In 2020, he published a book aimed at cancer specialists and their patients on how to die “with hope and dignity,” titled “Between Life and Death” (Penguin Random House India).
When Dr. Patel, the CEO of Carolina Blood and Cancer Care Associates in Rock Hill, S.C., became president of the Washington-based Community Oncology Alliance 2 years ago, he stepped into a leadership role in community oncology. As an advocate for health care payment reform on Capitol Hill, the South Carolina legislature, and within his own practice, Dr. Patel has long worked to eliminate disparities in U.S. cancer care.
This news organization spoke with Dr. Patel about his unusual career path.
Question: Your father had a great influence on you. Can you tell us more about him?
Answer: My dad was a hermit and a saint. He lost his dad when he was 4 years old and moved to the big city with his cousins. When he was 9 or so, he got a message saying that his mum was very ill. So, he and his cousin raised some money, got a doctor and one of those old, rugged jeeps, and they started driving to the village, but rains had destroyed the road. So, without penicillin, his mum died of pneumonia.
He felt that roads and doctor access were the two big factors that could have saved her life. He eventually became the Superintending Engineer for four districts in Gujarat State, building roads connecting every village, but he never gave up his simplistic, minimalist life.
When I was in elementary school, every other weekend my dad would literally dump me at the Mahatma Gandhi Ashram and come back in 2 hours. So, I’m looking at Gandhi’s cabinets, his pictures, reading about his life. So, my formative years were born in that.
Q: I read that you were intending to become an engineer and join the space race. How did your father nudge you toward medicine?
A: When I was 9 years old, my favorite movie hero died of cancer. To comfort me, my father inserted the idea into my brain: When you grow up, you can become a doctor to cure cancer. So, when I finished high school, I was 24th in the state and had an option to go to the space school in India. On the day when I was going for the interview, I could see tears in my father’s eyes, and he said, You know what, boy? I thought you’re going to become a doctor and cure cancer. So, to honor him, I went to med school instead.
Q: I understand that your father also triggered your interest in photography?
A: I started photographing Kutchi tribal people in 1977, after I bought a camera from a famous architect [Hasmukh Patel], while traveling with my dad. And then my dad bought me a motorcycle, so I started riding myself. From the time I entered med school in 1978 until I finished my residency in 1987, I made several trips following Kutchi migrant families and livestock. They leave their homeland in Kutch [district] during summer in search of grass and water to keep their livestock alive and walk across the state from the desert of Kutch all the way to central Gujarat until monsoon begins. Then they return, only to resume the journey next year. I would catch them along their journey, would talk to them, drink tea and eat millet crepes with them.
In 1984, between Dr. Patel’s medical school and residency, the Lions Club in his hometown, Ahmedabad, India, sponsored him and three buddies to document people and wildlife in Gujarat state. Traveling by motorcycle, the four friends stayed for free with local families by knocking on doors and explaining that they were medical students. Dr. Patel’s photographs were exhibited by the Lions Club of Ahmedabad and at India’s top art institution, the Lalit Kala gallery.
In the 3rd year of his internal-medicine residency in Bombay (now Mumbai), Dr. Patel approached a national newspaper, The Indian Express, for work. He was immediately sent on assignment to cover a cholera epidemic and filed his story and photographs the following day. He worked as a photojournalist and subeditor for a year.
Q: Among all your thousands of pictures, do you have a favorite?
A: There were two photos of Kutchi people that touched me. There was one photo of a lady. All of her worldly belongings were in the picture and a smile on her face showed that we don’t need so many things to be happy. The second photo is of an elderly lady shifting her water pan on her head to a younger family member. And a little girl looks up with a look of curiosity: Will I be doing this when I grow up? We seek so much materialistic happiness. But when you look at the curiosity, smiles, and happiness [in these photos], you realize we could have a lot of happiness in minimalism, as well.
Q: After you finished your residency in Ahmedabad, how did you get started in oncology?
A: In 1986, Ahmedabad City and Gujarat State did not have structured training programs in oncology, so I went to Bombay [Mumbai], where Dr. B.C. Mehta, a true legend and pioneer in India, had started hematology-oncology training. I was a post-doc research fellow with him for a little over a year but when I started seeing patients, I had to answer to myself, Am I doing everything I can to help these people? I saw that the U.K. had one of the best training programs in hem malignancy, so I started applying. Then something happened that was almost like a miracle.
In April 1992, Dr. Patel was working at the Institute of Kidney Diseases in Ahmedabad. One afternoon, just as the clinic was closing for siesta, a family brought in a young girl. She had drug-induced thrombocytopenia and needed an immediate transfusion. The father offered to sell his wedding ring to pay Dr. Patel if he would supervise the treatment and stay by the girl’s side. Dr. Patel told the man to keep his ring, then he remained in the office with the child. At 4 p.m., the office phone rang. It was Dr. H.K. Parikh, an eminent British physician who was wintering in India and needed to make a medical appointment for his wife. On a normal day, Dr. Patel would have missed the call.