A Physician's Journey to Humility and Gratitude
Sometimes we can stand too close to something to see all of it. Sometimes we stand too far away to see the details. A clear perspective always requires the zoom lens, the 30,000-foot aerial view and everything in between. This becomes infinitely more complicated when we’re dealing with an individual as opposed to a fixed object.
In the case of Sridhar (SRI) Vasudevan, MD, GME ’77, the view from a distance would be to see a man of success and accomplishment in almost every way our society defines the terms. The view from up close would show a man at the last of the Four Stages of Hindu Life, wherein one attempts to give everything away. Neither view is false, but neither tells more than a portion of the story.
Dr. Vasudevan began his time with the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) in 1974, beginning with his residency. In 1977 he became an assistant instructor with the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM&R), retiring from clinical practice as a professor in 2016. Throughout his career, Dr. Vasudevan provided medical rehabilitation services to patients with spinal pain, pain from work injuries and chronic pain related to musculoskeletal and neurological injuries and diseases. In addition to his clinical practice and administrative roles at MCW, he actively served on leadership boards for the Wisconsin Medical Society and the American Academy of Pain Medicine.
While Dr. Vasudevan can look back with pride to an impressive career, he is also a son, husband, father, grandfather and a citizen. This is harder to see from a distance.
Born in India, to a father who was a chemist and a mother who was highly active in their community, SRI wanted to be a doctor from the time he was four.
As a child, he was fascinated with America – and Americana. “From the day I was born, I felt I was an American,” he recalls. “I thought like an American – I had John and Jackie Kennedy’s picture on my shelf, I read almost all the Zane Grey books, I read every Perry Mason book. But I’d never seen TV, I’d never seen highways or big trucks. I’d never seen snow.”
Upon his graduation from medical school in 1973, Dr. Vasudevan finally came to America on a tourist visa. He had planned to return to India and then do an orthopedic residency in Mumbai, but his older brother encouraged him to stay in the US, so Dr. Vasudevan took the exam that graduates of foreign medical schools must take to allow them to practice in the United States.
The waiting process for the results took three months, and when he learned he passed the test, Dr. Vasudevan applied for a general surgical residency. He received several offers and opted to take a residency in Hawaii. In short order, he came to find he didn’t like general surgery all that much. He also didn’t especially like Hawaii. Eventually, that journey brought him to Milwaukee and MCW.
Despite all this, what matters to Dr. Vasudevan now is to get rid of the trappings and material possessions of it all. He wants to be SRI, not Dr. Vasudevan.
“Humility is not an adjective that would’ve been used to describe me before.”
“In everything I did, I wanted a title,” he says. “I had expectations and most of the time, unfortunately, some would say, I got everything I wanted. Even when I failed, I never felt like a failure to the point where I think I was rather arrogant; I felt that I could do anything anybody else could do, and whatever I took on, I did. You gave me something, and I always got it done, even if I had to step on some toes and upset some people.”
Over time, this way of living wasn’t enough for him.
“I was rarely SRI; I was always Dr. Vasudevan, the egotistical, driven, narcissistic, highly accomplished physician, which is about 90 percent of my CV,” he says, “but the 10 percent is more humble, grateful to God, and somebody who wants to use his physician’s skills and the opportunities given to him to make his community better.”
Leadership service began to matter increasingly to Dr. Vasudevan. He wanted not only to give more of himself, but also to set an example for the younger doctors and medical students that he saw around him at MCW and around the world. “Doctors have to be involved, to be multidimensional,” he says. “They are part of the community, too. I want them to bring their skills and leadership skills to civic activities, politics, community service organizations or to serve on boards and socialize with the community. We see this in smaller communities, but academic physicians should demonstrate they are citizens of the community where they live and work.”
“I want to show gratitude.”
Dr. Vasudevan considers the concept, and execution, of service leadership to be important. And as much as he moves toward being SRI instead of Dr. Vasudevan, it is impossible to overlook the contributions he’s made to MCW.
“For 10 years I worked full time at MCW. Anything I did, I breathed, I taught, I always thought to myself ‘Will it benefit the medical college?’” he says.
Over the years, Dr. Vasudevan has given much to MCW, most notably to the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. The Sridhar V. Vasudevan, MD, Endowed Lectureship Fund exists to continue to advance and support education in the field of pain rehabilitation, to emphasize the multifaced nature of pain and the need for a bio-psycho-social approach to caring for people with chronic persistent pain. This fund will pay tribute to outstanding physicians and continue the education of medical students, residents and faculty at MCW for years to come.
Dr. Vasudevan says he began to change in earnest when he was 63. “I went to a religious workshop, an Indian workshop, and they taught me one thing, which is you cannot have any attachments to the activity that you do,” he shares. “You do a thing because it’s the right thing to do. If you succeed, you say, ‘hm, thank you.’ If you fail, you say ‘hm, thank you.’ You don’t have an ego in front of you.”
Comprehensive breakdowns of the Four Stages of Hindu Life can be found in books and online.
The Fourth Stage, where Dr. Vasudevan finds himself now, can be partially described as giving away most of your material effects and living simply and on as little as possible.
“My mother’s words always ring true,” Dr. Vasudevan says. “She said, ‘You’ve got to do something almost every day to make the world a better place.’ What I’ve told the students is to always volunteer a little bit of your time, where you’re not doing anything for money. You can be more than a doctor – you’re a citizen. If I can do something that motivates people, I’m willing to.”
As a citizen, Dr. Vasudevan has given back to his community by volunteering at a food pantry in Grafton and serving on the boards of the United Way of Northern Ozaukee County and the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Ozaukee. Along with his contributions to MCW, Dr. Vasudevan has supported a school dormitory near his hometown in India and established scholarship funds with the Wisconsin Medical Society Foundation.
“I’ve had a great life. There’s literally no regret of what I did, or any regrets left of what I would like to do,” he says “I’m more content; I’m more at peace. But I still haven’t learned how to cook.”