The Indian-American doctor Atul Gawande wears a lot of different hats: surgeon, staff writer for the New Yorker, best-selling author, and MacArthur Genius. Now, he’s also been named the CEO of a new nonprofit healthcare venture launched by Amazon, JP Morgan, and Berkshire Hathaway.
But when he was younger, Gawande wasn’t at all convinced about following in the footsteps of his immigrant parents by going into medicine.
“It’s almost a given that the children of two Indian immigrant doctors are expected to be doctors themselves…In many ways, I spent a lot of time trying to escape that,” he said in an interview with Boston Magazine last year.
Nevertheless, today Gawande is almost a household name, and his articles and books on healthcare and medicine are widely read around the world, including India. Less known, however, is the incredible journey of his parents, part of a pioneering generation of Indian immigrants who built a new life in the US.
The back story
Atmaram Gawande was born in 1934 to a family of seven brothers and five sisters in the village of Uti, Maharashtra, in western India. After graduating from the Nagpur Medical College in 1962, the elder Gawande moved to New York City to train in general surgery, where he ended up meeting Sushila, a paediatrician whom he would go on to marry. Sushila herself had moved to the US from Ahmedabad, Gujarat.
In 1973, a few years after Atul and his younger sister Meeta were born, the Gawandes decided to move to Athens, Ohio, a small town that was looking for doctors.
In Athens, Gawande senior went on to become a well-known urologist at the O’Bleness Memorial Hospital, serving over 25,000 local patients. The Gawandes also became known there for their philanthropy, which Sushila would later attribute to the principles of Mahatma Gandhi whose emphasis on social justice was something she and her husband tried to follow.
The couple also made significant contributions to education in India and the US. In Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district, the doctors helped establish the Gopika Sitaram Gawande College, which serves some 2,000 students in the hinterlands. They also funded a chair in Indian religion and philosophy at Ohio University’s College of Arts & Sciences.
Their daughter Meeta went to law school while Atul studied biology and politics at Stanford, before becoming a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, where he read politics and philosophy. After working in politics for a while, which included being part of Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, he finished medical school and went on to become a surgeon and a public health researcher. In 1998, he joined the New Yorker as a staff writer, working on stories about medicine and healthcare. Eventually, he even went on to write a number of successful books.
In 2011, his father passed away at the age of 76 after battling cancer, an experience Atul detailed in his most recent book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, released in 2014. In it, he recalled fulfilling his father’s wish of having his ashes spread in three places: the family’s hometown of Athens, his village in Maharashtra, and in River Ganga.
The family’s life-long commitment to healthcare continues with Gawande’s next step.
In a statement on June 20, Gawande said the new Amazon, JP Morgan, and Berkshire Hathaway-backed venture to lower healthcare costs is aligned with his own goal to improve healthcare delivery in the US, a mission that his parents, too, worked towards for decades.