Thursday, September 21, 2006

Dr. Ashok Tulpule : My First and the Best Customer

I should have written about Dr Tulpule much earlier but it’s not easy to articulate the impressions of an awe inspiring multifaceted person that has been evolved over many incidents and interactions. Anything scrolled down in a half hearted inadequate manner would have been a gross injustice to this immensely vivacious talented personality. A mere mention of his name in the context of Hrishikesh Mukherjee on my blog brought a comment from his cousin Prakash Tulpule. With that comment, all memories of yester-years flashed back. I decided to pen my thoughts about this renowned cardiologist without whom my career to medical device industry wouldn’t have taken off.

It was early 1982; I had embarked my career in Medical Device Industry. High story under construction Hinduja Hospital building caught my attention to start working on the possibility to get some business. I started making sales calls and few such calls took me to– a wonderful gentle, light-hearted person named Mr. Abhyankar – an ex GE India man who looked like diminutive Jack Welsh. He must have taken a pity on my amateurish efforts of getting business in competition with other stalwarts who had already made a head start in political manoeuvring. He gave me a mantra of success ‘Convince Dr Ashok Tulpule ‘.

My first impression of Dr Tulpule was nothing less than overbearing, dominant, busy cardiologist but my lack of self belief in those early years, made every cardiologist and cardiac surgeon appear in the same manner. Despite this, I somehow summoned courage to meet him and managed to convince him to have a look at our newest installation at Bombay Hospital. I was ecstatic in believing that I achieved something spectacular. Being naïve and inexperienced to undertake this job, I had to completely rely on my senior collegue Sudhir. At appointed time and the day, Dr Tulpule was ready but Sudhir didn’t turn up and I could imagine the horrible ordeal that was waiting for me to happen. I was too timid to tell Dr Tulpule to cancel the visit fearing that it would be the end of the road that so assiduously I had discovered. With technology mobile phone, pagers yet to arrive, I could no way reach Sudhir and decided to leave it to my destiny when we started our journey from JJ to Bombay Hospital. Here I was, taking the influential decision maker for Million dollars equipment purchase to a customer site that I was not familiar, to demonstrate a system that I had no idea. When we reached Bombay Hospital, my heart was already in my mouth hoping no one stops us at the entrance. ICU was busy the hustle bustle of visiting doctors. I managed to take him to the central monitoring console and blabbered about its functionality. By now, it must have been crystal clear to Dr Tulpule the futility of wasting his time to go with me. If this was not enough, we came across another arrogant cardiologist who after hearing the purpose of our visit, started vitriolic adjectives about our company, products and services. With that, I knew all the nails on my career coffin were perfectly drilled. There was a stony silence as he dropped me to the Lamington Road.

It was natural that I downplayed the events about this event. Perhaps, Sudhir may have felt the guilt of putting me in such terrible situation. He took initiative in reaching for Dr Tulpule alongwith me at his clinic at Opera House and our first visit led to another followed by a string of visits that lasted more than a year. Initial visits at Opera house clinic were like normal med rep visits. We would wait for long hours till Dr Tulpule would be through with his patients. By the time, we were ushered in; we would barely have few minutes as he would be ready to go to his Bandra clinic.

But our persistence paid off. With Sudhir’s product knowledge, few minutes of interaction now started getting extended. He could sense that not everyone in this company were as ignorant as I was. But his element of suspicion was still palpable. He looked every inch East European person with his fair skin and piercing gray eyes. Sitting erect, dressed in baggie half sleeved shirt, stethoscope and paperback fiction book on his table, he would intently listen to what we had to say but would have a habit of tapping his finger on the table while doing so.

