Around 9pm on April 25, 2020, Dr Balram Bhargava received an SOS call. Dr Mannmath Das, a retired surgeon from a hospital in Bhubaneswar, was calling in for advice on a peculiar case. Bhargava, Director General of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), was all ears.
A 30-year-old diabetic with complete loss of vision in the right eye had arrived at Dr Das’s hospital, travelling 120 km. For a year, he had been using his left eye without much trouble, but that particular day he sensed a sudden drop in vision in the left eye, too.
Das knew that the man had to be operated upon the next morning, or he could lose his remaining vision. But he was apprehensive as he did not know the patient’s Covid-19 status, and with the limited testing available then and the time it would take for the report to come, it would be too late. Many cautioned him against doing the surgery, as he stood the risk of getting infected and passing it on to his two small children and aged parents at home. But Das’s conscience did not let him rest; he knew that the surgery could give the young man a new lease of life. Time was running out and a decision had to be taken quickly.
Bhargava immediately checked the case load of the block from where the patient hailed. It was a green zone, meaning there were zero Covind-19 cases. He then asked if the patient’s family members or the vehicle driver had any symptoms; none said Das. Bhargava needed no further information. He asked the surgeon to take all possible precaution, for patient and himself, and to go ahead with the surgery. The operation was successful and the patient’s vision in the left eye returned to normal.
As the pandemic ravaged the country, such were the emotionally charged moments of desperation and despair that called for the ICMR director general’s direct advice and intervention—sometimes even at 3am. Before March 2020, Bhargava had never slept with his phone next to him; he was not on WhatsApp either. The pandemic changed all that. “Every other person turned into a spammer and unsolicited advice on tackling the virus. I had to really fight to make a point”, he says.
While the ICMR emerged as the frontal agency tackling Covid-19 in India, Bhargava, became its go-to person. In his career spanning three decades, Bhargava, a cardiologist by qualification and professor at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, has served as physician to some high profile state dignitaries, including past vice-presidents and the prime ministers. Thanks to Covid-19, he found himself learning the ropes of public health and virology, alongside media and public relations and crisis management. His mantra was simple: “Dip into solid science, stay calm and carry on”.
Bhargava is the 12th director general of the 110-year-old ICMR. While he took charge of ICMR only in 2018, his first brush with the institute was when he was barely four. It was early 1960, and ICMR’s first director, Dr C G Pandit (1948-1964), had visited King George’s Medical College in Lucknow, and met Bharvava’s father, Prof. Krishna Prasad Bhargava—a physician of pharmacology and later principle of KGMC. The young boy, “cautious and studious by nature”, grew up on the KGMC campus. He spent 30 years of his life there, studying medicine and specializing in cardiology. “Whatever I am today, it is thanks to my life spent in Lucknow,” says the 60-year-old Bhargava. (IPA Service)