Dr. Jagdish Sharma

Duration: 1hr 3mins
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Interview with: Jagdish Sharma, MD
Interviewed by: Nik Nikam, MD, MHA
Date: 12-10-2011





NN: Our guest today is Dr. Jagdish Sharma. Dr. Jagdish Sharma, welcome to the Foundation for Indian Studies and Indo-American Oral history, we are delighted to have you.

JS: Glad to be here.

NN: Thank you. Historically, you know, what part of India you come from and tell us something about your background in India.

JS: I come from an erstwhile princely state in North Western India called Jodhpur. And I was born there on 30th of November 1931. And my early education was locally in the schools and in those days the schools were not like what they are today and education was sort of in a haphazard manner, and Jodhpur was sort of relatively considered sort of backward. And the Maharaja did lot of developments but in my opinion the education was lagging.

NN: Oh I see, so where did you do your medical school?

JS: Then after I graduated from intermediate that is 12th grade in Jaswant College, Jodhpur I went to -- in 1951 I went to Jaipur which was a neighboring city for MBBS and I graduated from there in five years in 1956. Following that I did my residence internship in that place.

NN: So when did you come to United States?

JS: Well let me back off a little bit, and from Jaipur I finished the MBBS degree and residency and internship and then I went to Lucknow that is in Uttar Pradesh. And that is where I did my research in epidemic encephalitis and wrote the thesis and worked towards the MD degree because -- for our American audience MBBS is the basic medical degree in India and MD is like the course in internal medicine. So that is what I did.
And then I came, I joined the Western Railway and I was posted in Ajmer which is in Rajasthan and as an internist and I was in-charge of the medical ward. And over -- at that time, we were markedly limited primarily by the medical knowledge, I am talking about the early 60s, medical knowledge was not as advanced as it is half a century later now at this point and so I saw, you know, lot of patients with congestive heart failures and myocardial infarctions dying there right in front of me and so --

NN: I guess there was not a whole lot we could do.

JS: That it true, and so then I thought that I must specialize in something to advance and do something above and beyond the rest and there was need for specialization in India at that time, there was no specialization in Cardiology or neurology, just internal medicine was it. And so then I decided to come to America for specialization.
So, I took my ECFMG examination and in 1964 I came to Pittsburg, Pennsylvania as the first place, and I was there for one year, let’s say I have beautiful and pleasant memories about that place, and then I went to Boston and Massachusetts and there I did my residency in neurology.

NN: Neurology I see yeah. How many years were you in Boston?

JS: I was in Boston for 4 years.

NN: 4 years I see yeah.

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JS: And it’s a beautiful place and very cultural and very high end education and culture. And you know, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School or MIT and Boston University and that is where I was in the Boston University and completed my residency, become board eligible and then I returned to India. I thought that I am fully armed, I had MD in internal medicine --

NN: So you had intention of going back to India after post graduate?

JS: Absolutely, absolutely. At that time I had no intention of staying in this country and I said that I will go back and serve my country and I was -- I was 100% positive that I will get a lectureship or professorship in one of the many medical schools. At that time there were almost 70 or 80 medical schools in India.
And so with all the bag and baggage I returned to India and -- but then I had a shock of my life that I went to several medical schools but they just shook their head that oh, we have unfortunately, we have no openings and if you want to work here, you are welcome but we have no job opening. I said how do you create job opening? And then I was told that well you have to have some -- if you know some minister or somebody in the politics or some secretary in the bureaucracy and then it will be possible. I said I know none of them.
So I joined at that time there was an entity called Scientists Pool. So people who obtain higher education in this country went back to India and that was a temporary stop and then they could get some other job or whatever have you. So I was in Scientists Pool and they wanted me to extend it and keep on working in Wellington Hospital, but I said that I need a position for a job, because at that time they were paying me, I was getting 600 rupees a month in the pool.
So then I tried private practice and because I did not have any political connections or any, you know, bureaucratic connections, government connections and also unfortunately the climate was such that it was mutual, if you do something for me I do something for you. And unfortunately doctors were not too much concerned about the benefit of the patients and so they wanted something in return from me. And so --

