The ascent of Dr. John Ebnezar: An account of a formidable journey
Six-times Guinness World Record Holder and an author of over 200 books
In 2016, he became the first Orthopaedic Surgeon from Karnataka and 15th in the country to receive a Padma Shri. In the same year he received the highest national award in the field of medicine in India, the B.C. Roy Award, making him the only Indian doctor to receive the two coveted awards in the same calendar year. He has been a proponent for wholistic orthopaedics and has authored over 200 books in Orthopaedics alone. For all this and more, Dr. John Ebnezar has been one of the most noted doctors in the country.
In a candid chat, Dr. Ebnezar shared his journey of a difficult childhood, a disciplinarian mother, book writing, creating world records and pioneering new treatment methods in Orthopaedics. Excerpts:
Let us begin with your childhood and your family. What was it like?
My beginnings were very humble. We were a family of five – my parents, two sisters and I. My mother, Late Sampathkumari, was a nursing tutor at a government institute and my father was a Pastor. My father was not around much, so every time my mother got a transfer from her job, my sisters and I went with her. As a result, I have done my schooling from Belgaum, Gulbarga and Raichur.
The last two years at school before I entered medicine were the toughest for me. I stayed alone at Gulbarga to finish my studies, while my mother was at Raichur. I stayed in a four-bedroom haunted house, because my mother found it for a low rent of Rs. 400 as it had no other takers. To sustain my expenses there, we had five milching buffaloes. We had a servant who took care of them, but soon after he left, the responsibility fell on me. I woke up at 4 am, cooked for myself, milked the buffaloes, left for school on my bicycle at 6 am, rode for five kilometers, rushed for my lectures that began at 7 and went on till 1 pm. This was followed by a typing class and a tabla class. I reached back home at 3 pm, ate, and milked the buffaloes again. In addition to this, I had a few friends whom I used to tutor till 8 pm after which I did my reading and then slept at 10. This was my schedule for my final and career-deciding school year. Thankfully, I managed to get the highest rank in my district and stood 17th in the state.
Altogether, with a single earning member in the family, it was rough but it was absolutely astounding how my mother brought us up. I have learnt some of the most valued principles of life from her and wherever I am today is only because of the experiences she put me through and the values she instilled.
What was your mother like?
She was way ahead of her times. She was very particular about certain things, one of them being respecting women. The only stories I grew up listening to were that of Mother Teresa, Dr. Ida Scudder and of Lata Mangeshkar. “If you want to be like someone, try and become at least 0.1% of them and succeed in the University of Life”, she used to say. Whenever I accompanied her at work, she was very strict about treating the lower rung of people like the aayas and the ward-boys with utmost respect.
I was a very good student and I was equally good at debating and writing, but whenever I came home after winning competitions at school, my mother would make sure that my success does not get to my head even if it meant tearing off my certificates. “Academics is just a part of life, don’t gloat over it”. In fact, because my final year results were so good in the district and the state, I had radio channels and media people approaching me. My mother came all the way from Raichur to tell me, “whatever that is happening right now, you need to leave it behind. Forget that you have scored well, don’t feel proud, don’t be so happy. This is just one of the specks in life and if you truly want to excel, do something for the people, like Gandhiji and Mother Teresa did”. When I was contemplating a career choice, she unequivocally told me to not become a doctor if making money was the ultimate goal. “If you become a doctor, dedicate your life to society, don’t seize wealth from your patients and make fortunes. If that is what you want to do, there are plenty of other professions.” She was a tough woman, but I now realise that she was always so right.
Late Sampath Kumari (mother of Dr John Ebnezar), Source: http://www.johnebnezar.com/drjohn/
Mothers are truly special, aren’t they! From where did your medical journey begin?
I went to Bangalore (now Bengaluru) for my medical admissions and interview. As I was among the top 20 candidates there, I could pick a medical college of my choice. To the surprise of Dr. Rudrappa – the director back then, I chose the Karnataka Medical College, Hubli over the obvious choice of Bangalore Medical College. Bangalore was a big place and I could not have afforded my stay there. When it came to the college fees, I had to take a loan. I went to Canara bank well after the deadline, and the manager – Mr. Prabhu, told me it was impossible to get me a loan. He later asked for my marksheets and found that I was a promising student, so he personally called the authorities in Bangalore and pleaded to condone the delay and consider my application. Finally, my loan got sanctioned and that is how my MBBS began.
