Dr. Parameswaran

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Interview with: Dr. Parameswaran
Interviewed by: Dr. Padmaja Parthasarathy
Date: November 22, 2013
Archive Number:


PS: Hello! I am Padmaja Sarathy. It gives me great pleasure indeed to be interviewing Dr. Parameswaran on behalf of the Foundation for India Studies, Houston, for the Indo-American Oral History Project in partnership with the Houston Public Library and the Houston Community College System. Thank you!

It’s indeed an honor and a pleasure and a privilege for me to be talking to you and learning about your background, your contribution to the Houston Community. Let’s begin with your kind of early childhood years and your life in India before you came to Houston.

Dr. P: Thank you Padmaja! I am happy to be here! Looking back I was born in Burma.

PS: Burma? That’s interesting!

Dr. P: Yes. And my father was employed there at the time, and during the Second World War they were forced to get out of the country and they came to Calcutta, and from there onto Bombay. There my father found employment 01:05, and subsequently my father got a new job in Chennai, and so we all moved to Chennai in 1947, and that’s where my high school studies were done.

PS: So you have traveled around quite a bit?

Dr. P: Yes. And my medical education was in Chennai, and I went to Stanley Medical College. And from then on I always wanted to be a surgeon, so I decided to do my postgraduate studies and get an MS degree. But I had to go to Bombay or Mumbai, because there was some discrimination going on in Tamil Nadu at the time with particular races.

PS: So what kind of discrimination?

Dr. P: There was discrimination against the upper caste, and so I couldn’t get the admission though…

PS: Because you are a Brahmin?

Dr. P: Yes, that was a reason, but in Bombay there was no such discrimination going on, and not at that time at least, and so I could do my MS there. And then I returned to Chennai and I found an opportunity to further specialize in Cardiothoracic Surgery, which I did at Madras Medical College and Government General Hospital, and just before coming to America I was working as an Assistant Professor of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Government General Hospital.

PS: So what brought you to the United States, because you had already done this subspecialty surgery?

Dr. P: It was just a pure chance I would say, because I wanted to further specialize in Cardiothoracic Surgery, because it was still in infancy in India, and that was my intention and I was planning to go to Australia for my further training. But one fine morning I was just coming out of my operating room and I found a telegram from Wayne State University, where the professor was offering me a research job at Detroit General Hospital, and I had to decide between going to Australia and coming to the US.

And talking to my friends and professors, they encouraged me to come to the US, because they thought that the racial discrimination is much more in Australia than in the US. So that’s why I ended up here. And I joined as a research fellow at Wayne State University, doing research on liver transplantation for patient with lymphatic failure.

PS: So that was kind of different from what you were doing in India?

Dr. P: It was sort of different, but at the same time sort of connected, because it involved more or less the same technique and same procedures that I learned as a Cardiothoracic Surgeon, and we were almost the first to do a liver transplant from the baboon to a human being.

PS: So you pioneered there?

Dr. P: Right, but unfortunately of course, being a first procedure you are not allowed to do it in a healthy or a well-to-do, fairly well-to-do patient, but this patient was terminally ill, and so we were almost sure that most probably he may not survive, because like I said, selecting a terminal patient to do your radical procedure you don’t expect very wonderful results. But anyhow, that was a very wonderful experience that I had while in Detroit.

PS: So you landed in Wayne State and you were doing this fellowship there, and then how did you find kind of the transition from India to the US and settling here and the society?

Dr. P: It was fairly smooth, because the professor was very nice. Actually, my professor was at the airport to receive me when I landed in Detroit, and I was really surprised because I didn’t expect...


And I had some friends from India, my students from Madras who were there doing their residency in Detroit, so then they made me feel at home, and they would give me rides in the car and help me buy a rice cooker at that time.

PS: Okay, so kind of they made your transition or settling here somewhat smoother. Did you face any kind of racial prejudice or discrimination?

Dr. P: No, not at that time, but I did find something -- a mild discrimination I would say when I moved to Flint to do my residency, where I remember a patient did not want me to examine him because he thought that we were taking away the jobs from Americans. But I had to explain to him that this country did not have enough doctors and they wanted doctors from other countries, and that they actually invited me and paid for my travel from India to the US.

