Nobody thought anything bad could ever happen to the “good doctor.” Till he was 78, Dr KB Rohatgi was not just the general physician who reassured you with his diagnosis without asking for tests — a breed that’s dying fast — he saved lives in the middle of the night. Be it getting a nebuliser at 3 am for a critical patient or administering aspirin and quick protocols to those who had suffered a heart attack while driving them to the nearest cardiac facility, he was there for everybody. Surely life couldn’t be so uncharitable to him? Similarly, his oncologist son Nitesh never thought that he had to deal with the most complex form of brain tumor at home. Yet at 82, after a prolonged battle with the dreaded disease and its debilitating side effects, his former patients of him have encouraged Dr Rohatgi to will himself back to life and celebrate his birthday. Not only that. In between, he had to negotiate two speed bumps — he needed a stent in his heart and developed Parkinson’s disease. Still, he wants to travel to the US to meet his brother from him.
Dealing with the diagnosis
“We found him confused and disoriented one weekend,” says son Nitesh, who didn’t let it pass although the doctor insisted that almost 16 hours of practicing medicine everyday over the years had perhaps exhausted him a bit. He insisted his father consult a neurologist friend of his who attributed his condition to insomnia, saying there was nothing more sinister. Despite medication, his behavior changed over time as he got more fidgety and anxious, at times wobbling while walking. Nitesh’s astute observation led to an MRI and another test that confirmed that he had a 5 cm brain tumor, one that needed a delicate surgical intervention. So deep-rooted was it that the attending neuro-surgeon didn’t give him more than 18 months even after removing a big part of it.
Dr Rohatgi, who has always prioritized science over emotion and believes in result-oriented action, scheduled his surgery a fortnight later. “I couldn’t leave my patients in the lurch. They had trusted me for years and I wasn’t sure how fit I would be after the surgery to resume my practice. Or whether I would come back at all. So over 15 days, I made sure that I had closed all files and referred my patients to other doctors,” says he, sitting with his son in the verandah of their house in New Delhi’s Greater Kailash and sharing a glass of wine, his only indulgence these days. “Dad has never believed in negativity and his favorite line from him was ‘karna kya hai, batao (tell me what needs to be done),’” says Nitesh.
That positivity helped Dr. Rohatgi take the surgery despite his geriatric impediments. And thanks to a good constitution, he recovered from the procedure real fast, even summarizing his clinic within a fortnight. Steroids and anti-epilectic drugs helped him manage inflammation and as his brain swelling went down, he became more functional and regained his old faculties. “So long as I was needed by my patients, I felt good,” he says. But cycles of radiation and chemotherapy meant his body did not match his enthusiasm.
“He was functional till the radiation phase as he could still see his patients. That was his happiness. Because of the surgery, his ability to recall names and identities was affected but his analytical skills were sharp, ”says Nitesh. For about three months, Dr Rohatgi was happy because he thought he could become a doctor again but once chemotherapy began with side effects kicking in, his functionality dropped. “He had memory problems and once he came home confused about a medicine he had prescribed. That’s when we decided he should quit his practice rather than unwittingly pose a risk to somebody else. He had great trouble reconciling himself to a new life without his patients. Of course, some of them kept in touch, messaging us about his health and calling to inquire about his condition. But he was still hit hard. There was a lot of blame game and verbal duel in the house where he felt he was normal but he was being unnecessarily restricted by us. As a doctor, I couldn’t let him practice and risk the life of a patient. Yet through this tussle, we held together as a family. There were bouts of aggressive behaviour, temper tantrums, physical and mental troughs and negotiating that journey wasn’t easy,” says Nitesh.
Dr Rohatgi was prescribed chemotherapy for six months. However, Nitesh, being an oncologist, decided to go for some novel methods, which meant spacing out and continuing chemotherapy for about three years. He sent tissue samples to US laboratories, went for AI-aided assessment, consulted oncology specialists everywhere and decided that Dr Rohatgi could be a test case for long-term chemotherapy if delivered in the right and safe amounts. “This was a five-day a month routine and my father may have had memory problems but he never lost his capacity for analysis. And together we worked out a schedule where he fixed his own dose,” says Nitesh.
Second life with some hurdles
Dr Rastogi was his own cure. He knew he had to fight it out, come what may. And he self-diagnosed the blockage in his heart from him. “I had always had angina but on a trip to Goa, I realized that the symptoms of discomfort were different and suspected a blockage,” he says. Stenting wasn’t the end of it all. He had to have cataract surgeries too. And then he spotted early symptomatic manifestations of Parkinson’s disease. He is on medication to manage his condition and sometimes has trouble walking.
But he’s accepted his new life with conditions. And he learned to live with his new realities from him. He has got accustomed to taking mid-morning and afternoon naps and spending time with his wife Sharda, sharing a life that he had put on hold for decades. So now they do what couples do in their younger years — They watch movies together, socialize and attend family functions together.
The family bonded, particularly during the lockdown. Dr Rohatgi walked on the terrace, played with his grandchildren, savored every meal with the family, occasionally complaining about losing balance. And without the pressure of social visits and judgment, he felt far more comfortable with himself. “He felt connected as a lot of people were talking to him over the phone. But now that life is returning to pre-Covid conditions and people are getting busy with their work life, dad feels disconnected at times. He is no longer angry but misses his patients from him, who had called him on occasion and messaged him. Perhaps he expected a lot more of them because he gave them that much. Sometimes he gets upset and his ego is hurt when he is not able to connect the dots. For my dad, it is not acceptable to not live life to the fullest,” says Nitesh.
But disease hasn’t been able to steal his optimism. “Keep working, don’t think and don’t plan,” he tells us. There was a time when his son de him Nitesh refused to have prasad from a temple, arguing that since it passed many hands, it was a source of food allergy and infections. An agnostic, he now wonders whether his father’s miracle was meant to convince him otherwise.