Everybody must fail at least once

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

I failed at least twice, what I would call memorable failures because they were determining point-events in my life. There must have been less important ones that no doubt took place, but they are lost in the depths of the motherboard of the brain, and time has applied its soothing balm – mercifully!

Imagine what would happen if one were to remember in every glaring or lurid detail everything that one has gone through.

Like black spots that stand out on a white background, it is the negatives in our lives that often tend to resurface vividly. But surely life would be intolerable if we were to always be recalling our myriad hurts, failures, sadnesses and all that goes with them. Luckily, nature has a way of sparing us more grief and pain: the traces of memories fade and our senses gradually dim, which is not at all a bad thing as long as the minimum is left for us to function – although this is not quite within our control. But we must learn to accept and that is also a part of growing up, whatever the age!

My first major setback on the path of becoming a doctor was when I sat for the first term test in physiology a few weeks after joining the medical college in Kolkata. I was on a scholarship offered by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, and for whatever reason I and two other scholars left Mauritius late, in my case nearly three weeks after the course had already started in July 1965. But there was more: when I reached, I found to my dismay that my seat had been allocated to another student from Nepal, on the assumption that I was not coming. It took another week to ten days of shuttling from office to office to be assigned a seat at the National Medical College, and the first term was well into its middle practically – educational institutions in Kolkata, at least in those days, closed in September for the month-long puja festivities. Which means that the test was shortly to be conducted, before the holidays began.

Having missed a good part of the term, I did not have any notes about the topics that had been taught already, and since I was an outsider and that also joining late, I did not have anyone to turn to immediately. And I did not yet have the books, so I had to rely on the library books – to be used there only – and seek help from fellow hostel residents. A long process, takes time to find your bearings in an altogether new and so different place!

To cut a long story short, I stood last at a score of 13 out the 50 marks decided upon for the paper. One girl student stood first with 27 out of 50 marks. While she basked in her glory, I hung down my head in shame, and my hostel mates tried to console me.

And then I resolved to ‘show them’ next time round. And I did: in February 1973 I stood tall with 79 over 100, and my lady classmate who had topped in the first test stood second with 67 marks. I was appointed prosector in physiology, means that I mentored other students at their request. The gap in physiology was never closed between the two of us.

One friend in particular gave me the courage to fight back, and began by lending me the Rs 22 I needed to buy a second copy of a textbook of physiology. I became his room mate, and we got on superbly well because we were both islanders: he was from Trinidad and Tobago, majoring in economics at St Xavier’s. He had also plugged his term test, and decided to stay back to revise while his friends left for vacations elsewhere. We studied day and night, and I regained my confidence. My stipend started coming in regularly, and I bought more books. I had always liked physiology, and I found medical physiology absolutely fascinating – and it retains my interest to this day.

My second failure was, in retrospect, deserved and predictable. It was the viva for the final Fellowship exam in surgery, held at the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh. I sat down in front of two examiners in surgical pathology and made my blunder as soon as I opened my mouth to answer the first question, which was to identify a lesion in the wall of the large intestine. If I were in the examiners’ place today, I would similarly fail the candidate in front of me if he were to give a similar reply – and that is why I say that it was right that I failed. That helped me to hone my examination technique, and next time round it went very well. And as a senior surgeon, equally my mentor, remarked, after the results are announced on the same evening, you are invited to share with the President of the College and the examiners the most expensive glass of sherry you would have ever paid for – referring to the exam fees. On my day, only 7 out of the 77 or so who sat the exam made it. You can imagine my relief!

One thing I learnt also that day is that you can never be your own judge as far as exams are concerned, especially the vivas. One candidate came out in a most disturbed mood – cursing the examiners for the questions they had asked him. They were about an operation called Syme’s amputation (done at the level of the ankle), and it is not a common procedure. ‘What the hell do they think they are!’ he exclaimed, ‘what was wrong with these guys asking every damn thing about Syme’s! I’m sure I have already failed!’         

Another one came out and was almost jubilant: he had answered everything almost perfectly, starting with a question on appendicitis and then moving on to vascular surgery. You can guess the result: this one did not make it, the other passed!

Failed? So what, try again, and bounce higher. But it requires patience and perseverance, and hard work. There is no other formula. But I must confess one thing: I hate exams. That is why when I was nearing the end of my 6-month fellowship in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at La Timone in Marseille, I thanked the patron Prof. Bureau when he invited me to take the exam to become a member of the College de Chirurgie Plastique de France (or something like that). The French colleagues were preparing for the exam, and since I was already in the department, he suggested that I join them and study together and sit for the exam. He would speak to the officials of the College, well known to him, to give me an exemption for the first part of the exam, since I was already a qualified surgeon.                                                                                                                 

I had vowed to myself, after obtaining the Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons, never ever again to sit for any exam. And I have not.

Oh yes, I must mention that I failed in Additional Mathematics at the SC level, and could never do better than an E in both my attempts in maths at the HSC exams! Amen.

Let me end with a couple of quotations that I hope will inspire others who may be afraid of failing: DONT! Here goes:

– There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, learning from failure (italics are mine). — Gen. Colin Powell
– Success is how high you bounce when you hit bottom. – Gen George Patton
– Success is often the result of a misstep in the right direction.

I took two missteps – but in the right direction. No regrets.

* Published in print edition on 30 July 2010

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