Corrective Surgery is a common procedure today, thanks to developments in technology ! But when your patients have no means to communicate, you have to unravel the intricacies related to specific clinical conditions and possible surgical interventions.

Gayathri K, our next pathbreaker, Veterinary Surgeon, conducts diagnostics and surgical treatments, including surgery on animals to save or improve their quality of life.

Gayathri talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her subconscious desire to become a Veterinary Doctor, influenced by her childhood days, and transforming her renewed vigour/passion to act in a professional capacity.

For students, we often forget that other species also inhabit our world. These animals also need our compassion and expertise as much as humans do. If you want to be a doctor, be a vet !

Gayathri, tell us about your background

I was born and brought up in Trivandrum, Kerala, as an only child to my parents. My great grandfather, Rao Sahib Dr. Kailasam Aiyyar had been the Professor and Head of Dept. of Veterinary Surgery and Radiology during the late 1920s and the Dean, Madras Veterinary College, till 1939. During his career, he had worked at the Veterinary College and Serum Institute, Mysore and as the First Superintendent of the Madras Serum Institute also. His son, my grandfather, Prof. K. K. Neelakantan served as a Professor of English literature in various government colleges in Kerala and later became Principal. His reputation as a Professor of English equals his popularity as “the Bird-Man of Kerala”.  His passion was ornithology and nature studies and his urge to popularize both among Keralites, motivated him to write many books on these subjects in the Malayalam language. His book “Keralathile Pakshikal” is the first book brought out by Kerala Sahitya Academy almost 61 years ago. His book ‘Pakshikalum Manushyarum’ which won the Kerala Bala Saahitya Academy Award, is the only book in a language other than English brought out by McMillan Publishers. Though unfortunate not to have known them personally (my grandfather passed away when I was a toddler) the legacy and heritage they had left behind, subconsciously, aroused a desire in me to become an ‘animal doctor’. My grandmother too, had a keen sense of observation and enjoyment for all things in nature and during my younger days, she fostered my seemingly ‘odd’ behaviours like sitting around, watching ants, millipedes and the likes, which are not past- times usually indulged in by little girls.  

Both my parents are employed in the higher education system and hence, appreciated the value of good education and strove to secure it for me. My father, Shri. Kanakasabesan K Iyer, is a former Deputy Registrar of the University of Kerala and has graduated in economics along with a subsequent post graduate diploma in personnel management. My mother, Dr Janaki K.N., is a NIMHANS trained Clinical Psychologist and currently a faculty member in a government medical college. Looking back, as an only child, in a house with a large overgrown compound and a house with more books on all subjects but with less material things like video games etc., which took up my peers’ time in those days, I developed nature watching and reading as a hobby. This, I think, also spurred, an urge to delve into the animal world. 

Throughout my school days and thereafter, I persisted in my desire to become a Veterinary surgeon, in spite of being teased, and at times bullied by my friends, teachers and relatives. By Class VII, I had googled and found out about the best colleges in India which offered graduation in Veterinary Science. Thus, along with the common medical stream entrance of the state, with my parent’s permission, I also wrote the All India Pre-Veterinary Entrance exam. 

By God’s grace, a sound schooling, encouraging family and teachers, I had been a topper right through school. I qualified to secure a seat in a government medical college in my state. Most of our friends and relatives had considered it unwise on my parents’ part to allow their only girl child to follow her yearning to become a vet and that too stay away from home, albeit in a neighbouring state. 

It was as if destined by fate or God, that when the call letter came, a couple of days prior, for entrance counselling at Delhi (nearly 3000kms away), there were just two available flight tickets left from Trivandrum. My father procured them without ado. And then there was no looking back!

My parents never stood in the way of my desire to spend my school holidays, mingling with local Veterinary doctors, allowing me to visit the local Veterinary hospital and the zoo. My mother laconically even bought me a pet puppy saying that the best way to learn the difficult side of animal upbringing was to raise a pet by one-self. This only increased my love for companion animals. 

