Shakuntala Nowry – trailblazer

Dr. Rita Shakuntala Nowry, a family physician in obstetrics has been in Montreal since 1967. One of the pioneer women doctors from a South Asian country, she is a well known figure in the community. She has been on the board of directors of the Women’s Information and Referral Centre; she is a former president and a founding member of the South Asia Community Centre; she is now on the funding committee of the Quebec chapter of HPNR (Health Professionals for Nuclear Responsibility) and a member of the Canadian Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. Above all, she is a physician with a difference who is sensitive to the physical and emotional needs of her patients. Her close friends know her to be kind, generous, and warm. The following interview was taken for Serai by Nilambri Ghai.

SERAI: Dr. Nowry, as one of the first women doctors from India struggling through the 1960s, you must have a vast store of experience that our readers would like to share with you. Tell us

about yourself.

NOWRY: I am the youngest in a family of five daughters and one son. After qualifying for my medical degree, I started to work in a village known as Bhandara in Maharashtra.

SERAI: When did you come here and why?

NOWRY: That is a question I often ask myself. In Bhandara I met two Canadian visiting teachers. They encouraged me to migrate, and also mentioned the name of a family that might support me for a while in Canada. It was not easy for me to make my decision because I was fearfully

nationalistic. But I was also young and impulsive. The idea of going to another country was appealing, and I was tired of being pushed around from one village to the other by bureaucratic authorities in the country. Anyhow, in May 1960, 1 landed in Vancouver. I was single with about $300 with me, which at that time was quite a bit of money.

SERAI: Did you know anybody? Where did you go? NOWRY: No. I did not know anyone. I contacted the family I had been told about, and they took me in. I was faced with the predicament of writing the ECFMG examination, which at the time was formulated only in the States, and make a living. So I went to the Vancouver General and met with the Medical Director. There I was, shy and conscious in my sari, and he seemed so remote, so distant. Clearly, he told me that he had nothing for me. My face fell and he could not help but notice it. I guess he felt sorry for me and gave me a note on which he had hastily scribbled something that seemed quite illegible to me. With that in my hand, I went all over the hospital till I came to the laundry room. The woman there took the note, and told me that I was hired with the option of working on any one of the shifts. I was scared and lost. The machines frightened me. 1 did not even know what “shift’ meant. But I agreed to work at night. That way I thought 1 might escape the notice of many people; I seemed to want the security of the dark to hide my ignorance and inability to handle the machines. The woman tried to be friendly and asked me about my qualifications. When I told her, she just looked at me quietly. Perhaps she did not believe me. On my return “home”, I was sad and depressed… 1 was not mentally or physically prepared to take on the job. Janki Devi, my hostess, advised me to wait and try for a little while longer. I took her advice and sat down to educate myself in the Canadian system. Gradually, I became in tune with it and learned to use it to my advantage. I scanned through the yellow pages, and took down the names of all the hospitals. Meticulously, I called them one after the other, and used various devices to find out the names of the Medical Directors. I would call the Secretary, pretend that I knew the Director well, hesitate over the name to create an impression that I had forgotten it, and more often than not, managed to obtain it. With this information, I found it easier to gain access to the Director and avoid the bureaucratic run-arounds of the office. In one instance, I got an appointment to see the Director of Shaughnessy Veterans’ Hospital. As usual, there I was in my sari. But this time it was different. I reminded him of his own visit to Bombay during which he was very impressed with the hospitality and generosity of the people. He wanted to help me and asked me fill in for a resident doctor who was on sick leave. I was promised a stipend of $174.00 per month with free room and board. It was a gift from heaven! A wonderful break! Incidentally, out of my stipend, I managed to save $100 every month! After that, I wrote my exams and got a clinical scholarship. It was in Vancouver that I met my now ex-husband – a lover of classical music. Like most South Asians, I worked hard and did well with little time and less money. I specialized in Microbiology in Toronto, and came to Montreal in 1967. Here, I joined Hopital Ste. Jeanne d’Arc where I learned to work effectively in French. I, however, being a “people” person, found it stifling to stay confined to my lab. After I got my license to practice in Quebec, I took a refresher course, and in 1970 started my own practice in a Park Avenue apartment that we had converted into a clinic. I could not afford to pay a secretary, so I took my own calls, and hired students to work for me on Saturdays. I built a steady clientele and kept the clinic open in the evenings. I advertised in all the ethnic papers and also took classes in Greek and Spanish. 60% of my patients are from the ethnic minorities, the largest groups being South Asian and Haitian. I joined St. Mary’s after the closure of the obstetrics ward in the Reddy Memorial Hospital, and have been there ever since.

