medicine then gradually developed from the years of study.

How was your experience in school? Please share some memories of your student life from the time when you were at Apeejay?

I think my time in Apeejay Sheikh Sarai from classes 4 to 6 (1984-1987) was one of my most memorable and cherished memories from all of my schooling. We had a very balanced education….academics, sports, cultural, music and art. Most importantly, I had some really good friends in Apeejay and have some very fond memories of playing cricket in the school quadrangle and hide-and-seek in the corridors during lunch break.

What role did your teachers in schools and colleges play in your life? Is there any favourite educator you would want to remember from your days in Apeejay?

Our teachers were really dedicated, caring, friendly, and really nice to us. I would like to specially mention Mrs Kusum Gaur, Mrs Shakun Tripathi, the late Mrs Khaneejo, and Mr Tiwari  to name a few. I was extremely fortunate to meet the teachers I mentioned and many more who didn’t teach me during our 25th year School Reunion in 2017. Interestingly, most of them remembered me even though I was meeting them after 30 years. Frankly speaking, meeting my teachers was more gratifying than meeting my friends with whom I had been in touch on Facebook and WhatsApp groups much before the re-union.

How difficult is it to pursue a career in surgery and academics?

You need to be passionate about it foremost. You’re going to be doing it for the rest of your life, so you better love what you’re doing. Your primary motive should be interest and passion, rather than monetary gains which come much later in life compared to other professions. Many students who enter medicine get disenchanted, frustrated, and lose interest when they realise they’re stuck in something that doesn’t stimulate them or motivate them anymore. They cannot seem to cope with the long and struggling path ahead. Unless you love what you are doing, you won’t find your profession rewarding. Of course, your real reward should be the gratitude of your patients, the respect you get from your peers, and in society. So you’re either ‘cut out’ for it or ‘not cut out’ for it. This is really not your cup of tea if your primary motivation is to make money fast and enjoy life. There’re plenty of other avenues for that.

Any tips for aspiring students to be a good maxillofacial surgeon?

My only tip is to keep the passion alive because that’s the only thing that will keep you going for the long and arduous path ahead.  And be prepared for a lot of sacrifice. You have to be of a particular mindset, doggedly strive for excellence, never give up, keep striving, and be persistent. My sincere advice to aspiring doctors is, please get into this field only if you’re willing to devote most of your time to this specialty. Your enjoyment must stem from your work rather than anything else because you may get little time for anything else after all. So this is the only mantra to be truly successful and make a name for yourself in this field. I suppose that holds true for any of the challenging fields of medicine.

What are the challenges and opportunities in pursuing a career in maxillofacial surgery?

Maxillofacial Surgery is a very challenging and interesting specialty. It is basically surgery of the mouth, face and jaws. It deals with fractures of the facial bones and jaws, oral cancer, jaw correction surgery, cleft lip and palate surgery, facial deformities as well as some elements of cosmetic surgery. To put it very simply, it is surgery of the facial bones. It is an art-form by itself, like a sculptor who works on the face. And because it is your face and all the complexities that go along with it, you cannot go very wrong in planning and executing surgeries. That makes it all the more demanding with little margin for error. The other challenge is because you deal with facial injury/accident cases, you can get a call any time of the day or night to attend to an emergency. Then there are the challenges of managing complicated cases after surgery, especially long and complex oral cancer reconstructive surgeries, many of them which last 7-8 hours.

What are the life lessons you picked up in school?
It is important to have a well-balanced, well-rounded education. And in my opinion the Apeejay Educational system provides that. In fact, I was also an Apeejay Faridabad student from kindergarten to Class III before moving to Delhi. I also personally feel that a co-ed system of schooling is always better than a boys’ or girls’ school. I can say that with a fair degree of certainty as I did move to a boys’ school (St.Columba’s, New Delhi) after class 6. Of course, I’m only comparing the system of education, not the schools. I do not believe in comparing schools.

In which year did you clear your exams to study medicine? Is it easier or more difficult to crack the entrance exam these days?
That was in 1994. I definitely think the competition is more intense now as the number of aspirants for any competitive exam in India has only increased. But at the same time, there are better coaching, learning, and training opportunities now, especially with the easy accessibility of knowledge and information on the internet and its increased penetration all over India. So yes, the level of competition is more now but so are the available coaching opportunities.

What is the secret to being a successful Professor of medicine?
Depends on how you define success. For some success, might be fame and money. I would define success if you’re able to make a positive difference to somebody’s life, to patients, to society, and inspire and motivate your students.

Please tell us about your journey in the world of medicine?
I graduated from Manipal University, probably one the best University campuses in India. I then went to the AB Shetty Memorial Institute of Dental Sciences, Mangalore for postgraduate training in Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery. After that I moved to Meenakshi University, Chennai for a fellowship in Cleft and Craniofacial Surgery, where I have been since the last 13 years.

” My sincere advice to aspiring doctors is, please get into this field only if you’re willing to devote most of your time to this specialty. Your enjoyment must stem from your work rather than anything else because you may get little time for anything else after all.” 

 – Dr Thomas Zachariah 

Aasheesh Sharma is a seasoned journalist with an experience of more than 25 years spread over newspapers, news agencies, magazines and television. He has worked in leadership positions in media groups such as Hindustan Times, India Today, Times of India, NDTV, UNI and IANS. He is a published author and his essay on the longest train journey in India was included in an anthology of writings on the railways, brought out by Rupa Publications. As the Editor of Apeejay Newsroom, he is responsible for coverage of the latest news and developments in the Apeejay institutions. He can be reached at [email protected]. He tweets @Aasheesh74