During my visits at the Veterinary services, handled by Dr. Jacob Abraham, i realised that treating animals also involved animal husbandry, i.e., the management aspects of keeping a farm and helping farmers. He loaned me a copy of a textbook of animal husbandry, by G.C. Bannerjee which is a fundamental textbook of Veterinary sciences in India. This made me realize what actual academics and Veterinary practice would entail in India. It was dinned into me that unlike human-doctors, who constrain themselves to the study of the human species alone; the  professional veterinarian/ academician has to learn the same regarding the varied aspects of all other species, breeds and strains under the sun. It also dawned on me that any new animal species discovered henceforth came under the purview and care of veterinarians rather than a zoologist and we had to continually keep abreast of updates and learning. Aspects of management, livestock as well as personnel, economics and administration, entrepreneurship of livestock products, animal biotechnology, genetics and breeding and state of the -art technological innovations, all came under the purview of a holistic Veterinary education/ field. 

I have always maintained a non-participant interest in sports, playing games only because I enjoyed the company and their game. Other extra-curricular activities which I enjoyed were reading whatever books that came my way, dabbling a little in story and poetry writing, handicraft projects, participation in essay competitions, debates, quiz, poetry recitation and music as a stress relief. 

What and where did you study after school?

Having cleared the AIPVT (All India Pre-Veterinary Entrance Test), I chose Madras Veterinary College (MVC) at counselling in VCI Office, New Delhi. There, I realized that I had been the only female candidate to make it to the top merit list that year. Those on the panel also seemed to appreciate my enthusiasm to become a vet. After verifying my qualifying certificates, one person asked me my name and native state. In my eagerness to procure admission at MVC, I blurted out ‘Madras Veterinary College, Chennai’. This led to a general round of laughter and friendly teasing.  The then Secretary, VCI, Dr. Anup Bhowmik, whom I still remember from my counselling at VCI, reassured me that I was the first candidate allotted to MVC from merit list that year and congratulated me. 

Madras Veterinary College is nearing 115 years since its inception. The main building at the entrance which houses the administrative block is a heritage building of Chennai. This college is steeped in its age old values, traditions, clinical protocols, professional pride in animal care, state of the art facilities and knowledge and has an alumni of veterinarians with international standing.

I have been fortunate to undergo my post-graduation in Veterinary Surgery and Radiology at the prestigious Madras Veterinary College, TANUVAS, Chennai. Usually, candidates who do their graduation through the VCI/ICAR entrance quota cannot join a P.G. course, again in the same University. Having topped B.V.Sc. & A.H. at Madras Veterinary College, I was appointed by the University, as a Graduate Assistant, which is a merit-based job. When the PG entrance exam was announced, I recollect with gratitude that my teachers encouraged me to take up P.G. along with my clinical work at the Emergency and Critical Care Unit(ECCU), RVSS and duties at the Injection ward and University Journal section. This required that I could complete my post -graduation only one semester later than my full-time classmates. The subject of Veterinary Surgery and Radiology includes anaesthesia, orthopaedics, ophthalmology, soft tissue surgery and diagnostic imaging.

Were there any other influences that led you on this career?

Apart from the manifold roles of a veterinarian, my enthusiastic interest in clinical work was largely spurred by Dr Lakshmi Kuttapan and Dr. Terrence Remady, whom I still consider my initial mentors before I stepped into the portals of Madras Veterinary College. Dr. T. Saradamma, the first lady Veterinary Surgeon (specialization in surgery in Kerala) who retired as Professor and Head of the Dept of Veterinary Surgery and Radiology, College of Veterinary and Animal science, Mannuthy, inspired me to take up surgery during my undergraduate days. Her enthusiastic sharing of her clinical experiences reaffirmed my choice of becoming a surgeon. I feel blessed that she continues to take an interest in my career even till date. 

I still remember Dr. Geetha Ramesh and Dr. L.N. Mathuram with gratitude and reverence as my forever mentors.  Dr. T. Sivakumar, Dr. T.A. Kannan, Dr R. Karunakaran, Dr. Thanga Tamil Vanan and Dr. L. Gunaseelan recognized my teaching skills and advised me to consider becoming a clinical academician over time.