PS: So what brought you to Houston? So you were in Wayne State and then you were doing this residency?

Dr. P: After I finished my residency I was looking for a place to start my practice and there was a small town called Sandusky, about 100 miles north of Detroit, and there was a 50 bed hospital and they did not have a surgeon. The surgeons were coming about 50 miles away, doing the surgery, and going back, and the family practitioners had to take care and do the postoperative management. And so they came and invited me to join the hospital.

And initially I was reluctant because this was a very small town, with about 6,000 population but anyway, we thought we will go and have a look. And we found the community very inviting, it was a small town, and we realized that we were the first brown people to settle in the White community, but they were so friendly and so nice that we decided to move over there.

PS: So this is still in Michigan?

Dr. P: Yes, still in Michigan.

PS: And you were the surgeon in the local hospital?

Dr. P: 07:00. And I had the opportunity to do all kinds of surgery for which I was trained earlier, including general surgery, gynecology, C-sections, orthopedic surgery, plastic surgery, so all the different kinds of surgery I could do there because I was the only surgeon.

But when I moved to Houston subsequently I realized that I had to restrict my surgical procedures to just general surgery, because there were OB/GYN specialists, plastic surgeons, orthopedic surgeons so I was not allowed -- no general surgeon was allowed to do any of those specialized procedures because you will be cutting into their field.

PS: So in other words, you had gained some new skills over there and you had to kind of let those skills rest and focus only on general surgery?

Dr. P: Yeah, that is true, but I was glad that I could do all those kinds of surgery, and the community loved me. And I would like to add that when we moved there, the very first day the newspaper reporter from the local newspaper office was there to do an interview and take our picture, and we made the front page news that week in the local community.

PS: So they celebrated the new surgeon who had moved here, the Indian surgeon.

Dr. P: They did. They did.

PS: So you were in Michigan and then you came here to Houston, did you have a family at that time? Were you married?

Dr. P: Yes, yes, my wife had joined me about three months after I moved to this country with our two boys, our children.

PS: So you had two sons?

Dr. P: Yeah, right. And in Sandusky, that was the name of the small town where there was only one school there at that time, and there was not many extracurricular activities at the school for the children. And also, the winter was getting to us. Growing up in Chennai and Tamil Nadu, we are not used to the cold winter and the snow. Although we enjoyed it initially, then we thought we -- and also the economy in Detroit was going down, because that was in 1980s. So we said we need to move somewhere else, and Houston was the obvious choice, the weather being the same as in South India.

PS: So how old were your sons at that time?

Dr. P: When they moved to the US they were one and three years old.

PS: Very young.

Dr. P: Yeah, very young.

PS: Okay. So when you moved to Houston you started your own practice. Tell me what was your experience like in Houston, both professionally and in terms of your cultural experiences here?

Dr. P: When we moved to Houston, of course I was not sure where I should start my practice, or where we should buy our house. And our friends told (us) that the Fort Bend community has very good school system, and so we decided to buy our house here in the Fort Bend community, in Missouri City.


And then I also started going to different hospitals initially, and then finally I found that the Southeast Memorial Hospital in Houston was more conducive to me, and more welcoming -- I found them more welcoming to me, welcoming, and so I decided to start my practice over there.

PS: And so this was in the Southeast Memorial Hospital and you decided to live in Fort Bend?

Dr. P: Yes, because of the school system.

PS: So how did you find Houston then, because I know Houston has changed a lot?

Dr. P: Yes, it has changed a lot. Especially since (when) we were fairly (new) -- though Houston was very close by, still we thought it (Missouri City) was a (rural) suburb -- we found that there were a lot of ranches very close to our house, with horses and cows grazing in there. And it was just at Highway 6, which is now an 8 lane road; it was just a 2 lane road initially and then became 4 lane and now it is one of the busiest highways in Houston.

PS: How did you find the hospital atmosphere compared to Michigan and compared to India and all that?

