Cover Story

A Higher Calling : Dr. Suman S. Thapa (Fusing careers in music and medicine for the greater good)

suman-2The year is 1994. The influence of western music is yet to grip the industry; but if you were to isolate the beginning of the inevitable fusion into our local music scene, this would be it. In a small pub in Tripureshwor, Dr. Suman filled in for a local band with a few songs. A thrill he had pursued his entire life, this was where Dr. Suman began his efforts of melding a career in medicine with his passion for music. Dr. Suman S. Thapa, MD, PhD, Director of the Glaucoma Service, Tilganga Institute of Ophthalmology, has found an impeccable balance between his career in music and medicine, settling a conflict of the mind and heart in the process.

Singing and music were things that came naturally to Dr. Suman, more so than anything else. He resorted to it to help him get through school and college. Mostly an introvert, he found confidence in music and he played his heart out. He transferred to a Boarding School in Darjeeling in the fourth grade where he proceeded to focus more on music than anything else; a trend that would follow him throughout his life.

“I used to spend time listening to records my mother would collect from her excursions to New York,” explained Dr. Suman, detailing his introduction to music.  Our conversation had strayed far from his career as a practitioner of medicine, and in a secluded area of Tilganga Hospital’s cafeteria, he continued elucidating his love affair with music, “She had a lot of Motown Blues and other western music genres that we listened to together.”

And this reflected in his performances at school where he was appointed Head of Choir at church. His influence by western music would transcend into his music later in life.  It was certain that music would be a major part of his life. Yet, completely dedicating his life to music was a difficult commitment.

After finishing the tenth grade, Dr. Suman had to decide what to do with life. “Choosing to study medicine was pretty much a reckless stone throw into the dark. I blurted it out to my parents because my best friend at the time had said he wanted to become a doctor. I simply just tagged along.” But there was more than just that that led to his decision of studying medicine. “In my opinion, if there was anything that came as close to humanity and compassion as music, it was the ability to heal people of their suffering.”

“In my opinion, if there was anything that came as close to humanity and compassion as music, it was the ability to heal people of their suffering.”

As fate would have it getting into medical school would not be difficult. In a fortunate turn of events, a hearty donation made by Dr. Suman’s great grandfather to build a medical institute in Calcutta would open doors for him, and despite dwindling credits he got into the school. During his stint in school he would spend an incredible amount of time performing music anywhere and everywhere he could. And that meant slinging a guitar around school rather than books, something uncharacteristic to a typical medical student. He was more interested in making music than studying and that did not reflect well in a field of study as demanding as medicine. Dr. Suman failed the first year.

“But I was winning a lot of awards and gaining recognition.” he went on to reminisce a moment that further nudged him towards the path of music. “One of the competitions I participated in, which was being judged by Shiva, a major band at the time asked me to quit medicine and join the band. It was very tempting but to drop everything and go against the expectation of my parents was too big a commitment.”

Thanks to his perseverance, Dr. Suman stuck to the plan and got through medical school. However, his heart was always with music and devoting so much effort and time to something completely different had pushed him to the brink of frustration. Having passed his studies, he had proven to himself that he could do it, Dr. Suman decided to follow what he believed was his true calling. He earned his Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery (MBBS) in 1993 and decided to take a break to go study music.

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Which brings us back to 1994. While his friends began practice in hospitals Dr. Suman turned to music. He joined a band called Bypass. The band produced a song called Andheri that served as a benchmark in the industry and is still recognized as the first Nepali Jazz song. His stint with the band did not last long, but it served as a stepping-stone towards his career into music.

However, things once again took a different turn and it came time for Dr. Suman to choose a field of study in which he would specialize. But he was far from ready to give up music.

“Ophthalmology was the perfect fit for me. I knew night duties wouldn’t pester me and that meant that I would have more time for music.” Dr. Suman returned to India and completed his Master of Surgery in ophthalmology but all the while, his longing to play music was overpowering everything else. Things once again fell into place for Dr. Suman as he met three people in his department who were as passionate about music as him. Having come across these like minded people who shared the same passion, it seemed that the next logical step was to create a band; which was exactly what they did. They started a band called Donesis.