I was fortunate to have worked under three doyens of Veterinary sciences who were Director of Clinics, TANUVAS; Dr T.N. Ganesh, Dr R. Jayaprakash and Dr S. Balasubramanian. During my stint as Graduate Assistant at the ECCU, RVSS I worked under four Resident Veterinary Officers over the four years; Dr. R. Jayaprakash, Dr. S. Baegan, Dr. Cecilia Joseph and Dr. S. Ayyapan. All four officers had different specialisations and their trust and support in my hard work helped me take up challenges that I had to initially confront for the first time as a beginner in the field.   

I was fortunate enough to have started my first job in life as Graduate Assistant under the able guidance and mentorship of Dr. S. Ramesh, Professor and Head of the Laboratory Animal Unit. Together with Dr. Hemalatha and Dr Mahaprabhu, he helped foster my interest in lab animal sciences.

It’s God’s grace that I got to do a pioneering thesis work in Canine Ophthalmology, under the guidance of Dr. C. Ramani, the only Asian board certified (Diplomate) veterinary ophthalmologist in India and a pioneer in the field. My advisory committee included Dr C. Ramani, Dr Shafi and Dr Sudhakar Rao. I am indebted to Dr. Sudhakar Rao Sir, Dr. Palanivel and Dr. Subapriya for taking so much pain in helping me process and read all my histopathology slides even past their working hours. The entire department of veterinary surgery had been extremely encouraging and supporting throughout my stint as a part-time PG along with my duties as a Graduate Assistant. I would fail in my duty if I don’t mention the forever support I received from Dr.Niranjana, Dr.Pushkin Raj, Dr. A. Velavan, Dr Sivasankar, Dr Gokul, Dr Md Ali and Dr ArunPrasad. Dr. Mala Shammi, Professor, who has a special empathy for her patients as well as students, has always been a person I could look upto for practical advice and solace in turbulent times. She along with the then Head of the department, Dr Ravi Sundar George and Dr Ayyapan, the R.V.O. had always been beacons of hope and optimism. 

Dr AnandaBabu, Chief-Cornea Unit, Govt Eye Hospital, Egmore and his team considered my thesis work with due seriousness and trained me in the intricacies of corneal surgery during my two-week period. 

I currently work for my Ph.D. programme at the College of Veterinary and Animal Science at Thrissur under the guidance of Dr Syam K.Venugopal, Professor,Veterinary Surgery and Radiology  and Head of the University Veterinary Hospital. I currently get to work under guidance of excellent veterinary surgeons; Dr Devanand, Dr Narayanan, Dr John Martin, Dr Anoop, Dr George Chandy, Dr Dileep, Dr Lucy, Dr Sudheesh, Dr Soumya and Dr Laiju.

Tell us about your Career path

While at the hospital, during time away from academics, I would use the state-of-the-art library of the Madras Veterinary College for information, not only on academic matters but on training and employment opportunities worldwide. 

Having qualified the AIPVT and opted for admission to the Madras Veterinary college (nether state), I secured the ICAR National Talent Scholarship. Having retained my OGPA with distinction throughout my undergraduate period, I became eligible for scholarship throughout my five years of under graduation.

I topped my undergraduation at Madras Veterinary College and received four gold medals for academic achievement. I had secured the highest OGPA for my master’s in surgery and Radiology and bagged two gold medals. 