Dr. P: Of course, the hospital was very much different from the one that we were practicing in India. The technology was of a very high standard and some of the technologies we were not familiar with in India. In India most of the diagnoses were based on clinical practice, whereas here the dependence was mostly on technology, and that I found really very different, because I found most of the doctors would go to their radiology department and look at the x-rays first before they even examined the patient.

And we did the other way round, we would examine the patient first, come to some 11:47 conclusion, and then order the test that we needed and then treat the patient, but here when a patient comes, it’s a lot of tests, which are unnecessary and not required, but ordered, and then the patient would go into surgery or further treatment.

PS: So the whole approach was very different?

Dr. P: Right.

PS: And then when you came here, did you feel any -- find any discrimination either in the job or outside in the society?

Dr. P: There was no obvious discrimination, but I did find that in the hospital some doctors were very welcoming and others sort of kept a distance, and I realized that they were not very happy to see me there.

But amongst the patients, the patients loved me, and whenever they came to me, and I was a surgeon and they were referred to me for surgery, and I would find that they needed some medical attention or some other medical problem, then I would want to refer them to another medical doctor.

And sometimes I would want to refer them back to the same doctor who had referred them to me, but they would say, no, please refer me to an Indian doctor, because they felt that the Indian doctors were much more compassionate, they spent more time with them, and they didn’t treat them as a business entity, because they thought the local Caucasian doctors were more businesslike than us.

PS: So in a way that was your first contribution that you changed the impression of people about Indian doctors and you raised the bar for them. Now they all had to stand up to your standard of being compassionate and patient and very caring. So that began your journey of continuous contribution to this community.

I know you have done a lot in terms of not only a profession, but extending it professionally. I know that you also went into alternate medicine.

Dr. P: Yeah, it’s strange, because as a surgeon I was very skeptical about all other fields of medicine like Ayurveda or acupuncture or Chinese traditional medicine, whereas just by sheer accident, 14:07 while in the small town of Sandusky, Michigan, one of the physicians claimed that he had done all the surgeries under hypnosis, because there was no anesthesiologist available at the time; I am talking about late 60s and the early 70s. So I couldn’t believe it, because he said he had done C-sections under hypnosis, orthopedic fractures and appendectomies.

So when I told him that I didn’t believe him, he said -- he was in his 80s, he offered to -- he invited me to come and watch him do the hypnosis. And there were a couple of nurses in the hospital who were suffering from migraine attacks, and with just one session of hypnosis these nurses who were taking two or three different medications for their migraine for several years, they found that there was no more need to take those medications, because they had no more migraine attacks and they didn’t have it for almost three years, as long as I was there.


And so I was really impressed that mind over body really matters a lot and can control a lot of your physical problems, medical problems.

PS: So how did that get you into other areas of --

Dr. P: Yes, so I got trained in hypnosis, (through) the American Society of Medical Hypnosis and started practicing hypnosis for patients who wanted to quit smoking, who wanted to lose weight, for pain management, for stress, to overcome phobias, etcetera. And I found that it really worked very well, because your mind really can do a lot of things. And even I could do some minor surgeries in my office purely under hypnosis for patients who did not have medical insurance or who could not afford to go to the hospital because of the expense there.

PS: So you were doing this in parallel to the regular surgery as well as hypnosis instead of anesthesia?

Dr. P: Yes. And also patients are always apprehensive before surgery and so I could use my knowledge of hypnosis to calm them down and take the fear out of their (system) -- and apprehension about surgery and so they could go through the surgery without much fear.

And we started having some music CDs and also relaxing CDs, which we could use in the preoperative waiting area where the patient could listen to it and calm down for the surgery.

PS: But you also have done, I know, a lot of work in the area of acupuncture?

Dr. P: Yes, that was also by sheer accident. I happened to see a video during my training as a resident where a patient in China was undergoing thoracic surgery, where his lung was being removed solely under acupuncture. The patient was awake, talking to the surgeon and drinking -- sipping lemonade and his lung was being removed; there was no anesthetic machine by the side and no anesthesiologist. And I thought there was really something about acupuncture. So I started reading about it and I got an opportunity to get trained in UCLA, where they were conducting a course to train physicians in acupuncture.