NN: Yeah it’s kind of sad, you know, after you spend your --

JS: That did not work out so we were really in difficult situation in Delhi at that time in 1969, 1970. And really difficult time and it came to the point where I had to make a decision whether to continue living in India because really speaking I had to borrow some money at that point and so then I decided let me go back to USA. And so I got in touch with my previous professor and he found a position for me in Houston and so that was in 1971. And so that’s when I applied for the immigrant visa and immediately got the immigrant visa and I came to Houston.

NN: So which institution did you join in Houston?

JS: I was at the Methodist Hospital in Texas Medical Center and Baylor College of Medicine.

NN: I see so, and I guess you spent most of your years at the Texas Medical Center?

JS: I was there -- at that time I was there for a short while and then I went for a fellowship to North Carolina, I did fellowship in EEG,
And after finishing that fellowship I returned to Houston.

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Then, at that time, I joined Dr. Hauser in his practice, and I worked with him for three years. In 1975 I went on my own private practice and since then I’ve been a solo neurologist.

NN: Solo neurologist, I think that’s sort of, what I would say, is -- what I would say is like a vanishing breed of medical practice -- yeah?

JS: Yeah it’s interesting, that’s interesting that at that time, there were very few neurologists in Houston, and so I started my work initially in the Medical Center, but then more patients were coming from the north. So then we established another office at Memorial Northwest. And then I realized that a lot of my patients were coming from 1960, so, you know, it’s one of those things that you have to be close to your patients. So I have moved my practice on 1960.

NN: Oh I see, yeah. So tell us your first experience in Houston. I mean obviously you lived in Boston and you have -- before your training, how was Houston in, you know, it’s of course part of the south, Texas, and people have different conceptions about Texas, those who live in the north side.

JS: True, but let me tell you that Houston was a wonderful place to live in 1971 and it is a wonderful place to live in 2011, okay, after 40 years I have the same opinion. Number one thing I would mention is that what makes a city is the people, people are friendly, people are charitable, they are very philanthropic, and that’s why you see the Theater District and all the other public institutions and Medical Center and the places like that and --

NN: Even universities are 00:12:16

JS: Yes, that is what makes -- that is what makes the place richer. And at that time it’s interesting that the Galleria was finished and loop system was finished, there was no beltway. And at that time, the Wortham Center was not there but there was that Albert Thomas Convention Hall in downtown, which is not there anymore. Most interestingly, there was AstroWorld, yes, which is not there anymore. But now we have the Wortham Center, the Theater District, downtown.
At that time downtown was actually in the decline in the sense that it was alive during the work time, 8 to 5, 8 to 5 everybody left downtown. And so in the last I would say 15 to 20 years there has been a movement to revitalize downtown, so now there are many hotels, the convention center, the huge, big Hilton Americas, and some boutique hotels like Icon (ph) and Magnolia and things like that and many restaurants. And some famous restaurants have started in downtown in the vicinity of the Ballpark which is also in 00:13:57 just like the George R. Brown Convention Center in Minute Maid Park and so the hotels and the restaurants.
And now we have the metro all along Main Street -- Main Street -- and which wasn’t there at that time and so all these things are revitalizing. And let me not forget the Theater District, we had the Waldron Center for the Performing Arts where we had Houston Ballet and Houston Grand Opera. Then next door is the Alley Theater and then of course Jones Hall and for the Houston Symphony.

NN: 00:14:46 is also the hobby center which is --

JS: And the hobby center, yes.
NN: Very big one. Coming to Houston, I mean obviously as I said you know, coming to Houston with the cultural differences that we had from India, what kind of challenges did you perceive or come across when you moved to Houston, cultural, ethnic, and maybe perhaps even language differences? How it made a difference when you came here?