“Ophthalmology was the perfect fit for me. I knew night duties wouldn’t pester me and that meant that I would have more time for music.”

“Donesis is a medical term for a pathological trembling of the lens inside the eye, it was a cool name that we felt fit well with the band.” said Dr. Suman. Since the band had decided on dedicating themselves to help people as a profession they took the motif further with their band by playing music to raise money. They played their first concert and raised a total of Rs. 1 lakh which would go for the treatment of visually impaired people. The tickets sold at Rs.30 and it was attended by almost 2000 people.

For Dr. Suman, this shed light on the possibility of linking these professions together. With that in mind he returned to Kathmandu and joined Tilganga Hospital. There, Dr. Suman was asked to lead the Glaucoma line and so began his career. At this point, after being considerably detached to his chosen path of studies, Dr. Suman finally found his stride and fell in love with ophthalmology. He was sent out into the field where as part of the institute’s program, he performed free eye surgery camps.

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“There was a blind grandmother in Rasuwa whom I operated on. She was going blind and had to undergo a procedure. The overwhelming happiness in her eyes after she could see her mountains and her children was just what I needed to put me on my way.”

Discovering a newfound passion for medicine, Dr. Suman travelled to Australia in 2002 to complete a glaucoma fellowship and then returned to Nepal to take up his post as Tilganga’s glaucoma expert. He devoted himself to his work. And as he traveled and performed surgeries he learned more about himself and the beautiful people of the country.  The inner divide between music and career simmered down and the concept of helping people overcame it.

Finally having found his stride, Dr. Suman felt he needed to set a benchmark in the study of Glaucoma in Nepal. A disease that can permanently damage the optic nerve, if left undetected, glaucoma can lead to permanent blindness. And because it shows no symptoms and has no cure, there is more reason to be aware of it.

“There would be instances where patients came in with irreparable damages from glaucoma and we had to break the terrible news to them informing them that they would not be able to see any more in their lives. It’s heartbreaking for the doctor and worse for the patient.” Explained Dr. Suman “Clearly, there was plenty left to be done for glaucoma in Nepal. So I began studying about how it affects the people of Nepal. Soon I was conceptualizing a world standard glaucoma study in Nepal.”

Despite the persistent suggestions of a Dutch friend to pursue his PHD with the study, Dr. Suman was not interested. He never took himself as an academician and a PHD was the farthest thing from his mind at the time. However, Dr. Suman’s Dutch friend went ahead and put his research topic in his University (University of Amsterdam) and a professor, someone who had done a similar study in Alaska, came across it. Intrigued, the professor came to Nepal and offered to guide Dr. Suman through his studies.

It took him 6 years to complete this study: The Bhaktapur Glaucoma Study. It was the only one in Nepal and amongst the less than a handful around the world. “We took the entire district and did a survey to find out how many people were affected and the status of the people over 40 years of age.” He was allowed to enroll as a graduate student at Vrije University in Amsterdam. And he soon earned a deserved PHD making him the first ophthalmologist in Nepal to accomplish this.

Soon after, Dr.Suman was catapulted into a completely different world. He was appointed Professor of ophthalmology and Head of the Glaucoma research department. He was giving lectures in places like Stanford University, University of Michigan and University of Iowa.

More importantly, Dr.Suman was now trying to apply the studies into teleophthalmology. There had always been a debate about the issue of conducting screenings for glaucoma. It was an expensive procedure that had a very low output in terms of detections. However, that wasn’t helping the people who were suffering from glaucoma.

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“There were patients coming all the way to Kathmandu from remote areas like Dolpa to get checked for glaucoma only to be sent back because they didn’t have the disease. At the same time there were people who suffered from the disease but couldn’t come to get a checkup and they would slowly lose their eyesight.”

With tele-ophthalmology the screening costs could be cut and taken to remote areas. This was all thanks to an apparatus that can be fixed to an iphone through which photos can be taken and screened for without the patient or doctor having to travel at all. Now, there are assistant doctors up in Charikot, Dolkha and Jiri who are making things a lot easier in the screening process.

