To Madam, with love
( my memories of a great teacher)
By Dr. M.V.Ramanamma, MD
Principal, Siddartha Medical College, Vijayawada
Dr P S Leela Naidu is very critically ill, fighting for her life in ICCU at Apollo hospital. One of her relatives rang me up this morning. She said madam was in coma for the last 10 days. Irreversible brain death. There is no scope of her recovering. She is on ventilator, and her children have to take a call on when to remove the ventilator and let her leave this world peacefully.
I started immediately to see her and share my feelings with her children. As the car dashed through the busy roads of Hyderabad, I closed my eyes and memories of my association with madam flooded back. I went back to the 80s, when I reported to her as a postgraduate........
When I chose Microbiology during my counseling at Kurnool Medical College, everyone in the hall turned their eyes to me in surprise. I remember one of them asking me, “are you new to this place?”
It was after I joined the department that I came to know that no local students would prefer to take Microbiology, as madam was known for her strictness and punctuality. She never tolerated laziness, negligence or irresponsibility.
She read my joining report carefully and asked, ‘are you determined to continue? Or are you leaving after sometime?’ Postgraduates very often left the course in the middle if they had better offers. She had such experience before.
She gave me postings initially for one year in various sections. She briefed me about the curriculum and said I have to work hard every minute, every day, every month, and every year to pass the course in the first attempt. I listened to her as she spoke, looking at the big, learned eyes behind the spectacles and the big almarah of books behind her seat. She knew each one of the books by name, by color, by size and by its place in the almarah.
When she wanted us to get a book, she would tell us all the details so we could easily pick up. And she would say,’ see page…..for this information’. She would be almost always correct!
On the first day of my joining, I sat for reporting near Dr Vijayalakshmi garu, the then Assistant Professor. She was in charge of culture section.
Those were the days when private labs hadn’t yet cropped up in a big manner. We had plenty of work in culture section. Usually the number of samples would cross 200 per day. I learnt ‘inoculating and Grams staining’ on the first day. In the afternoon, as instructed by Dr Vijayalakshmi garu, I brought pre incubated sterile culture plates from the media section, urine samples from the reception, labeled the plates and started inoculating.
Madam went by, in the verandah, observing me working in the lab. I was told later that madam was very happy to see a young postgraduate in the lab on the very first day!!
She was a committed teacher and had great love for the department. She had sculptures of Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch made, painted grey and kept at the entrance of the department. Whenever we were upset or sore over her strictness, we used to stand before the statue of Louis Pasteur and vent out our feelings to him. He would listen, looking at us impassively through his wired spectacles.
Madam would be in her seat at the stroke of 9 every morning. We always tried hard to be on time and keep pace with her. However, there were occasions when we would be late, wish her guiltily and sign in the attendance register. She would say, ‘remember, you are now in the position of a teacher, and you should be a role model to students.’ She never shouted nor used harsh words, but made us introspect and try to change ourselves.
She was very systematic in her reporting. Even as head of the department, she used to take one section for reporting everyday. And, you can very well imagine, the lab technicians in charge of that section would grumble!! Plenty of smears, staining, plenty of biochemical tests…they had heavy work when she reported. I used to admire her art of precision. She would leave no stone unturned to identify the culprit, the pathogen.
And, she would be on the dias at the stroke of the hour whenever she had a theory class. There used to be pin drop silence in the classroom. We used to sit in the back benches as postgraduates. I used to feel proud, standing by her side to take attendance after the class.
She loved mycology. Everyday she visited the section, saw the cultures, and admired the microscopic beauty. If it was a tough organism, she referred books, did a few more tests and then finally named the fungus. She always made it a point to send the new strains to referral centres for confirmation. We as postgraduates did all the paper work, and that is how we knew the various standard reference centers. We had many fungal stocks; no dearth of cultures for the examination.
I remember identifying some of the rare pathogens along with her: to name a few, Mycobacterium kansasii, Actinomyces israeli and Madurella mycetomi. I still feel the excitement of those days. I showed it on my face when I saw a moving entamoeba in liver aspirate, crawling segments of Taenia in stool, cryptococci in CSF, or evaginating scolices of Ecchinococcus in hydatid fluid. She probably thought I was like a child. She would often tell me that I was her fourth child.
Eventhough she was after us to write papers, we never realized the importance of publications. She had many to her credit. Somehow we felt that time was not enough for writing papers. Looking back now, I feel that I should have seized the opportunity I had back then, and published more papers.
She was kind and loving. She wrote letters to me about how to take care of my health when I went on maternity leave during my second year of post graduation.
She never accepted any favors. When her son appeared for microbiology examination, she never wanted the examiners to know that she influenced them in any way to pass or award distinction to her son. She went on leave during that period and did not meet the examiners.
The greatest treasure she gave us without hesitancy or a second thought is the knowledge and insight into the subject. She moulded us as part of her job. She never felt that she did us favor. Probably the only gift I gave her all these years was a box of sweets she liked, when I went to her home to inform her about my official success in the examination. She smiled, wished me and said,’yes, now I can accept sweets from you.’
She opted for voluntary retirement at the age of 55, as she felt that she had to take care of her old and ailing father, and she could not do so while doing justice to her job. I still remember the farewell party we gave her on 5th February 1985. Everyone felt bad that she was leaving. She said one sentence: it is good if we leave when everyone wants us to stay, but not when they wait for us to leave.
Nobody could imagine the existence of the department without her at Kurnool. Next day when we went, the department felt empty and forlorn. There was everything else, everybody, except her. We missed her in each wing, in each section.
Now at this juncture of my life, at the age of 57 and having been a post MD teacher for more than 25 years myself, I still feel that I owe to madam Leela Naidu a lot, for having made me what I am. Just like how a parent makes the child sit in his lap, holds the hand and teaches alphabets, she taught me the subject. I learned to love microbiology the way she loved. She never cared for publicity or recognition; she only did what she felt was her duty. Silently she retired to a reclusive life, once she felt she was not able to do justice to her job.
Now she is in hospital, on ventilator for the past 15days. Seeing her in ICCU, unconscious and all gadgets all over her body, a sharp pain pierced my heart. I learnt painfully from the doctors that there was no hope of her recovery.
I can only pray to God to relieve her quickly from her suffering. I wish to say out loudly to the whole world that I am proud to be her student.
I owe her a lot; so much that I would be able to repay her only in the next world.