So I took that course about 15 years ago and I have been doing that since then, along with my surgery practice, and I found it is extremely helpful, and kind of avoid a lot of invasive procedures when patients can resort to the noninvasive technique like hypnosis or acupuncture.

PS: So in other words, you have really expanded on your surgical training into going into a very multidisciplinary type of approach to treatment?

Dr. P: Yes, I did, but this is totally nontraditional and other doctors felt that I must be crazy to be doing this, and even there were some -- not about myself, but there were articles that were saying that doctors who practiced this kind of alternative medicine are quacks and their license should be taken away.

But now, about 10, 15 years now, leading medical centers in this country, including Harvard Medical School, Yale School, Princeton, all those medical schools are doing research in alternative medicine and they have a separate department of alternative medicine, where they teach acupuncture, yoga, hypnotherapy, traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, and things like that. So it’s becoming more and more into mainstream medicine now.

PS: So many, many years ago you had the foresight to kind of integrate medicine and so that’s one of your other major contribution. I know you have also been involved in this community in other ways too in terms of -- I know of your drives for --

Dr. P: Yes. In 1996, I happened to see an advertisement in ‘India Abroad’ about a young 21 year old girl, her name was Vrushali; she had just graduated and was diagnosed to have leukemia and was not responding to chemotherapy. She needed a bone marrow transplant and could not find a match, because finding a match for bone marrow transplantation is very difficult, because the best match is with the same ethnic community; that means only a South Asian can match with the (South Asian) patients with leukemia for bone marrow transplantation.

And there is a National Bone Marrow Registry in this country where out of 7 million registrants, about 70% of them are Caucasians, and the minority group form the other 25%, and the South Asian community was less than 1% of the 25%. And to find a match (is rare); 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 100,000 only will match with the patient.


And so unless a larger number of Indians or South Asians are registered in this Registry, patients with leukemia cannot find a bone marrow transplant (donor) to save their lives.

So when I read that story, the advertisement in the newspaper I thought that -- it really touched my heart and I decided that I have got to do something about it. And at that time on inquiry I found that nobody was doing anything -- any kind of drive to recruit South Asians into the Registry. So I found out how to do it, and since then I have been doing for the last 16 years, conducting bone marrow registration drives.

PS: So you started it in Houston?

Dr. P: Yes, I did.

PS: Completely on your own?

Dr. P: Yes, on my own. And so anytime I got an opportunity, hear (about) our gatherings of Indians at the different temples or different social functions I would arrange to conduct a drive. And it was really rewarding in a sense that I could register probably -- in the last 16 years, probably close to 1,000 people, but at the same time, it was a little disappointing that many people would not come forward to register, or some of them even after registering to be donors would not come forward to donate the marrow or stem cell, which would mean almost like a death sentence for that patient.

PS: What holds them back from --

Dr. P: Pardon?

PS: What holds them back from --

Dr. P: Yeah, mostly it’s superstition, fear that something could happen to them if they donate their marrow. Though, we have a lot of marrow in our body and only a very small amount of marrow will be taken and this marrow will recover, will regenerate within a couple of weeks. In spite of telling all this still the fear, lack of information, ignorance about the thing kept them away.

But I remember one instance where a young lady had refused to register to be a donor, but then at the subsequent drive she came back saying that her cousin has been diagnosed with leukemia and now she wanted to donate marrow.

So sometimes I would tell the people who come for the (drive) that -- because the wife might want to register, but the husband would not, or vice versa, and I would tell them that if one of their own family members needed it that unless they are registered to be a donor, bone marrow is not something that you could buy in the grocery store, and it has just got to come from their own kith and kin. But only 25% will match within the family and the rest of them had to go outside to find a match.

PS: This was quite a significant contribution to this Houston community. Also, you were involved with some cultural and temple activities as well; I don’t know how you find the time.

Dr. P: I was elected to the Meenakshi Temple Board as a Secretary several years ago, and I was also President of the Indian Doctors Club, and then more recently I joined the Indo-American Cancer Network and again they wanted me to be a part of that.

PS: The India Cancer Network, that’s for creating greater awareness?

