This Shepparton doctor couple did not let the pandemic stop them from working

By Indira Laisram
Sudeshna Deb Barman & Kishor Singh

Uncertain times, a dangerous virus in the air, but we cannot say no to people in their time of need, say doctors Kishor Singh and Sudeshna Deb Barman

At Shepparton, doctors Kishor Singh and Sudeshna Deb Barman are relieved for now that the active coronavirus cases are far less in this regional town than in Melbourne. Singh, who is the Divisional Clinical Director, Women’s Health, Goulburn Valley Health, and Deb Barman, Consultant at Goulburn Valley Health, know that these are uncertain times and going to the hospital might put their lives at risk. They would not have it any other way though.

For this couple, who are tied by the same profession and in the same field of specialist practice—obstetrics and gynaecology—changes and challenges are part of their profession. Right now, they are adapting to the new normal of safety procedures such as screening, hygiene, distancing, and masks as they enter hospital and, at the same time, ensuring these are maintained at all times.

“If someone is suffering from COVID-19 and comes for surgery, we can’t say no, we have to do our duty,” says Deb Barman, who believes doctors have a moral duty to carry on with their work, especially during a pandemic.

Both Singh and Deb Barman, who do consultation work at the clinic and theatre, say there is no way they can turn away a patient but nowadays, based on the merit of the case, they can use their discretion to decide who can be consulted on phone via telehealth and who can see them personally.

For Singh, as the Divisional Clinical Director, there is a new problem to solve every day and he is just a phone call away. Being on call consultant, it is not unusual to get up in the middle of the night to see a patient.

Life as doctors in regional Victoria is suffused with gratification, they both opine. They started the Australia leg of their career at Tamworth in New south Wales in 2007 and since then have remained only in the regional areas as they did not want to add to the glut of city doctors.

Singh met Deb Barman when they were both studying medicine at the Regional Institute of Medical Sciences, Imphal, in the remote north eastern part of India. They would later get married and carry on with their career in different parts of India. Deb Barman says of Singh, “He was a very good student, always the class topper.”

Their illustrious career in India took them places and when their daughter Anindita decided to do her graduation from a college in New Zealand, Singh, who was a well-established professor at the University College Of Medical Sciences (UCMS) in Delhi, and Deb Barman a practising obstetrician and gynaecologist and Medical Superintendent at the Red Cross Hospital in Delhi, thought a change for them was in the offing.

“We had done almost everything in our lives and we were well established. Still, there was a desire to explore the world before we got too old. People did ask us why we were willing to give up our successful careers in India,” says Deb Barman.

Sudeshna Deb Barman

So, Anindita’s decision to study abroad motivated them to explore the world of medical practices outside of India and Singh took up an offer at the Fiji School of Medicine in Suva. From 2004 to 2007, Singh was professor and head of department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, while Deb Barman worked at a private hospital as a consultant.

In Fiji, Singh and Barman revelled in the newness of the experience. “Since Fiji has a lot of Indian community, it was familiar experience dealing with them. But the working style was quite different to India, more similar to practices in New Zealand and Australia. We were not exposed to that kind of working environment, but it was enriching,” says Singh.

When Singh’s contract came to an end in 2007, instead of choosing to stay on in Fiji, he looked at opportunities in Australia. It would also allow them to be nearer to Anindita, who was in New Zealand.

In a sense, Tamworth was lucky. The town in New South Wales then had an acute shortage of gynaecologists and Singh, given his rich long career, was inducted under the Area of Need Specialist program. Within a few months he got Fellowship of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG). Dr Barman got into the University of New England as a senior lecturer.

A memory they both cherish is being welcomed warmly at Tamworth. It would sow the seeds for their long-term association with life in regional Australia. “We were featured in newspapers. On TV, they reported that new gynaecologists had come to town,” he says, adding, “We came at the right time. Since there were shortages there, cases had to be referred to metro hospitals.”

Tamworth gave them a new kind of commitment to the local community and they established life-long friendships with the people and colleagues there. They became Australian citizens around 2011-12 and remained in NSW as Anindita joined them to study a double Masters in Newcastle University and started her professional career in Sydney.

With medical technology picking up great momentum, so did their careers. “We kept on advancing our skills along with development in medical advancement,” says Singh.

However, after nine years they decided to move to Bendigo in 2016, another regional town in Victoria and closer to Melbourne, as Anindita decided to pursue further studies in Psychology at the University of Melbourne. Although their path has more or less followed Anindita’s own career trajectory, it has also given them the opportunity to serve in different regions.

Kishor Singh

Singh worked as consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist in Bendigo Hospital for nearly one and half years in 2016-17. Deb Barman did not work for most part of the year as she had to travel to India a few times to visit her ailing parents, who unfortunately passed away that year. It would be the only year when Singh did a few locum consultancy works after leaving a public hospital position. It gave him the time to build his house in Bendigo, he says.

But being a doctor, being a part of the safety net, Singh wanted to get back to working full time as he is proud to take care of people and being appreciated for the same.

“I started work full-time and became the Divisional Clinical Director of Women’s Health Goulburn Valley Health in Shepparton,” says Singh. Deb Barman is the consultant gynaecologist at Goulburn Valley Health. Finally, all the family members are together with Anindita also joining the Goulburn Valley Health as Community Mental Health Clinician.

Their current value as Goulburn Valley Health gynaecologists means they are a precious resource and in demand all the time. Deb Barman proudly says, “Singh is a good surgeon and he is called all the time, even in the middle of the night.”

It is to Singh’s credit that he does not suffer from a burnout. Since the start of his education, he claims not to have lost a single day of work. “I am a workaholic. There has been no discontinuity in my forty-plus years of medical career,” says Singh.

Quite a milestone and a moment to savour. “We feel people are happy with us and we feel wanted,” says Deb Barman. And perhaps the appreciation comes with working in regional areas where there are shortage of specialists and consultants, she adds.

One of the great learning experiences they both cite is the fact that Australia practices evidence-based medicine so patient involvement is required. “It means patients have to make informed choices about the line of treatment and it can be tricky because doctors too can face the music even if they make wrong choices,” says Singh. “Unlike in India where you show a patient the options and he/she says ‘you are the doctor, you know best’. We have adjusted and learnt a lot of things, we had to go through so many trainings and workshops. We are still learning because it is a totally different culture.”

Life in Australia has been good for them. They appreciate the work life balance and finally know what a ‘happy weekend’ is. “We never longed for the city, we love the clear blue skies, the beauty of regional Australia and also the beautiful networks of friends here,” says Deb Barman, who admits to missing her family in India at times.

For Singh, home is Australia now, but he adds, with laugher, that he does miss the special fermented dried fish Ngari, the essence of meal back in Manipur, India.

Whatever the reason—from free choice to economic need—few would go as far as Deb Barman and Singh have. At a time of great uncertainty, their story reminds us of the great work that doctors do.

This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas

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