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JS: It is an interesting question and it depends on the individual how you get the response to that question. And I will say this thing that in this case here, every story is going to be different because every story is very personal and unique, and every story will have its high points and low points, what we go through and our achievements and our pride and pleasure and our success and failures and things like that.
So going to your point and going back also, when I decided to immigrate to this country, to leave one’s own country and the culture and the friends and the places which are familiar, it’s not easy. And then come to a foreign land where everything is different, everything is new, and then you have to face the challenges of learning so many things new and of course we may speak English but you have to learn the accent.

NN: That’s true, that’s why I said even though we know the language but our accent and our -- the way we present and we don’t know the American local language which people speak and we are -- we are communicating with nurses and patients.

JS: And in Texas, you speak Texan.

NN: Yeah, that’s right, that’s another -- yeah that’s why I specifically stressed that even though you are in Boston when you come to Houston, it’s like, you know, Texas district is almost a separate, it’s a separate state, but it’s considered as a separate country in terms of its customs and all these things.

JS: Yeah, of course Boston was the culture, the people in Boston were more on the reserve side. Whereas in Houston, they were open arms, friendly and open, that’s the difference in the personalities of these two cities.

NN: So when you say they are more open, are we talking people in general, are we talking about patients or the people with whom you work or like the business community or --?

JS: I would say people in general and that includes the patients, that includes my colleagues, that includes stores that I go to shop, that includes whatever you know. So that is I think the character of and this is what has made Houston, Houston. Now fortunately we are blessed by the industry here which has been a magnet for jobs. And in 1971 when I came here first time Houston was relatively a smaller city and now it’s, you know, imagine 5 million population and the fourth largest city in the country. And the forecast is that the job market in Houston is going to be good for the foreseeable future.

NN: That’s very unique because even though we see, you know, we already gone through one recession and we are on the verge of going through a second recession from all accounts but Houston has somehow weathered most of these storms.

JS: Yeah, it’s amazing, it’s amazing how it has done and Houston might have gone into a mild so called recession but it has always survived.
NN: What are the changes have you seen in the last 30, 40 years since you came to Houston in 1970s?

JS: Yes, of course the petrochemical industry has not changed except that it has expanded, the other major factor in Houston is the Medical Center and that keeps on growing. And it is the largest medical center in the whole world by number of beds and the variety of institutions.
 

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You cannot imagine anything in the medical field with has not been addressed there. At least the research and the treatment and the patient care and everything goes hand with that hand, hand in hand. So that is the second major entity in Houston. And the third one is the of course the banking and the arts and the culture and things like that. And Johnson Space Center of course was a major employer, but not anymore, it has been sort of trend.
    So we lost that, but again more opportunities are arising and I think the petrochemical industry and the Medical Center are going to sustain the -- more and more petrochemical companies are moving into Houston and now if the pipeline from Oklahoma and also from Canada, somewhere in Canada, it comes to here all the way to Fort Arthur. That is going to bring thousands and thousands of jobs.
And, now, Houston has grown, it has expanded and the beltway 8, now it has been what 10 or 15 years here and there and then 290 in the Northeast and 288 in the south. So, wherever these highways are built it’s followed by subdivisions houses, homes keep on growing and crawling in that --

NN: It looks like Houston is just spreading in all directions.

JS: In all directions and now on the plan and partly constructed is the grand parkway 99, around the beltway, outside your beltway.

NN: So, you are talking 67, beltway 8, highway 6, now we have 99.

JS: Yes.

NN: So Houston is going to be like 60 miles.


JS: Yes.

NN: From one end to the other.

JS: Actually I think if you measure it from north to south, it is about 40 miles or it would be 45 miles in its diameter. So it’s expanding.

NN: It is because when I drive from Chevrolane (ph) to the airport, it’s almost like 45, 50 miles.

JS: Yes, and, now, the bill is in front of the City Hall to expand the urban limits from Loop 610 to Beltway 8. What it will mean that they will allow the developers to build high density residences?

