Walking her own path ~ Sharda Bapat

If I hadn’t met Dr. Sharda Bapat myself, I wouldn’t have believed that this person could be real. I know many medical doctors who actively pursued other interests and they became really good at it. But I don’t know a single person who started his/her journey to become a doctor after 35. Sharda Bapat’s journey is almost incredible – she (re)took her 12th standard examination at the age of 36 as she wanted to be a medical doctor, and she eventually became one. But there is lot more to her than being a doctor. She is indeed a renaissance soul[1] personified – read on further to know why I am saying this.

Early riding years

Sharda’s childhood was spent in Pune, in the old city area near Bajirao Road. She had diverse interests since childhood – she enjoyed swimming, participating in folk dances, debating, leading a drill team and so on. Her father is adventurous, and he exposed her to numerous such activities as well. She was trained in horse-riding at SSPMS ground in Pune and later when she attended a summer camp at Bhonsala Military school in Nasik, the trainer realized that she was riding well already, so he taught her few other things. They awarded her a gold medal without competition, a competition was conducted for second and third position. In fact, she recollects that her upbringing was rather non-competitive. Her parents encouraged her to be collaborative and not competitive.

Another thing Sharda recollects from her childhood that affected her deeply is her mother’s illness since early 1980’s while she was in school. Her mother suffered from severe backache, carpal tunnel syndrome and thyroid problems – and endocrinology knowledge was rather elementary at that time in India. She would often accompany her mother to doctors and wondered why nobody could diagnose her problems properly and why they didn’t understand her health holistically. Since her mother started having continuous and multiple health complaints, she started reading and became curious about it.  As such, her mother’s prolonged illness was instrumental in getting her interested in medicine as a discipline.

Young Sharda Bapat with her parents
Young Sharda Bapat with her parents

Nevertheless, owing to her diverse interests – she decided to opt for arts after completing her schooling, though initially she had enrolled for science in her 11th standard. She worked with Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum[2] along with her junior college and fondly recollects memories of handling international clients and her interactions with Dr. Kelkar who was an octogenarian at that time. She completed her B.A. as well as Diploma in Computer Applications (DCA) and became good at coding. She even sold a solution developed in Foxbase along with her friend from commerce background, and picked up accounting quite well in the process. From 1989 to 1993 she carried out data processing for financial institutes (FI) that required her to collect the documents in the evening and process them by next morning, which required her to work late at night. She got married in 1990 to her childhood friend Narendra Bapat and her son was born in 1992. With increased computerization in FI at that time, she decided to wind up that work.

In 1993 she became partner in an electronic safety devices trading firm along with her friend’s younger brother that they started from a small office in their own premises at Bajirao Road. She took care of setting up processes and automation initially and later handled their accounts, taxation and administrative work. She also managed to finish her law degree, LLB during this time and she happens to be a qualified lawyer as well. She led this business successfully until 2005 and handled many of its operation as it grew bigger.

Road trip to medical aspirations

Circa 2001, Sharda went on a road trip in the USA from San Francisco to Yellowstone. She had an interesting discovery there – her friend’s husband was working with a large multi-national software company but he left that job, studied medicine, and started his own medical practice there in the USA. That triggered a thought in her mind – she wondered if it would be possible to do this India, she has been curious about it for a long time. She came back to India, went to Maharashtra State Board’s office[3] in Pune and asked if she could appear for the 12th standard examination with science stream. A gentleman there flatly refused and told her that it was not possible as per the rules. Her family was relieved to know this – since they thought it was rather insane to contemplate going through 12th and medical at that stage of her life.  She didn’t give up – she went there again and met the director of the board this time, he informed her that she can appear for the three science subjects – Physics, Chemistry & Biology for her 12th standard examination again. However, since these subjects require lab examination (known as practicals in colloquial terms) as well, she needed to join a college where she could attend the lab sessions for the same. She went back to the college where she had done her B.A. earlier, but they refused to admit her again. Then she went to her own school and spoke to the principal there. She assured her that if it is legally feasible, they’d admit her and directed her to their office. A lady there informed her that one nurse had taken her 12th standard examination again and she helped her with all the details of the procedure. They just had one requirement – an NOC (no objection certificate) from her previous college. For some reason, her old college did not give her that NOC – she had to approach the principal of that college again who instructed the office to give her that NOC. After all this, her second 12th standard finally started in 2002. She simultaneously started exploring the possibility of admission in the medical colleges in and around Pune. She contacted dean of the famous government medical college in Pune and asked him if there is any age limit for the medical admission. After several follow-ups, he finally informed her that there was no age restriction as such for the admission, but he also dissuaded her by advising that the medical course would be quite demanding and difficult for her at that age. She sensibly ignored his advice, and with her legal knowledge, she knew that nobody would be able to stop her now as per the rules. The response she got from private medical colleges was equally discouraging.

One day her mother showed her an advertisement in the newspaper that showed that Wadia Hospital was starting a new course in medicine in collaboration with a Philippines based university. Interestingly, this hospital was right opposite to her parents’ house where she also had her own office. She almost ran there and met their PRO who agreed to arrange a meeting with the hospital’s CEO, Mr. David Pillai. He was quite impressed with her story and explained her all the formalities that would be required for her admission after she finishes her 12th standard examination. She was quite elated after that reassuring meeting with Mr. Pillai, and as she puts it –

“I thought this course at Wadia Hospital was starting especially for me. I knew that now there was a realistic opportunity to realize my dream of becoming a doctor and I didn’t want to let it go!”

~ Dr. Sharda Bapat

Sharda wholeheartedly started her preparation for the examination, but there was an unpleasant shock in store for her. After finishing her preliminary examination for 12th standard, and while she was studying for her final examination, her mother suddenly passed away.

Sharda's mother - who expired just before her 12th final exam
Sharda’s mother, who expired just before her 12th standard final exam

Sharda was completely heartbroken and devastated at that time – her mother was the reason for her aspiration to be a doctor, and she had lost her mother, she had lost that reason. She just wanted to give up – she was not willing to appear for her final examination. That’s when her husband, Narendra pacified her saying that she was not in the right frame of mind to decide at that time, and he persuaded her to take her final examination nevertheless. She cried through her examination as she wrote her papers.

Second Part: Playing her own tune concludes this story.


References:

  1. Renaissance Soul – Renaissance Souls as those whose passion is divided among many different interests.
  2. Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum – A famous museum in Pune featuring collection by Dr. Dinkar Kelkar (1896–1990)
  3. Maharashtra State Board of Secondary and Higher Secondary Education – A a statutory and autonomous body that conducts 10th and 12th examinations in Maharashtra, India.

The featured image:

The featured image shows Dr. Sharda Bapat walking through rock formations in Cappadocia, Turkey. If you notice two ghost like figures in this photo, that’s due to my rudimentary photo editing skills trying to mask the other two people in that photo.