Dubai: Every morning, at 7’O clock, when many people are still yet to get off the bed, Dr Urmil Verma, consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, is already on the road, driving to her first shift. It is the first of the three that she will be working on at different hospitals throughout the day. Once she reaches her first stop, she quickly heads to the labour room and gets ready to perform the day’s first delivery or surgery.
Dr Verma celebrated her 78th birthday in the last week of July this year. Blessed with a robust health, an indefatigable spirit and a photographic memory, she is in no hurry to hang up her coat. On the contrary, working round the clock comes naturally to her. She is one of the few surgeons in UAE who shares her mobile number with her patients and is available 24x7 to her patients. On August 16, she completed 40 years of dedicated service as a doctor in UAE.
A doctor for all seasons
Even during the initial days of the pandemic, when doctors in the age group of 60 and above in the UAE were asked to stay home, Dr Verma chose to put on her Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and be there at the frontline, attending to patients with an unwavering responsibility. During her more-than-40 years of service to families in the UAE, she has helped deliver several thousand babies — sometimes for three generations in the same family.
Nothing excites and satisfies Dr Verma more than assisting a mother throughout her pregnancy and until the final day in the labour room to help her bring her child into the world. She has taken on challenging cases of pregnancies, managing her patients and steering them to safe deliveries. In the last four decades, she has faced many challenges, but she has always been led by pure passion for her job. “In the early 1980s, when there were limited trained personnel, equipment and technology was not as sophisticated as today and there was no medical liability insurance for doctors, I still went out on a limb for my patients,” she recalled. “Nothing else matters to me except the welfare and happiness of a mother and her newborn. I am glad that I was able to handle some of the most complicated cases successfully.”
The summer of new hopes
Dr Verma arrived in the UAE in the summer of 1981, along with her husband, the late Dr Subhash Chander Verma, a highly-skilled general surgeon. The couple came from the United Kingdom where they had spent more than a decade in leading hospitals, acquiring top medical qulifications and working in reputed hospitals. She acquired several impressive degrees such as a Diploma and Membership of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (DRCOG) and a Masters (MRCOG), while Dr Subhash acquired the Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons (FRCS). They worked hard to set up pioneering medical techniques and systems in the UAE. For nearly three decades, the Vermas worked in tandem, expanding the scope of medical care in the UAE. The couple introduced new medical techniques, increased bed capacity at the hospitals where they worked and built themselves a formidable reputation.
When Dr Subhash Verma died of a cardiac arrest in 1999 — he was 58 — Dr Urmil did not give up her practice and returned to London. She educated her children in the UK — two daughters and a son — all of whom eventually decided to move to the UAE with their families.
Dr Verma recalls her long journey of pursuing dreams and experiences. “I became a doctor only because of my dad’s dream. A distinguished and highly educated businessperson in his time, my dad, Tarlok Nath Pahwa had, in the early 1930s, had completed a degree in Persian languages. He would always tell everyone that his daughter would grow up and join the medical profession one day. His dream indeed became a reality. I had completed my medical degree and was working for my post-graduation in medicine at Delhi’s prestigious Lady Hardinge Medical College, in 1969, when I met my to-be husband. Dr Verma, a graduate from the National Medical College, Calcutta [now Kolkata]. Our dreams were similar. He wanted us to qualify as surgeons. We married in 1970. It was an arranged match.
Five major dreams
Dr Urmil Verma continued: “I actually had five dreams: To be a surgeon, to marry one, to ride in a plush Impala car (it was the ultimate car in our times), to have a church wedding and to see the Niagara falls. I was lucky to have fulfilled three of these dreams. I became a gynaecologist as it was the only way women were accepted in surgery in my time, married a doctor who qualified as a distinguished FRCS surgeon and I saw the Niagara Falls.”
However, fulfilling dreams meant a lot of sacrifices and hard work. Dr Verma continued: “We decided to go to the UK to become surgeons. We arrived there in 1971, a year after our marriage.” She recounted: “We had an allowance of three pounds each from the government and had a fifty pence coin each given to us by a friend. We borrowed about 100 dollars from a friend in the United States, so we could register with the General Medical Council and the Medical Protection Society in the UK to be able to attain higher qualifications and experience in our respective specialities.
For the next several years, the Vermas worked hard in the UK, doing multiple jobs, staying apart from each other due to work and studying for higher degrees. Through parenthood and domestic duties, the couple never lost sight of their dreams.
The rigidity of their schedules left them with little room for manoeuvre and Dr Urmil Verma paid a heavy price for it as she was unable to even see her mother who died in 1975. She had met her father only twice in 13 years and he passed away in 1984. The couple was committed to serving the medical profession, which brought them to the UAE a decade later.
