Immigrant Bengalis


Bani Bhattacharyya


"You are disabled." Those words still ring in Bani's ears.

It happened in the early nineteen seventies.

Bani worked at a large community hospital in Chicago's suburbs. A young and enthusiastic India-born doctor, Bani had just returned from Canada, having finished her residency in anesthesia at McGill University. She had no knowledge of how to deal with complex problems in the work environment as an attending doctor in an American hospital. Bani sought a job in a large community hospital near her home.  At that time, the hospital was in dire need of an anesthesiologist to cover one of its many operating rooms. The selection board was very impressed with Bani's interview and with her curriculum vitae. She was hired on the spot.

Bani was approached by the attending anesthesiologists at the hospital to join them. Two anesthesiologists were working in a group, and the others were practicing solo. Among the solo practitioners was the chief of the anesthesiology department who was also a member of the executive committee for the hospital that year.  In the group, Dr. Nina Sokolov was a middle-aged Russia-born woman. She had an elderly male partner by the name of Dr. Hollis. Nina was a heavy-set six-foot tall woman who walked with a cane. In that hospital, there were no other practicing female doctors.

Both doctors approached Bani to join their group -- offering her a deal which was mostly to their advantage. She had to commit on the spot to join the group or stay solo because she was to start working the next day. As she was taking a while to decide, Dr. Hollis approached Bani and said, "We'll make you our partner in six months if you join our group." He didn't want to lose her because they wanted to make money from her earnings, billing on her behalf and keeping her salaried for six months.

Bani thought: if she joined the group then she wouldn't have to go through the headache of billing, collection and office work, of which she had no experience. She had a five-year-old son at home to care for and her doctor husband was on call all the time as a solo practitioner. So she agreed to join the group of Dr. Hollis & Dr. Sokolov. Young doctor Bani was full of passion for doing the best for her patients and to be a good human being. She had no knowledge of or desire for administrative work, and making money was not her primary goal.

She had a long commute from home and worked hard every day. Within a month, she was well-known among the hospital staff. Both surgeons and nurses liked and respected her. The time for her to be a full partner was only four months away now.

India-born Bani had lots of curly black hair and a near perfect figure, but was of short stature. Her upbeat personality, passionate nature and diligent work impressed her patients. Even rival solo anesthesiologists noticed her good work.

Two months passed. One morning Bani felt uncomfortable and nauseated at work. She was worried as she hadn't had her period for a couple of months. When she visited her gynecologist, she was told, "You are pregnant."

Bani almost fell out of her chair hearing the good news. She was hoping for a girl. She waited for five years to have a second child because her and her husband needed financial stability before they could consider another child. She flushed with joy. When she arrived home she asked her husband, "Guess what?"

Benoyendu asked with a chuckle, "You are pregnant?" That was a night for celebration.

The next morning Bani went to work in an extremely joyous mood. At that time, she did not know anyone well enough in the Chicago area to give the good news to. She was anxious to tell the news to the people she had been working with for the past two months. She decided to share her bliss first with her two partners, who had become her second family. She waited all day for the day's schedule to be over. In the meantime, she heard from many other people, "You look so beautiful in your red and black dress. Too bad you have to change into a scrub gown, etc." She knew she was glowing because of her inner happiness.

Then the time came for her to deliver her fantastic news to her partners.  Around five in the evening, she saw that Dr. Sokolov was having a cup of coffee in the doctors' lounge. No one else was there. Bani came up to her and said with a smile, "I have good news to share with you. I'm pregnant."

Immediately Dr. Sokolov stood up, her face turning red with anger. Holding onto the chair with one hand, she pointed her cane towards Bani. She said, enraged, "Why didn't you tell us during the interview that you are disabled!"

Scared, Bani responded, "I didn't know at that time that I was carrying. I'm not disabled. I'm just pregnant." Then Bani moved back.

Dr. Sokolov stamped her foot. "You are lying. You kept it a secret just to join us; now you will be sick, be absent from work, and we will lose money."

Bani was frightened, worried that Nina might hit her with her cane. She quickly left the room, went to her locker and changed into her street clothing. She was thinking Nina might follow her with her cane and hurt her. She hurriedly entered the elevator.

As she drove home, her eyes flooded with tears. She wasn't expecting this kind of response from her female partner. Bani had long desired to have another child; now the prospect of her wish coming true made her tummy ball up in cramps.  Tears rolled down her cheeks, wetting her silk red blouse. Because it was rush hour, it took her more than forty-five minutes to get home instead of the usual thirty. The whole time she cried like a baby. She never knew her dream of becoming a doctor and her long-desired pregnancy would not go together easily.

The minute she reached home, she climbed into her bed. Her husband, Benoyendu, arrived home shortly thereafter. Surprised to see her in bed crying, he asked, "What's the matter? Why are you in bed now? Why the tears in your eyes?”

Bani took a long deep breath and said, "I'm not going to work tomorrow."

Benoyendu was sympathetic and said, "That's your decision. But why? Did you let them know you're not coming in tomorrow? "

"No. Would you please call my department now and let them know that I quit?"

"I can't do that. I'd need to give them some reason. What has happened today that made you so depressed? Why do you want to quit?"

"I'll tell you later. Please call them now."

Benoyendu dialed the number of the anesthesia department and talked to the front desk girl. Instead of taking a message, she switched him to the anesthesia department's Chief, Dr. Stowartz, who was then the on-call anesthesiologist.  

