Being Mortal: Atul Gawande in conversation with Aarathi Prasad

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The talk on Being Immortal with Atul Gawande was one that began on a rather complicated note, with the audience present not really knowing what to expect. Would it be a purely technical conversation, or would it deal with issues that could be described as truly human? All who were present were rather perplexed.

What we witnessed, however, was rather refreshing. Why I saw refreshing is that in a welcome change we saw was that the interviewer too actually had a grasp on the questions, being a lady in the same profession. Atul Gawande, could not have hoped for a better person to understand his profession.

He started off by clarifying that his book was not one about death, but in fact one about how to live life to the longest and fullest.

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“I went to medical school to be a hero”.

He stated that the reason he, the son of a doctor, went to medical school was to be a hero. However, life wasn’t as easy as it seemed in the beginning. A problem that could be fixed within 2-3 hours was the best, but when he encountered a problem that could not be fixed, he faced a situation where he could not understand what being a good doctor meant.

He then went on to explain the transformation of life in modern India. For him, today it has become normal to become old in India. Now, things are moving to a stage where the problems become bigger than mere survival.

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This transformative process, has led to a variety of problems as well. The greatest one being that the youth fail to care about the people who are growing old now. A self-admitted researcher, he didn’t stop there and outlined three major reasons for this phenomenon.

  • Firstly, growing old is no longer a matter of pride. The world, and India in particular, has moved on from the stage where a person died at the age of 40. In effect, a society where old people are a dime a dozen, rather than a needle in a haystack will naturally lead to a sort of devaluation.
  • Secondly, wisdom is no longer associated with age. In an instant society, the younger generation don’t need to turn to the older generation for the hand on a shoulder. The example the speaker gave is about a person, into farming will not consultant their grandfather, rather get onto Google for the information.
  • Finally, the value of youth is no longer defined by services rendered in order to please the older generation. The upwardly mobile youth, seeking employment is rewarded for services rendered to the economy and not the elders of their family.

This marked the end of the purely factual session of his talk. He then moved on to more personal matters, and instances he faced as a doctor. A moving episode in this next stage saw quite a few present become quite emotional, with a fresh face bursting into tears even.

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He talked about the challenges he faced as a doctor, such as being responsible for taking calls where could not understand whether to recommend a treatment or not to do so. He walked us through turning points in people’s lives, crisis moments and the questions that should be asked at the time.

A brilliant session, informative while entertaining, he closed it with another open ended question.

“The Medical system is about when you are achieving a goal that matters which is saving lives. If you’re not achieving it, then what in fact is the goal?”

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The Penguin India Blog

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