While his passion for medicine grew, his love for music prospered hand in hand. Dr. Suman wasn’t quite ready to let go of it. He took another major step in his music career and became part of a band called Rusty Nails.

“It was a lot of fun with Rusty Nails”, Dr. Suman said with a gleam in his eyes, “We played the blues and wrote our own songs. I was writing my own songs too. And we were performing all over the place.”

Once again, their motif was to help raise money, this time for children suffering from glaucoma. In 2015, the band dedicated six concerts for the cause. With five concerts performed, Rusty Nails summed up a good sum of money. Unfortunately, on the day of the sixth concert the devastating earthquake hit Nepal and things came to a complete halt.

The nation reeled from the effects of the earthquake, but Dr. Suman was back in the field doing what he did best, helping people the best way he could. On the third day after the earthquake, Dr. Suman left for Sindhupalchowk and did what he could do there.

Ek Ek Paila became an incredible initiative where a team of doctors specializing in almost every field came together and volunteered to provide their services for the people affected by the earthquake.

But he realized that many situations required different medical expertise, and this led to the forming of Ek Ek Paila. It became an incredible initiative where a team of doctors specializing in almost every field came together and volunteered to provide their services for the people affected by the earthquake.

“What we had, in essence, was a fully functioning mobile hospital.” Explained Dr. Suman. “To make things as transparent as possible, we did not establish a bank account. Anything and everything would have to be a voluntary contribution in nonmonetary form, like medicine and equipment.”

Ek Ek Paila provided their services for an entire year, refusing to fizzle out like so many other post-earthquake relief efforts. In the process they went to places like Gorkha, Manang, Rasuwa, Dolkha, Sailung and more. With an entire roster of doctors and necessary equipment at hand, their efforts have helped hundreds of people.

“Now that I look at it, my medical profession has also come a full circle. I love to do what I do, and even more so when it’s for people who need the help. And through music I am able to raise money to fund the surgeries for the needy.”

Dr. Suman has been traveling the world as a lecturer and musician. And in the process he has been raising more funds. More recently, Dr. Suman took a new step in his music career when he formed a new band.

“The tenants in the floor above me had moved out and left behind a room they had painted blue. I call it the Blue Fret Room. And I asked Kiran from Kutumba, Shawn and Daniel to play music with me. And that led to our new band: Suman and the Blue Frets.”

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His effort to raise money has continued with the new band, and Suman and the Blue Frets have raised Rs.200, 000 from a single concert. Through the years Dr. Suman has proven that he isn’t just a doctor parading as a wannabe singer. His passion and talent propel him to the levels of a legitimate musician and Dr. Suman and the Blue Frets underscores his achievement.

Music was always a solace for Dr. Suman, and it seems that it will continue to play a major role in his life for a very long time. More importantly, Dr. Suman has successfully integrated the two passions in his life and devised a way of using his talents to support each other. His successful efforts to provide world-class eye treatment to the needy has been exceptional and providing those services free of cost really sets him apart.

“There is so much you can do for people who are less fortunate than you, especially once you reach a position where you can make a difference. Medicine in its true form is practicing humanity and that is what I am doing. The blessings that you get from people is worth more than anything else. Getting to travel in the beauty of Nepal is a bonus. I must have gained some good karma in my past life to be able to do what I am doing now.”

Dr. Suman S. Thapa saw compassion in music and transcended that compassion in the best way he could, by helping other people. Utilizing his talents in music and ophthalmology he has relentlessly worked to help the needy. Dr. Suman could have abandoned music in several instances in life, but his passion outweighed the hardships and he turned things around by making the best of his abilities. It takes courage to listen to your heart, even more so when it might not be the logically right move. But taking that leap of faith and choosing to pursue both his passion for music and his passion for medicine, helped Dr. Suman S. Thapa fulfill both his dreams; all while making an effective contribution to society.

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Words: Ankit Shakya | Photos: Pritam Chhetri
Find all information about Ek Ek Paila here: https://www.facebook.com/ek.ek.paila/
Watch the YouTube Interview: https://youtu.be/INFnzWJqcN8

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