Dr. P: Greater awareness and also to help patients diagnosed with cancer so that they can navigate through the process of finding a doctor, what to do 23:31 after diagnosis, because once you are diagnosed with cancer, people always felt that it’s like a death sentence, though it is not anymore. So tell them about 23:40 early diagnosis, and in case they need some help to go to the hospital for treatment or help at home to take care of their children or cooking, things like that. So this Network was started a few years ago by one of the community members and I was happy to be associated with them.

PS: Extraordinary contribution! So are your sons following in your footsteps and emulating you?

Dr. P: I was hoping initially they would, because I thought this is a very noble profession that would help a lot of people, but when they were in school one of them wanted to be a neurosurgeon and the other one wanted to be a cardiovascular surgeon, and even interviewed Dr. Denton Cooley’s secretary to find out about Dr. Cooley. And they wrote papers on medical topics.

But when they graduated to go to college and exposed to so many different subjects, art subjects, their vision, their interest changed, and one became passionate about philosophy and economics, and the other one thought he was going to be a lawyer, though he had to decide between going to law school and to film school….


Because he got a scholarship at the New York Film School and also the other (option) to enter one of the top colleges for law, law school. I told him to follow his passion, and so finally he decided to go to the law school, and then subsequently after finishing from law school, his passion was to write, and he is now a writer and got a book of fiction published two years ago.

PS: He is a celebrated writer now.

Dr. P: Well, luckily he got good reviews for his book and he is working on his second book now, and he has got several grants and fellowships to do that.

PS: Did you or your children face any kind of challenge, discrimination, or any unpleasant experiences in the Houston area?

Dr. P: As far as -- there was not really discrimination, but earlier in Michigan when they went to the small school, like I said, we were the only brown skinned people there, so the children had not seen anybody (colored) before, so they thought they were African-Americans so they did pass on unfortunate remarks. But in the schools over here, they did not face any obvious discrimination, and they denied that, but I know that when they went to school, the lunch they wanted to carry was not any kind of Indian food; they just wanted peanut butter sandwich throughout their school years, because they did not want to carry Indian rice or chapatis that could smell and that would be different compared to other students.

PS: So what kind of -- so generally, everything was very positive?

Dr. P: Yes, it was.

PS: So you didn’t have too many -- you didn’t have -- hardly have any unpleasant episodes?

Dr. P: Luckily, as I said, we were really very lucky that our children could go to good schools without going through any discrimination that could have happened in India, and I too could carry on my profession and get introduced to so many different fields and different social and cultural activities, different field that I could volunteer and my wife could volunteer (in), so in those ways we really had a very enriching experience.

PS: So in other words, they say -- of course America is a land of immigrants and everyone is enriched by the country you live in, but you have also considerably enriched the community you have lived in. So what kind of message or something for you to share with this stream of immigrants from India who are coming and settling in the Houston area?

Dr. P: Yeah. Initially when you come to this country, it may be a little difficult to get used to the life over here, but if you stay focused for the reason that you came to this country; either for further education or for your profession, stay focused and follow your passion. Even though the field you may want to specialize in may not fall into a category of the traditional fields, like what I did. Though I was a surgeon I had an open mind, I got introduced to alternative medicine and volunteerism.

And I hope you will keep your mind open, but follow your passion and not worry about what your friends or your parents would want you to do, because your parents might want you to follow their own field of profession, but feel free to discuss with them and tell them that your passion is somewhere else, and don’t be afraid to follow your passion. And if you do, if you continue to work hard in the field of your choice, I think you will shine and do much better than choosing a profession that somebody else wants you to follow.

PS: Do you miss India a lot or you feel quite comfortable here, or how do you compare the two types of cultures and way of living?

Dr. P: Yeah. I mean, after so many years we are very comfortable living here, but at the same time we do love going back to India, because that’s after all our homeland. And every time we go, we do love the experience over there, though things are different, we do. We are happy that -- we did come here because of the opportunities that I had here and also the opportunities that our boys are able to experience.

PS: And besides all these professional work and all these volunteer work, I know that you also enjoy some specific hobbies.