SERAI: Are you happy with your work?

NOWRY: Yes, I am very pleased.

SERAI: I am well aware of your commitment to women’s problems. What has been your experience so far?

NOWRY: I get to work a lot with battered women and children, so I find myself doing a lot of counseling… marital counseling. Of course, wife battering is not isolated to any particular income group, but financial difficulties do add an extra stress factor. The pressures of our society are reflected in family violence.

As South Asian women, a lot of us are physically and mentally incapacitated. Child/Wife abuse is very common in our community, but we don’t talk about it. Instead we conceal it in order to protect the izzat of the family, and that way become knowingly responsible for it. We have to learn to think for ourselves and overcome our over-protective conditioning.

I am amazed to see that my women patients are invariably accompanied by their husbands on whom they are totally dependent. When asked for the medicare card, for instance, the wife takes it out of her bag, hands it over to the husband, who then gives it to us in the office. Even when I request the husband to wait outside, he cannot help but add that his wife cannot speak adequately for herself. Tell me, how can she act or think independently when she is made to feel so incapacitated?

SERAI: How do you deal with such a problem?

NOWRY: I have to be very subtle. My age helps. The couple is more prepared to listen to a doctor. But I have to approach them very gradually, and I do make progress. I will give you an example. At one time, I was acting as the interpreter for an Indian woman who was being counseled by her hospital nurse. When asked whether she would nurse her new-born baby or not, the woman shyly turned to her husband to look for an answer. I explained to her that she should speak for herself, after all she had the milk, not her husband, and she alone could nurse her baby. The reasoning appealed to her perhaps because it came from her doctor, and not from one of her friends.

I find out other methods as well, adapt recipes to suit South Asian tastes and habits including vegetarianism.

SERAI: Do you come up against superstitions like certain foods being ‘cold’ or “hot” as they are known to be in our countries of origin?

NOWRY: Yes, of course I do. The theory is not absolutely baseless. Simplistically, foods that create energy like eggs and meat are called ‘heat generating” foods, and others like yogurt are known as “cooling foods”. The theory of course has been badly abused.

SERAT: I see that you are quite involved with the Peace and disarmament movement. What has been your experience with that in our community?

NOWRY: It is strange. The minute you talk about Peace and disarmament, people think that you’ve got to be a flaming red or a communist. That is the worst kind of stereotyping.

SERAI: I am well aware of that and have had a taste of it myself. Do you believe in Preventive medicine as opposed to Clinical medicine?

NOWRY: Yes, I do. I am not a great prescriber of drugs. However, l am concerned to find that more and more of my South Asian patients are beginning to ask me for medication these days. This is a new trend and quite contrary to the general attitude.

I spent last year in Nagpur, in a hospital founded by Mother Teresa’s order of nuns. For three days per week, between 8.00 a.m. to 12.00 noon, we used to set up our open clinic in a nearby village. We examined approximately 248 patients per day. Facilities were more than adequate.

I was however distressed to see that people would stand in long line-ups for powdered milk from the US and imported drugs, mostly from West Germany. I am sure you are quite aware how commercial advertising by multinational drug companies has made people in the third world countries believe that their products are better than natural products.

SERAI: Yes, I am aware of it and find it equally distressing. What are your plans for the future?

NOWRY: I really do not know where I am going to be. I live here; but emotionally I haven’t broken away from my little home-town village. I think I would like to go back permanently, but I would have to make the move gradually, over a period of time.

SERAI: Dr. Nowry, I have travelled back and forth with you and have enjoyed every minute of it. Thank you very much for sharing your experiences with our readers and with me.