After four and a half years of college training, the undergraduate batch is split into different groups to go for internship at various district veterinary service centers. My posting was at the Vellore Clinician Center. Here, under the able guidance of senior veterinary officers, I got to learn the nuances of clinical practice, understanding both the rural as well as the city-bred animals and its owners. During this time the F.M.D (Foot and Mouth Disease) cattle vaccination programme was on. This enabled me to have a first hand experience of climbing up hillocks and rubble strewn land on which the cows and buffaloes were grazing. The attender from the hospital, being a local resident, spoke the dialect fluently and knew the routes well. His able guidance in locating the hamlets and responding to the residents’ hospitality was indeed an eye-opener. I had a  similar experience in an NSS (National service Scheme) camp in which I had participated during my undergraduate days. Managing gynaecological and obstetrical cases of large animals as well as minor surgical procedures on goats, cattle, including ‘Jallikkattu’ bullocks boosted my confidence during this posting. A camel owner who came for a dermatological consultation, helped me climb atop to examine the animal’s neck — a first time experience for me. My next posting at Kattupakkam where a state-of-the-art livestock farm which included dairy cattle, sheep and goats of various breeds, rabbits, poultry, ostrich and emus was thoroughly enjoyable as we learnt farming from the grass root level. The posting at the famous Arignar Anna Zoological Park,Vandalur, Chennai was yet another novel experience.

This was followed by an exciting externship at College of Veterinary Medicine, Michigan State University for the first five toppers. Dr P.S. MohanKumar and Dr. Sheba MohanKumar, then Professors at the University (MSU), had organized and coordinated the whole programme based on MoU of student exchange between the two universities. It was a very memorable experience. I got to attend clinical rotations at the soft -tissue surgery unit and general medicine for two weeks each. I was fortunate to have met Dr. Simon Petersen-Jones, a doyen in veterinary ophthalmology, Dr. Bryden J. Stanley and Dr Laura Nelson during soft tissue surgery rotations. I realised that a lot of opportunities for research, internships and residencies were open to Asian students, wishing to pursue a career abroad.

Having taken up undergraduation via VCI/ICAR quota, I was not eligible to continue P.G. at the same institute. So, I took up my Masters in Veterinary Surgery and Radiology at College of Veterinary and Animal Science, Mannuthy, Thrissur within days after completing my internship, through the state P.G. entrance. I opted for a seat at the Mannuthy college though a few seats were offered at Pookode, Wayanad also. Six months into the masters programme, I received an order of appointment as Graduate Assistant at the Lab animal medicine unit at TANUVAS. My teachers at Thrissur helped me resolve the dilemma of whether to continue P.G. or take up Graduate Assistantship. The latter is a merit-based appointment offered only to a few selected toppers of TANUVAS. The post also facilitated part-time post- graduation after one year of service along with a paid job. 

Veterinary undergraduate training only offers little insight into the intricacies of a laboratory animal veterinarian. I consider my posting here as godsend because it gave me a rare opportunity to learn, from the very practical basics, in  the only institute outside Europe, which offers a Felasa (Federation of European Laboratory Animal Science Association) accredited certificate programme for veterinarians and animal handlers. Dr. S. Ramesh, Professor and head of the Lab animal unit was appreciative of my enthusiasm and allowed me to put into practice the feeding, breeding, general management and health care aspects in the animal house. A sudden staff shortage at the ECCU (casualty), RVSS at the Madras Veterinary College, led to my being posted there. I came to know that I was the first lady Veterinarian who was posted as a regular duty doctor of the unit. The ECCU starts immediately after closure of the OP hours in the morning and caters to medical, surgical and obstetrical emergencies in all animals brought in thereafter, right from the subsequent afternoon, evenings including the late night and wee morning hours till the commencement of OP-D the next morning at 8 a.m. 

The Madras Veterinary College has one of the largest Out-Patient units and In patient wards for small, large and avian/wildlife(exotics) in the world and the largest in India. Despite this there is no dearth of cases brought into the Casualty. It was here that I learnt another aspect of Veterinary practice where,in the field practice, one Veterinarian has to manage a lot of cases putting on longer working hours, playing multifold roles of a general physician, internist, obstetrician, orthopaedician, ophthalmologist, surgeon,anesthesiologist, radiologist, neurologist, intensivist, dermatologist, oncologist, cardiologist, nephrologist, intensivist, behaviourist and dentist all simultaneously. The unit on a shift would be managed by a single duty doctor with an attendant to assist. The duty also extended to attending to inpatient wards- cattle, equine, small animal (dog, cat, avian/exotic) besides the rabies-observation unit. Opportunity for clinical teaching of the final year undergraduates and the Interns from the four constituent colleges of the university who had posting in batches, spaced across the working hours at the casualty unit, though hectic, was a rewarding task. It was appreciation from my teachers and then students, which made me realise that I had good teaching skills.  The unit also catered to observational learning experiences for international students on exchange programmes and other vets visiting the unit for continuing professional development(cpd). The large number of cases one gets to attend to gives wide access to hands on training on tending to most tropical diseases and disorders. 