NN: Oh I see.

JS: And so they can build multi-stories sort of condominiums, townhouses, and make it denser like it is in downtown. And there was of course naturally some opposition from certain communities, you are going to see what happens.

NN: One of the things in Houston is that you don’t have proper zoning in relation to -- which makes some people happy, some people not so happy.

JS: Very true.

NN: Let’s talk about you family, tell us about your family, your children.

JS: Yes, I live with my wife, we have three children, we have one daughter and two sons and both sons are married, they have their children and their spouses are, you know, one is a physician and the other one is dentist. And my son is an ophthalmologist, the other son is MD and DDS, my daughter is a DDS and her husband is a maxillofacial surgeon. And so --

NN: So, everybody is a doctor.

JS: Yes, too many doctors in the family, doctor, MD, or DDS. And from my three children I have thank God eight grandchildren, amongst them seven are boys and one girl.


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NN: So that will give you plenty of time to play with all of them.

JS: Sure. Indeed.

NN: Okay, let’s talk about as to what has happened to the Indian culture and heritage over the years since we have immigrated to this country?
JS: Very good question. What has happened to Indian culture and heritage. If you look at our background, Indians have been immigrating, going here and there all over the world.

NN: That is true, yeah.

JS: And, I would say that you will find an Indian doing business in most of the countries of the world and why it so, why it happened, this Indian Diaspora and why it happened because we have an entrepreneurial spirit. We are adventurous and then we are thinking and intelligent people and we have good work ethics, we have good family values. And this is not only now Dr. Nikam this is since generations and generations and this is in our genes and I hope that it continues.
    And so wherever Indians have gone they have succeeded, whether they are in the East Indies, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, or they are in West Indies, or in Africa, or in Europe. Previously business was the motive. And of course essentially why do people migrate or go from one place to another is to seek for opportunities.
So at that time the, most of the people went for businesses and then now what is happening is that education has become more important in our lives and so we are becoming more and more educated. And so then we seek for educational opportunities and the same thing happened in my case that I was fully qualified but did not get an opportunity as to work in India and therefore I had to leave India and come to this country.

NN: Maybe it was a blessing.

JS: Well, that time will tell and let me tell you as you say it’s a blessing, yes, I accept that, but when we leave our country and immigrate to another country it’s not only that we bring ourselves but we bring our family, we bring our children and then the grandchildren and the future generations. And so it’s not only one individual who immigrates --

NN: That’s very true.

JS: There maybe hundreds and thousands of people, of his descendants who come to this country and wherever Indians have gone they have made their cultural heritage, they have maintained their religious identity.
The beauty about Hindu religion is that it’s very contemporarious and what it means that it keeps on changing, modifying, and adjusting according to time. There have been different epochs as in the 5,000 years of history or 10,000 years of history and from time to time there have been -- in the religion there have been some rishi munis and some sages, some sadhus from time to time to make adjustments in the religion so that religion remains relevant in its time and place.

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But it becomes such that everybody can adhere to and everybody can abide by and everybody can worship his deity according to his style.
    So therefore you see that the Hindu religion is held by Hindus very tenaciously. Of course there have been instances where people have sort of jumped over the -- jumped the line, but those instances are rare.
 
NN: You know, it’s kind of interesting, most Indians have immigrated to English speaking countries and most Indian do have a pretty good grip on not only Indian English, but also the foreign countries they immigrate to, and with that do you think it becomes difficult for the new generation of Indians, the second and the third generation to keep up with the Hindu culture, religion and philosophy and all this, unless they are educated in maybe both Indian and English languages?

JS: You know, my point of view Dr. Nikam is this, the traditions start from the family, the parenting and at a young age if the children are taught our cultural values, our religious values they will stick in their mind and they will grow up following those principles. And as I said that Hindu religion is a beautiful religion, it does not have any compulsory doctrines or compulsory rules or regulations, and so it’s rather cosmopolitan, and you can worship it in your own style, the way you want.
    And religion I think is important in human life because it forms as I put it the moral backbone. It keeps us on the right track and it steers us in the right direction, and therefore religion is important.