In 1979, a new opportunity presented itself. Dr Verma recalled: “It was an advertised vacancy for a the post of a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist and the address mentioned was 71 Harley Street. Harley Street is a well-known address for private medical practise in London. However, it was only during the interview that I realised that the address was that of the UAE Embassy in London.”
She continued: “I had transited through Dubai on my way back to UK from India in 1975 after attending my mum’s funeral,” said Dr Verma. Therefore, the Verma’s decided to accept this job offer in the UAE and give the place a try. They were offered positions as consultants in their respective specialities and also the rank of the head of heir respective departments in gynaecology and general surgery at the Sharjah Kuwaiti Hospital.”
Falling in love with the UAE
Their first experience of arriving in the UAE in the middle of the summer was not that exciting. Dr Verma said: “We arrived at Abu Dhabi Airport in August 1981, at the peak of summer. We were driven to Sharjah in a non-air-conditioned car. It took us three hours on a single carriageway and by the time we reached the hospital in Sharjah, the cheeks of all my three children were flushed red with the heat.”
Soon, however, they were in love with the simplicity of the place and the goodness of the people. “UAE has a special charm and it grows on any person. We got so much affection and respect and began loving our new home,” she said.
Being committed to their work, the Vermas got into a hectic routine, establishing medical practices and precedents. Dr Urmil said: “The Sharjah Kuwaiti Hospital had a capacity of just 25 beds. Over the years, with the support of the hospital authorities, the Health Ministry, and cooperation from the government and staff members, we managed to upgrade the facilities and increase bed capacity to nearly 100 beds. And we worked towards improving all the facilities at the hospital.”
More doors were waiting to open
By the end of the 1980s, Dr Urmil joined Al Zahra Hospital (AZH), then the first private hospital in Sharjah and the Northern Emirates, as a senior consultant. Later, in the early 1990s, her husband was also invited to join AZH and together the couple worked towards opening Al Zahra Hospital’s satellite clinic on Shaikh Zayed Road in Dubai. There, they incorporated new and innovative treatment techniques.
“As doctors, we would attend international conferences at least once a year and return to introduce new techniques in the UAE,” said Dr Verma. “For instance, we went to Germany for training and introduced laparoscopy to AZH in 1992. Initially, we arranged for the German professor we had trained under to visit the hospital for a week every month. Later, I trained in hysteroscopy in Germany and brought the know-how to UAE, along with a series of other techniques such as colposcopy, large loop excision of transformation zone or LLETZ, which were carried out for abnormal PAP smears in women. We also introduced two different techniques of endometrial ablation from the UK.”
Those were exciting times, recalled Dr Verma. “We were keen to bring the latest to the UAE. Of course, this country has always been progressive in introducing the best and the latest. We received full support from the hospital management and the government,” she said.
Growing in experience and stature
Dr Verma believes that she and her husband grew and evolved in tandem with the UAE. “(We) became a part of this important journey [of the UAE] as an excellent health-care destination,” she said. “I feel incredibly proud to be a part of the UAE growth story and its rapid evolution in the health-care sector. From a couple of hospitals with limited beds and few specialities, the UAE today boasts of world-class health-care facilities, multi-speciality hospitals in the primary and tertiary sectors in both public and private sectors and a good bed capacity.”
She also highlighted the efficiency of UAE’s COVID-19 management. “During the pandemic, we saw how well the hospitals managed patients. Wherever a need arose, health-care authorities across all emirates collaborated and set up field hospitals. It is a matter of great pride to be a part of the UAE’s successful health-care story to which my late husband, my two daughters and I dedicated ourselves,” she said.
'The show must go on'
Her most profound sorrow is over losing her husband and soulmate too soon. “When he passed away, I lost not just my partner and colleague, but a friend and confidante. We did everything together — we wrote our exams together for all the qualifications, we operated side by side in adjoining operation theatres, we ate together and laughed together. His passing away has left a huge vacuum,” said Dr Verma.
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However, her unwavering dedication to work has kept her going. Even during those difficult days of her husband’s hospitalisation, following his cardiac arrest and the subsequent 17 days of coma that he had slipped into, she did not stop conducting deliveries or surgeries.
“My husband had great dreams for our children, but could not live long enough to see them fulfilled,” reminisced Dr Verma. “All the children have worked hard to realise his dreams, though. After completing their degrees in the UK, all my children relocated to the UAE. My husband would have been so proud of the achievements of each one of them,” said Dr Verma.
“The best tribute I can pay to Dr Subhash is to continue working and contributing to this country that has given our family so much. The show must go on,” said Dr Verma.