This is a story of my mom, Dr. Hemavathy, a pediatrician in India. She was born in Kariapattinam, a small village in southern India in the state of Tamil Nadu. The village had one school that only went up to the equivalent of 4th grade. The medium of instruction was Tamil. As was common in Indian families at the time, she was part of a large joint family consisting of her parents, five of her other siblings, and five of her eldest brother’s children. Mom showed interest in academics early on, despite the lack of real opportunity. After a few years, the family moved to Chennai, a large city and the capital of Tamil Nadu. One of the first challenges she faced was having to ace an English proficiency test to be able to join a public school in Chennai that provided English as a medium of instruction.
By the time mom finished high school in 1967, her dad had retired and her eldest brother was the sole earning member of the family with 12 dependents. I can’t imagine how hard that must have been.
Mom became a doctor almost entirely by chance – she had excellent grades in her high school finals, but she didn’t have anyone to counsel her on career options. She was considering getting a bachelor’s degree in Physics. A family friend who happened to visit them saw her scores and convinced her to apply to study medicine, telling her that she had a good chance of getting admission. Given the family financial situation, the understanding was that she could only join if she also got a scholarship. Her grades helped her get a scholarship, and she was in! She started medical school at Stanley Medical College in 1968, one of 30 women in her class of 120.
Money was tight all through her college days. Mom used to walk to college instead of taking the bus, and she would borrow medical books from the library or from friends instead of buying them. She did this to save up scholarship money left over after college tuition to help towards family expenses. After getting her medical degree she started working for hospitals in Chennai while also getting a diploma in child health. She moved to Hosur, a small town in Tamil Nadu after her wedding, where she and my dad raised my family.
In Hosur, she worked all day at a public hospital, which provides free medical treatment to low-income patients. Her specialty was neonatal care, pediatrics, and tubal sterilization. She also started a private practice in the evenings, remodeling our home’s front balcony into a medical examination room. The practice had some challenges early on but slowly grew to be very successful. I still remember a day in my childhood when she once got paid peanuts, and I mean that literally! One of her patients was a peanut farmer who had cash flow problems and he asked to pay her with a sack of peanuts for a year of medical care.
Throughout her career, she won multiple awards and commendations from the government for her service. Now retired, mom continues to work at her private practice she started over 30 years ago. She works 8 to 10 hours every day seeing patients from all walks of life. Her patients travel from many nearby villages because they trust her with their health needs. Mom also consults for several hospitals as a specialist in OB-GYN and pediatrics. She shows no signs of slowing down and says she will keep working because her patients need her.
My mom’s life story has taught me a key life lesson – resilience. No matter what life throws at you, whether you have personal challenges or problems at work, work through it taking action to improve your situation. How you respond to challenges is entirely up to you. Develop a resilient attitude and you can conquer anything.
Mom and Dad together when visiting us in Texas.
GGSTEM would like to thank Preetha Appan, who saw our call for international submissions and contributed this post in honor of her mother’s birthday.