Dr Nagalakshmi: Defying Convention

The untold story of Dr Nagalakshmi who was born in the pre-independence era and practised medicine until the age of 85.


Dr Nagalakshmi

Shriya Mandira

The status of women in Indian society has always been conflicting. For the longest period, having a girl child was considered to be a shame, leading to the trend of female infanticide, child marriage and being barred from education. The female gender were rightless members of the society, with the common notion being that they belonged to the kitchen. Despite the several, relentless trials of uplifting the status of women in society, societal norms formed to suppress the female gender continued to prevail more visibly in the rural areas; something that continues to be seen today as well.

However, these trials were not entirely in vain especially in the urban areas, which were witness to educated, furiously independent, and brave women who defied society. Highly educated women, with a supportive family, were rarer in the rural parts of the country- Dr Nagalakshmi, an OBGYN (Obstetrics and Gynaecology) with 50+ years of service, is one such example.

Journey to becoming a doctor
Dr Nagalakshmi’s journey to becoming a doctor was filled with gleaning inspiration from those around her. Before we dwell any further, “Let’s start at the very beginning, it’s a very good place to start”.

Hailing from the district of Hassan, Dr Nagalakshmi was born in 1931 into, as she puts it, an ordinary family who valued education, music and reading as the pearls of life. Being the oldest of the 11 children, Dr Nagalakshmi graduated first class in her SSLC exams and bagged a merit seat in the LMP (Licentiate Medical Practitioner) Diploma program, a scheme introduced in British India by the Britishers.

Her decision to pursue her LMP was a result of getting inspired by her father. “My father, Dr Shama Rao, was a doctor who graduated with an LMP Diploma. He was posted in small villages, dealt with the plague and his contribution to the field inspired me to take up the same,” she said.

With a part of her family. Credits: Shriya Rajachandra/NSoJ

Nagamma, as her family lovingly calls her, completed her four-year LMP Diploma and started working in government hospitals like Vani Vilas, Bowring Institute and KC General Hospital; all located in Bengaluru. During her sixth year as a Licentiate, Vani Vilas Hospital sent her for an anaesthesia training program in Chennai; where a desire to pursue her MBBS was ignited.

She says, “Looking at the girls studying MBBS in my hostel, I made up my mind and decided to complete my MBBS degree. I had an advantage because Manipal University in Mangalore was offering a 2-year MBBS course for those with an LMP Diploma. Here was where I developed a keen interest in Gynaecology. I was motivated by my professor Dr Padma Rao and decided to make a career in Gynaecology following which I completed my MD.”

The journey of becoming a doctor was exciting but tremulous. Coming from an ordinary family, with 10 siblings and one earning member meant an insufficient amount of funds. Despite this, her family encouraged her to study. She credits her exciting journey to her uncle, KV Nanjundiah, who was always a letter away and found means to fund her MBBS, and her brother Krishnamurthy, who tirelessly encouraged her to not give up her education.

Life as a doctor
Her life as a doctor began in Chikmagalur after completing her MD. She fondly recollects her first-ever case in the early 1960s and says, “When the patient came in, I felt she had a ruptured uterus - which meant that the baby had slipped into the abdomen of the mother - and after one test, it was confirmed. The anaesthetist was nowhere to be found and there was no blood bank nearby, so we resorted to giving her plasma solution. Without the necessities, my team and I took a big leap, operated and it was a success.” Uncountable and numerous deliveries in Shimoga and Bengaluru followed.

Having worked in government hospitals in the districts of Shimoga and Bengaluru, Dr Nagamma voluntarily retired as a government servant and started working in the Krishna Seva Ashrama. She worked here until the age of 85 and helped start the gynaecology section, and the dialysis department.

Opening ceremony at Seva Ashrama. Credits: Shriya Rajachandra/NSoJ

Her recipe for success is simple. She believes that just being nice/friendly to people and treating everyone with respect can take an individual a long way. Her favourite part about being a gynaecologist was the process of delivering.

“You see a mother struggling, crying in pain but the minute the baby is born and begins to cry, the pain suddenly disappears. It’s the beginning of motherhood which is so special and great. We as surgeons too are anxious and the cry of the baby fuels us with happiness. To be honest, no word can describe what you feel after listening to a baby’s first cry. Only when you experience it, is when you know the feeling,” she says.

Apart from performing her duties as a surgeon, she also spent time reading medical journals and attending medical conferences around the world.

According to people who know her, Dr Nagalakshmi portrayed and lived the life of a good doctor. She was always elegantly dressed, held no biases and always had a positive aura about her. Filled with compassion and honesty, she always went beyond her call of duty to aid the people in need.

Being honoured for her achievements. Credits: Shriya Rajachandra/NSoJ

A living inspiration
Dr Nagalakshmi’s life has been an inspiration to many. Dr Prathibha, a retired physician from Los Angeles, California states that Dr Nagalakshmi was one of the reasons she decided to become a doctor. She says, “Her dedication to patient care was outstanding. When someone would come at 2 am, she would get up, walk up to the hospital and do her part without complaining. It showed that she became a doctor because she wanted to help people. She was filled with compassion, honesty and always took extra care of her patients. She brought the rich members of the society to government hospitals because they knew she was the best and impressed the common people by doing what she loved.”

Chinmayee Balachandra, a medical student from Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, has been highly inspired by her father’s aunt who she fondly calls Doddamma Ajji. She says, “As a future 4th generation physician in my family, Doddamma Ajji has inspired me beyond this world and the next. I grew up with stories of her resilience, bravery, and compassion.”

“For me, Doddamma Ajji represents the essence of how medicine should be practised; she is remarkable for her grace, swiftness and intelligence. As I continue through my training, if I can be even half the woman and doctor she is, I will know I have succeeded.” she continued.

For Dr Nagalakshmi, the fact that she has inspired so many people makes her feel overwhelmed. “I am satisfied with myself and I’m very happy. I could do what I did because I had the chance, opportunity and support to do so,” she says.

Having said this, she also has a word of advice for everyone. She says, “Everyone should be very independent and should never compromise on education. Because with knowledge, you can face anything in life.”

Special Mentions
For her contribution to the field of gynaecology, Dr Nagalakshmi has been honoured by the senior citizens association of Narasimha Raja Colony. She was also honoured by the head pontiff of Pejawar Mutt which is one of the Ashta Mathas of Udupi.

Being honoured for her achievements. Credits: Shriya Rajachandra/NSoJ

Dr Nagalakshmi was also featured on Weekend with Ramesh, a reality TV show honouring some personalities from Karnataka, hosted by Kannada actor Ramesh Arvind. In the episode that featured Kiccha Sudeep, it was revealed that during her stint in Shimoga, Dr Nagalakshmi had delivered Sudeep; many many years later she would go on to deliver his daughter as well.

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