A nearly two-years stint at the university journal section, along with my work at the casualty unit emphasised the importance of publication of scientific articles and case reports. My work involved editing and processing articles, designing the cover page and logistics. The systematic hard team-work entailed in bringing out a quality journal on time cannot be overstated.

While working as a Graduate Assistant after completion of P.G., I qualified the U.G.C. NET. At the behest of my parents, I chose to do my doctoral studies closer to my hometown and therefore chose Veterinary College at Thrissur. I cleared the entrance exam of the Institute and am now a Ph.D. scholar at the department of Veterinary Surgery and Radiology.

Tell us about your first break

Having topped B.V.Sc. & A.H. at Madras Veterinary College, I was appointed by the University, as a Graduate Assistant, which is a merit-based job. That was my first break.

What were some of the challenges you faced and how did you address them?

1) Learning to juggle multiple duties of multiple varieties with minimum supervision

2) Working alone in the Casualty – from morning/noon through the night, with only one attendant and security guards on the vast campus, a time when more horses seemed to have colic attacks, farm animals seemed to have birthing difficulties, avians ventured into houses and got struck by electric fans or else electrocuted and pampered companion animals chose to risk automobile accidents and falls. Casualty day and night duty, during the Chennai floods of 2015, made me realise that true animal lovers would risk wading through knee deep swirling flood waters, unmindful of the damaged electric lines and cables on the streets and to seek help for their wards.

Tell us about your current work

Having cleared my UGC NET and secured eligibility for a PhD seat, I joined the dept. of Veterinary Surgery and Radiology at Veterinary College, Thrissur. 

My Post graduate thesis work on canine ophthalmology at Madras Veterinary College, where opportunities to listen to various National and International clinical case presentations and research works, abounded and fanned my fascination for exploratory research. 

My PhD research work includes novel methods to diagnose glaucoma in animals

I have been fortunate to be allowed to work on exploring better and early diagnostic techniques to detect glaucoma in animals. The faculty, my advisory committee and foremost, my major advisor, Dr Syam K. Venugopal are very supportive and enthusiastic about this work.

My day starts with attending surgical cases at the OP, attending to academic work as well as discussions and planning for my research work. 

Just try to close your eyes for 10 minutes and try to reach out for something you know is on the table in front of you. Humans who can communicate find it difficult in a blind world. You can then perceive how difficult it would be for animals with eye problems. Working with animal patients is a rewarding experience especially when they come for follow up with a recognition that you are a kindred soul. The awe and gratitude of the animal owners that the veterinarian sensed and diagnosed the issue correctly despite their own inability to give a true picture of the complaint is a reward in itself. It also highlights the need for greater public awareness regarding animal welfare, both domestic and wild.

How does your work benefit the community?

Animals form an indispensable part of the ecosystem. Peaceful coexistence in this universe requires conservation of nature. Health and economic aspects of human life on earth are highly integrated with animal and nature welfare. In the present day scenario, where Covid-19 poses a threat to harmonious living, the relevance of the concept of  ‘One Health’ is extremely significant. Veterinarians play a pivotal role in research on zoonoses, animal health, parasite and vector control, pharmacology, vaccine and cancer research, animal genetics and pharmacology, public health, food safety, adaptive physiology and environmental including wildlife studies.