NN: Let’s just switch topics and as the second generation Indians are all growing and most of them are established as professionals nowadays, and we see an increasing number of interracial marriages, which was not prevalent, in India of course it was more or less looked upon as something that was not good when people married in different castes in India, but now we are talking about different races altogether. So what are your thoughts on this particular issue because it is real and it is expected as the new generation is coming to the forefront?

JS: If you look at the history, in this country, different ethnic groups, people from different countries, they came to America, and then gradually they -- of course first they were living in their own little communities, but then there was assimilation and they got assimilated in the large American population.
What is large American population? It is made up of mostly all the European countries. But then now we have the Latin American, African and Asian influences. So this is essentially a melting pot and people come here seeking opportunities and here it’s a wonderful country, which offers the opportunities from, you know whoever has something valuable to deliver, and what we deliver is our intellect. So going back to -- what was the second part of your question?

NN: No as these people, you know, get involved with interracial marriages --

JS: Oh yes, yes, yes, yes. That unfortunately in my opinion is inevitable. And proper parenting, strong cultural and religious influences and family values will perhaps prevent interracial marriages. Why do we have interracial marriages?

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That is a difficult question because I have one of my children has interracial marriage, and of course we have no complaints and is wonderful, so it’s not that one race is superior than the other, but this is our feeling that we want to preserve our heritage, and our culture, and our religion. And in general I think it will be done, but then on the periphery there maybe influences where these things are unavoidable, inevitable.

NN: Yeah I think these things happen and this very -- we try our best to steer our children in the direction which we think is most suitable for them in the long-run, but at the same time --

JS: We think --

NN: We think, that’s -- well of course, you know, our beliefs are based on thousands of years of Hindu culture and scriptures which said -- which has laid down certain principles of life like truth, being honest, and faithful, and things like that which really helps --

JS: Absolutely.

NN: -- to maintain a close family.

JS: Absolutely.

NN: That’s the main purpose. Okay, let’s talk about -- we talked about religion, interracial marriage and about -- let’s talk about -- are you involved in any kind of a social, cultural, spiritual or philosophical entities?

JS: Well I think I am very social.

NN: That’s right, yeah.

JS: And culturally yes, in the sense that I do subscribe to lot of cultural activities like the Symphony Opera, ballet and these things and I support these institutions also. And on the religious side of course I used to be more, now I am less active in the Hindu temple. And I think in the 80s when I was more active, one of the things that we did was to make a monumental change in the sense that to put the young generation in charge of the administration of the Hindu temple, because who for do we build the temples, it’s for the --

NN: New generation.

JS: -- next generation, new generation. And so rightly speaking they should be taking part in the activities of the temple and they should determine what kind of activities should be there to attract more young people and they get more -- you know, sort of suitable to their requirements. And did you ask me about professional or --

NN: Yeah any social or religious organizations. But let’s talk about the professional organization and you were the first President of the Indian Doctors Association, what was this back in 1980?

JS: Well yes --

NN: What year was this ‘79 or 1980?

JS: Yes I was working in the Medical Center at that time. In those days there was lot of discrimination against foreign medical graduates. And so I thought that something has to be done along those lines to counter the -- maybe the wrong impression that lot of people have about the Indian doctors. In general my impression is that the Indian doctors have always been held in very high regard, and when I talk to my colleagues, all of them are much respected by their community and by their patients and so fortunately that’s advantage with that. So the idea was conceived that we should have an organization of Indian doctors in Houston. And so I sort of formally --

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NN: So this is sort of entrepreneurial idea, because there was no want to follow anything like that.

JS: So, I started that and I was the President for the first two years.

NN: And I guess you were the only one who has spent more than two years in history of Indian Doctors Association.

