He was a very small village doctor, and I never ever met him or ever found out his name. But because of Dattaram, he taught me some lessons that I would never forget all my life.

Dattaram. I could never be sure of his age, since he looked the same across the twenty plus years that I had known him. Tall, dark and lean, with a heavily wrinkled, almost caricatured face that in retrospect showed the obvious evidence of a hard life. He worked in my dad’s shop as a helper. He was there in the shop when I was a kid, there when I joined MBBS and he was still there when I started my private practice as a general surgeon.

Eventually, though, he did move on when dad wound up the business. We met again after a couple of years, when he stepped into my clinic. The first thing that hit me was the stench from his feet. His toes were full of maggot infested wounds. He couldn’t give a clear reply how this happened, as he was a man of very few mostly incomprehensible words. I cleaned up the wounds and dressed them, started him on medications and asked him to come daily for dressings.

The next day, I was appalled to see the dressing I had applied was absolutely filthy. I gave him a piece of my mind and changed the dressing, but the same thing was repeated again the next day, and the day after that. Irritated, I examined his feet and found them in a bad condition, even worse than day one. Scolding him in harsh words, I told him his toes would have to be amputated. Virtually screamed at him for being so negligent and filthy. Reminded him that he was behaving like this because I wasn’t charging him anything.

He didn’t say a word and walked away quietly. And did not return. For a few days I wondered what happened to him, and then condemned him to the same place doctors dump the patients who default on their treatment: out of memory.

After a year, just as abruptly as his disappearance, Dattaram showed up again. This time, not in my clinic but at home. It was a social visit, and not a medical one. I was relieved to see him alive and quite glad that he wasn’t stinking either. “I’m fine now”, he said, pointing to his fully healed and completely intact toes. “They didn’t need to be cut off”.

“He was a very small doctor in my village, but he tended to my wounds till they healed. Really a very small doctor”. Dattaram looked at me straight in the eye as he said these words with absolutely no trace of rancour or reproach.

I felt my ego deflating completely. A big city surgeon beaten by a rural quack? How was this possible? I brooded over what had transpired between me and Dattaram for the next several hours, until success decided to finally reveal why it unfriended me. And it wasn’t pretty. The village quack could beat me every time, because he had things that I did not.

Humility. Dedication. Patience. Persistence. Things that don’t come with a degree. One may have all the surgical skills in the world, but without these essential life skills, how could anyone ever have hoped to succeed?

I don’t know who that doctor was, or even whether he was a genuine doctor at all. Dattaram never returned after that day. But the lessons learnt stayed for a lifetime. Over the decades, I have tended to thousands of patients with the worst of wounds and foulest of odours. Done months of tedious dressings, snipping away at dirt and dead tissue day after day, until pink shoots of healing “granulation tissue” start emerging. Saved hundreds of feet from amputation, or at least managed to sacrifice a few toes to save the foot.

But in truth, the credit of all these efforts goes to that unknown doctor practising his trade in a small village who taught me valuable lessons for a lifetime. And Dattaram.

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