Dr. P: Yes.

PS: Did you bring anything; I know that you love to paint, did you bring any for us to share?

Dr. P: No, I didn’t bring any, but I did -- even as a child I liked to -- I was interested in drawing, and when the lecture was boring I would be drawing some human figures or some scenery in my notebook. And subsequently, I got interested in painting and took some lessons from a private teacher initially when I came to Houston. And I did paint a few paintings which I am very proud of. And I would like to continue to do that, but it takes quite some time and it does (take) patience, but I enjoy doing that, yes.

PS: So you still do that, you still paint?

Dr. P: Yes, I still paint.

PS: How long does it take for you to take -- let's say, does it vary from painting to painting?

Dr. P: Yeah, it depends upon the one that I want to paint; some of them might take weeks, because I may not be able to sit on a daily basis to do the painting because it might take two to three hours to complete something that I am doing, but I may have to stop in the middle and by the time I am ready to do the next -- continue that, it may be another three or four days or even sometimes weeks to finish the painting.

PS: So do you do landscape or portrait?

Dr. P: I like doing landscapes, but I have attempted doing portraits of my family and my mother recently, who passed away last year.

PS: Now, going back to your professional work, what would you say was your most favorite -- what's your most favorite, kind of outside of the surgery, which is your profession; I know you went into the drive for the bone marrow and acupuncture, and all this doctors -- India Doctors Foundation, which one was your most favorite activity that you still feel very passionate about?

Dr. P: I was very passionate about recruiting South Asians for the Bone Marrow Registry, because in the last few years I have seen young children and young adults dying because they could not find a match, just because not enough Indians have registered in the National Bone Marrow Registry.

And it's a simple procedure where you could donate a little marrow or your stem cells from the peripheral 32:30 blood, and I felt very sad that our friends in the community were not willing to do that minimal -- a small thing they could do to save lives, they were not coming forward to do that. So I feel sad about it, but hopefully things will change with further education.

PS: Now, finally, let me ask you, what kind of advice would you have for the immigrants who are coming in, let's say, maybe they are surgeons and professionals, because now the number of Indian immigrants, South Asian immigrants have increased considerably in the Houston area compared to when you came here, what, 30 years ago, was it about 30 years?

Dr. P: More than that.

PS: More than that? So life has changed a lot. Lot of support system has been established for the immigrants. So would you prefer it then, when there were limited number of South Asian immigrants, to now, when there are large, or do you prefer it this way? And what kind of guidance and ideas and strategies would you suggest to these continuing stream of immigrants who are settling here?

Dr. P: Yeah, when we came first in ’73, it’s almost 40 years ago, the Indian community was very small, and so we did -- it was easy for us to get into the mainstream organizations and communities, we could volunteer and come to know them better. But now I find that with larger Indian community, the people seem to be confining themselves to the local ethnic groups, and several associations have been started with each language groups wanting their own association, and people being very -- following a very narrow path in their own community.

But I would encourage them to join the mainstream and get involved in mainstream activities and associations and volunteer for many social activities in the community.


PS: So in conclusion let me ask you, what would be your parting words of wisdom to the younger generation? It's going to be two questions; first for the younger generation, what would be -- for the young people who are the first generation citizens, like your sons, who grew up here, what would be your kind of words of advice or guidance?

Dr. P: I will tell them to aim high, have a goal, focus on your goal, because there are a lot of distractions in this country, which probably when we were growing up we did not have, so many distractions like drugs, alcohol, girlfriends and boyfriends at a very young age, and so it's very easy to get distracted. But stay focused and continue and find out what your passion is, and as long as you follow your passion and work hard, you can achieve your dream and you will be successful in this country.

PS: Thank you! And then, do you have anything, again something similar to that, for the wave of immigrants coming in on a regular basis from India?

Dr. P: I would just give them the same advice, to join the mainstream and not be confined to their own group, and though that is important to not to forget their heritage and things like that, but at the same time if you are going to live in this country, you need to get involved in the mainstream activities and be part of them.

PS: Thank you very much! It was a pleasure!

Dr. P: Thank you Padmaja!