JS: I used to hand write the invitations. And then my friend Dr. Ninan Matthew he took charge and then on and on. So actually speaking Indian Doctors Club pre-dates --

NN: Even hoping that the -- Indian doctors Association, yeah.

JS: TIPS that is Texas Indo Medical Physician Society and American Association of Physicians from India and even now Indian Doctors Club, which has now changed the name to Indian Doctors Association is very vibrant and very strong association and they are doing lot of good things. Not only for themselves but also for the public like holding the help line and free clinics and the charity clinics is an offshoot of that. And it has been well recognized, the charity clinic was one of the earlier charity clinics and lots of other clinics have followed that model.

NN: That is true yeah. It’s been there what, since 1990s I think.

JS: Or maybe longer.

NN: Yeah.

JS: And so I hope the activities continued along those lines.

NN: So what are your views on American politics?

JS: American politics has been as active and vibrant as in the times of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. And I am not too much politically savvy, but I think it’s a good system that it’s a system of checks and balances that Executive Branch of President and then the Legislative Branch and then the Judiciary. And in the legislative the Republicans and Democrats and things go very fairly in this country this is remarkable, because in most of the other countries, you know, when the ringing of the hopes and twisting of arms and even I heard that in Russia the other day there were thousands of people in procession against Putin --

NN: Thousands of people--

JS: Yes, yes. So, those things don’t happen in this country fortunately and elections are fair and the candidates have, hold debates so that people can see and hear what are their individual views are on many different issues which face the country. And --

NN: What do you think calls for the future for the new generation Indians our children and our grandchildren from your perspective?

JS: Well that is again a very interesting question and I would reiterate my view that by nature Indians are introverts, they are thinking people, they are intellectual people. And that’s why they excel in business and education and sciences and that kind of mathematics and things like that. And then we have special values, cultural values, religious values, family values. And as long as the young generation is reared and trained along those lines they will develop into intelligent, educated, law abiding, cultured citizens. If we can do that then the future will be bright and actually it has been bright thank god for this generation.

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NN: That is true yeah.

JS: And like yourself, like myself and lot of our contemporaries came to this country and because our education and our good work ethics, our sense of duty, our sense of service, our generally humble behavior, you are more humble than I am, and we have done very well.
And so the first generation has done very well because of these values and so similarly if we inculcate these values to our future generations they will keep on doing well and this is what I am already seeing in our next generation. And, you know, what happens after the next generation that is in nobody’s control, we don’t have anything in our control. And so as long as we are honest and we do good work we’ll have to leave our future in the hands of almighty.

NN: Dr. Sharma, you have been pretty successful in your profession and also a person, what are the things that propelled you, what are the foundations upon which you will say your success has been largely dependent so that maybe we can take a message.

JS: Oh my goodness. Well it all started when I was very comfortable as an internist in Ajmer and I got a little bit restless, I was there for two years and so in the second year I got little bit restless that I have to do something, something more and as I said, over and above. And then I wanted to specialize and that’s what brought me over here. And what I would say that these are actually the universal values and universal truths that hard work, honest, service to humanity, and good family values.

NN: Family values that’s true.

JS: And I strongly believe that we have a beautiful religion, beautiful culture, and we actually don’t have to look anywhere else for our spiritual satisfaction. Now fortunately we have so many temples and it’s convenient to go and enjoy some discourses and some poojas, some homams and things like that those are the basic and universal values which, you know, I have nothing more to add in that respect because we all have followed them and that’s what has helped us and enriched our lives.

NN: Fascinating, very fascinating. Dr. Sharma thank you very much for coming here as a guest, I am Dr. Nik Nikam and we appreciate your time.

JS: It was a pleasure.

NN: Thank you.

JS: Thank you.

NN: Again I am Dr. Nik Nikam you are watching the foundation for Indian Studies in Houston. This presentation is brought to you by the Indian American Oral History in collaboration with the Houston Public Library, thank you.