There is a dearth of qualified veterinarians in the country as well as globally in central, state and private organizations. The animal husbandry department, agricultural scientist research board, lab animal institutes, meat and dairy processing plants, livestock farms, offer openings for veterinarians. Consultancies in veterinary and agricultural colleges, Krishi vigyan kendras, banks, I.T. companies (for animal insurance) and even human medical research institutions seek well qualified vets.

What has been your most memorable work so far?

It has been my thesis work at PG level. I had the good fortune of working on sick dogs requiring DALK which has been a unique and pioneering study in India. I was happy to have successfully restored vision for 2 different ophthalmic conditions/issues in few dogs

Surgical correction of a pulmonary lobe herniation and evisceration in a dairy cow in the wee twilight hours while on duty at the ECCU was a tremendous experience for me. It is a rare surgical case which usually ends in complications but turned out by god’s grace to be extremely successful. This cow has calved normally twice till date!

Advice to students based on my experience

Students usually tend to voice a career dream that is the ‘in-thing’ of their times. I would suggest seeking information on the career options available both education- wise and job-wise. Retrospect and recognize your strengths and weaknesses and explore your passions and secret dreams. If you find it rational and reasonable, persevere even if it is an unconventional choice. Make sure it is not a whimsical fancy, thoroughly understand the subjects you have to study, the way to it like entrance exams, the best institutions within your reach and the available financial scholarships etc. Talk it out with your parents, share your passion or dream with them and if needed take the help of someone working in a similar field. Optimism, perseverance, systematic hard work, inculcating soft skills and if needed extra language ability should help pave your goal achievement. Learn to be tech-savvy, to facilitate updating your knowledge.

Future plans

At present I intend to focus on completing my Ph.D. work. I plan to specialize in comparative ophthalmology and lab animal science. I enjoy teaching along with clinical practice and shall keenly strive for a faculty post in a good school of veterinary sciences.

Gayathri’s Profile:

Gayathri is a veterinary doctor who has specialised in Veterinary surgery & radiology and has carved a niche for herself in the sub-speciality of veterinary ophthalmology for companion animals. She has continually updated herself as a young upcoming surgeon. She has a few years of intensive practical/hands-on experience as a surgeon having performed surgeries relating to wounds, eye problems, musculoskeletal/bone issues, soft tissue surgeries in small and large animals. She has also been professionally trained in the nuances of anaesthesia and diagnostic imaging for animal patients.

She is a young upcoming surgeon with a particular passion in Veterinary Ophthalmology and has done some pioneering work in corneal surgery in dogs, enabling a few badly blind animals to retrieve their vision and lead an improved quality of life. She has also rescued many  abandoned and injured animals  and healed them well, besides finding them forever, loving homes. She has been doing this since her childhood days and continues to do so with renewed vigour/passion and professional efficiency now, as a qualified Veterinary Surgeon.

In her words, ” the most significant difference between humans and other animals (the human being an animal-part of the animal kingdom though a lot of people tend to not accept it usually), is that Man continually changes his environment to suit his needs – not just wants but also desires/caprices, whereas animals tend to acclimatise and adjust and live in harmony with Mother Nature. They accept other living things for what they are, how they are and respect them for being so!”It is often a tendency to quote animals as being mute! It is true that they cannot communicate verbally the exact need or response they seek.

But Mother Nature has provided innate insight to all living beings to sense/perceive, to empathise and above all act(respond to stimuli) by freedom of choice!

( If you do not understand a foreign language we don’t call the speaker mute right?..We tend to elicit and perceive by our heightened sense of emotions and  intellect bestowed upon so kindly by nature on humans, what they wish to communicateThis is practically so close to what Veterinarians and Paediatricians do every day!)

Veterinarians are indisputably the largest group of animal lovers next only to Mother Nature! The troubles and travails of the  animals-varied species, which often many people, even as owners/human-family, who have brought them up and raised them since young- fail to realise, are  successfully perceived and healed by veterinarians.   This enables them to be  rehabilitated, thereby improving their quality of life.Amidst the current crisis of Covid-19 and emerging zoonotic threats, looming over all sentient beings, the need of the hour is to realise the significance and embrace the so- relevant concept of ‘One-health”!