Benoyendu told him, "This is Dr. Bani Bhattacharyya’s husband calling. Something happened at the hospital today. Because of that she wants to quit working there. She won't be there tomorrow."

Dr, Stowartz was surprised and said, "What's the matter? I thought she liked to work here. She's an excellent anesthesiologist and she gets along with everybody here very well. Let me talk to her."

When Benoyendu conveyed the message to Bani, she immediately answered, "No. I don't want to talk to anybody there. Please let him know that I quit."

When Benoyendu relayed her message to Dr. Stowartz, he answered, "If she doesn't give us the reason herself, then tell her I'm coming to her house to talk to her."

Upon hearing that, Bani forgot her apprehension. She absolutely did not want the chief of the department to come so far to visit her in their little condo. So she got up, took the phone and said, "Hello."

"What has bothered you, Bani? Did Nina offend you? As the chief of the department, as far as I know, all your patients did well today. The nurses from the recovery room gave me the report. Why do you want to quit so suddenly without notice?"

Bani somehow managed to conceal her grief. She took a big breath and said, "Dr. Sokolov was extremely angry when I told her I was pregnant. She accused me by saying, 'You're disabled.'"

"Never mind Dr. Sokolov's comment," he said.  "She has a problem being an old maid. Tomorrow you come to work and bring a letter of resignation from her group. You start solo practice here, like all of us. We will all help you stay and practice here. You already know I'm an executive committee member. That anesthesia group is very nasty and greedy when it comes to money. We all know you were sucked in by their approach. All of the solo anesthesiologists like your work. Please come tomorrow. I personally will help you survive here and also help you in the business portion of your work by directing you if you need any help."

Bani suddenly felt better. Dr, Stowartz' approach inspired her to go back to work. She thanked him and said, "I'll need lots of help from you. I'll come to work tomorrow. I want to prove to her, I'm not a disabled person."

That night she wrote down on a piece of paper, "I'm quitting your group," and she felt much better.

The next morning she prayed to God and went to work. She gave two resignation letters to the secretary and asked her to give them to Dr. Sokolov and Dr. Hollis. She worked hard all day. Dr. Stowartz came into her operating room twice to console her, "Don't worry," he said, "We'll help you out."

Both group doctors were mad at her. She realized just by looking at them. They looked at her with murderous eyes when they passed by.

Since that day she worked hard every day. She was determined to prove to herself how strong she was. During her second trimester, she started to suffer from abdominal cramps. Her husband gave her brandy in the evening almost every day. That helped her to deal with the cramps. The harder she worked, the more popular she became. That, apparently, made Dr. Sokolov more jealous.

It was the rule of her department that assignment of the anesthesia cases for the following days should be done by each attending anesthesiologist in turn, one day at a time.   However, for Bani, it would take her two years to be promoted to an attending anesthesiologist and be able to assign cases.

She faced a major problem from her old rival group when it was their turn to assign the cases to all the other anesthesiologists for the next day. They assigned Bani the most risky, difficult and long cases to make her life difficult. Very often, they assigned her cases where radiation would be used, knowing of her pregnancy.  A radiation shield was of little comfort.  Every morning before leaving the house, Bani prayed to God that she could bear the torture.

All the individual anesthesiologists helped her by sitting in her room for a short time so she could take a potty break.   The operating room nurses were especially nice to her. They helped her a lot by offering her a chair, and carrying heavy things for her, and specially pushing the patient's bed from the operating room to the recovery room.

The more Nina saw Bani's superb accomplishments, the angrier she became with her. When Bani spoke to Nina, she ignored Bani. Dr. Sokolov and Dr. Hollis were just waiting for some mishap to occur that would be Bani's fault so that they could fire her. The more Bani felt their animosity towards her, the more she was determined to work until the end of her pregnancy.

And she did. She took off a week before her due date. Luckily, she went into labor within an hour of her vacation time. There was no pregnancy leave at that time, that is in the early ninety-seventies. Bani returned to work in exactly two weeks, the end of her vacation, to prove that she was as healthy as anybody else. She became more endearing to all her patients and colleagues, including her adversaries.

Many years have gone by since then. Now sitting near the window with a cup of coffee Bani thought: what would the young doctors of today do if they were treated by others the way I was treated by Dr. Sokolov?   Most probably this news would be all over the internet and they would enjoy some kind of monetary compensation and stay home for months, taking care of their baby and enjoying maternity leave.  

(Posted October 1, 2017)

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Comments received from Alok C. on October 8, 2017: "I read the story of Bani in your magazine with great interest. What she described is the tyranny of senior colleagues. I experienced that in my career too and paid high prices. It happened at several universities. At two universities senior colleagues wanted to make me their flunkies. I refused, and so they orchestrated my ouster. -- Unfortunately when we go through our PhD we never learn such politics of collegiality or lack of it. On the contrary, at another university, my adviser and others in the group were so open minded that I got spoiled and had rude awakening. And at two later universities, my superiors were open-minded and didn’t go through such things, and that’s why I did well in these two institutions." 

Comments received from Ramaprosad S. on October 16, 2017: "Bani has written another excellent little piece on what it was like in the hospital settings of the USA in the sixties, and the hardship and anxieties the Indian Diaspora faced then. Life was hard and precarious and uncertain. Outcome was unpredictable, and one had to depend on the wits. -- We were in the medical school together, and Bani had a knack of putting pen on paper,and was very aware of what is going on around her.
Some of the sojourners have stayed on to tell the stories. Bani is one of them.I hope to read many more of her offerings."