We were not sure of making any headway till one day Sudhir had a chance meeting with him at Sawai Gandharva Musical festival in Pune. In subsequent meeting, we started talking about classical music. When I mentioned about my relation with Mai Kurdikar and Kishori Amonkar – it changed the course our conversation. Shade of mistrust and suspicion transformed into a cordial acceptance, much in the same manner raga Megha Malhar would bring rains to douse off the fire. Classical music became a catalyst in shedding all hurdles of our communication. We slowly started realizing that beneath the veneer of stern Russian looking heartless heart physician was a warm, jovial person with fascinating creative nuances. Our discussions would begin with Classical Music and meander through Yoga, Cricket and USSR socialist health care policy. I think his uncle being trade union leader may have had influence on him of socialist policies. Cricket was another topic, he was passionate about and that too Mumbai Cricket team. Being cardiologist, reading must have come naturally to him but what amazed me his reading English fiction paperbacks while waiting for patients to come. By then, we became almost his clinic companion. Throughout these meetings, we didn’t realize how we settled on our project proposal to Hinduja Hospital. The receptionist, peon at both opera house and Bandra clinics stopped asking who we wanted to see. Soon, we earned the privilege of knocking at his door and he greeting us by snapping his book to ensue interesting conversation. When patient arrived, we would go out and sit outside. This cycle repeated 2-3 times a week and over almost a year. Very often, we would leave together past 9 pm and he would drop me at Mahim for me take a bus to my home in Kalanagar.

On one Sunday morning, we arranged a special demo of specially imported new bedside monitor at his home in Dadar TT. After initial introduction with his family, we sat at his car garage to play around with the monitor. PC and windows were not prevalent then, I could see his eyes glitter with excitement when he saw those soft keys and menu driven software could turn magic with patient’s vital signs, medication data and connectivity with the other devices. I think at that moment he decided to back our products all the way, and once he decided that, there was no going back. His approval led to the involvement of management discussions from respective sides. What started of as a pathetic site visit turned into a million dollar order. He was proud that products he chose were the ones at Mass General, Johns Hopkins and he was happy with our engineers who went on doing installation and commissioning. His pet idea of setting up emergency cardiac care that would monitor the patient right from ambulance to ICU was realized in setting up telemetry monitoring.

Today when I look back at this business transaction, ‘Incorruptibility’ is one aspect of Dr Tulpule that stands out in stark contrast to today’s murky medical purchases. At no point, there was even hint or exchange of any favours- either direct or indirect. Normally, with such scale of purchase transaction and being a sole decider, it would have been an easy temptation for anyone to seek help in setting up one’s own clinic or sponsorships in international conference. Perhaps his penchant of Yoga, Medicine, Socialism combined with classical music may have contributed to his clean and ethical business practise.

Classical Music was his passion. I think he followed gayaki of Firoz dastur of Kirana Gharana and I was fortunate to see him in animated discussion with Kishori Amonkar on ragas and its abject imitation in Marathi bhaav geet. He invited me to attend his solo music concert at Maratha Mandir Hall. He looked proud and confident as he took tanpura to enthral a packed audience. I must say I was pleasantly surprised to see his lung power and control over Taan.

As I changed my job from Cardiology to Laboratory products, my contact with him became less frequent. I got the news of his admitting at Hinduja hospital with heart ailment. I felt ironical that the devices and technology that he chose for the hospital were now monitoring him. Soon after, I met him at the Hinduja hospital lobby. I felt awkward of broaching the topic of his illness. I somehow took courage and meekly mentioned ‘I heard you were in the hospital’ His remark was ‘Yes it was heart attack ’. I was taken aback by his direct approach but slowly recovered to say ‘I hope it was a mild’, his instant retort was ‘Mild or Severe, Heart attack is a Heart attack ’. His uprightness and direct approach towards life and death had not changed. But he looked fine and I felt happy to see him back in action. But one day, when I reached my home – Marathi news at 7 pm on Doordarshan flashed his picture. I increased the sound volume hoping that it must be some state govt award. I was too numb to react to the news that he was no more.

After all these years, I am still in the same industry and when I have an opportunity to meet a cardiologist or visit CCU, Dr Tulpule’s vivid image comes to the fore. I don’t know if P D Hinduja Hospital has recognised his contribution to their cardiology department but his name plaque is already been carved on my heart.

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