You were often called the Harfan Maulaa (Jack of all trades) in your college days. Any comments?
(laughs) It was because I was so actively involved in extra-curriculars. I was the cricket captain, a singer in the music band that I built named Medichestra, I also played many instruments, and was very involved in literary activities. People were certain I was going to flunk my exams, but I was always one of the top students in the university. Hence the name, I guess.
Dr. Ebnezar performing at KMC, Hubli along with his band 'Medichestra', Source: http://www.johnebnezar.com/drjohn/
You also got married while in college, tell us about that.
I did. I married my fellow orchestra singer. Dr. Parimala Devi, a gynaecologist was the only female singer in our band and even though I was a houseman and she was a postgraduate student, we got married. I was the earliest in my batch to get married and by the time I went for post graduation, we had a son. She has been the greatest companion I could have asked for.
Moving towards your academic journey, was Orthopaedics always on the cards?
Subconsciously, perhaps. I used to be very fascinated with Plaster of Paris when I accompanied my mother in the wards as a child so when it came to choose, my natural inclination was towards Orthopaedics.
Writing books was never the plan to tell you the truth. I had applied for Diplomate of National Board Exam. Unfortunately, we had no coaching institutes to train us for it and the best way to train myself was by tutoring other students. I had a few students who were interested, so I started teaching them in the corridors or the casualty department. As more students started to join, and I continued to teach without any permissions, I started coaching them after regular office hours at 5 pm. My clinic in the ward had started to become a big gathering and on one such evenings a faculty from our departments came to the wing in the evening to see a patient. He was shocked to see these many students in the ward. When he walked through the crowd, he saw me teaching there.
He was furious and asked me to stop righ taway. He warned the students that if he ever finds me taking classes again or finds any students attending my class, he will fail them in the exams.
“And if all of you are so interested in taking extra lectures, I have three professors in training. I will have them start evening classes beginning tomorrow.”
And he did. The extra classes began 4 pm onwards, but to everyone’s surprise (or shock) no student attended these classes for the next 20 days. But students continued to approach me, still asking me to take lectures. Somewhere during these lectures, they had started to take notes. Like in every medical college, these notes too began to be circulated among other students and eventually to other colleges.
It was my students’ idea for me to write a book on Orthopaedics. I was only 35 at that time. I felt I was too young to write books given that I was not even a teaching guy. I even dilly-dallied for some time stating reasons like, “I do not have enough money” and “who will publish a book by a rookie like me?”. But my students persisted. One of my students named Santosh said, “Sir, don’t worry! I will do the DTP for you”. I did not even know what DTP meant until he told me it was Desktop Publishing used for creating documents on the computer primarily to print. I also had a student named Roopa who volunteered to draw the diagrams for the book. This was how it started, we sat after working hours at my house where I would dictate and my student who came with his computer would type it for me. Finally, I invested 1.5 lacs from my savings and got the books printed myself.
Had you approached your professors?
I certainly did. Prior to getting the book printed, I went to the department of Orthopaedics and talked to my HoD. I requested him to write a foreword, and like all other professors after telling me how I was not fit to write a book, he refused. After a lot of pleading, he asked me to leave the book on his desk and that he will go through it when he has time. After a month of constant nagging from my side, he finally got my book reviewed by a colleague of mine who outrightly dismissed my work. I later sent the copy of book to Dr. G. S. Kulkarni, president of Indian Orthopaedic Association who sent me a foreword within a week along with a lot of appreciation for my work.
One of the superintendents from General Surgery supported me and helped me book the hall at IMA for my book release. He even invited Dr. Shetty, Director of Health and Family Welfare Services, to release the book.
Dr. Shetty, Director of Health and Women Welfare Services, releasing the first edition of Textbook of Orthopaedics by Dr. John Ebnezar in 1996. Source: http://www.johnebnezar.com/drjohn/
That must’ve been a tough road, having to go against your professors. How did your book get to the shelves though?
After the release of my book, one of the booksellers (after a lot of pleading) allowed me to keep one copy of my book Textbook of Orthopaedics on the front shelf. It was at this time when one of the representatives from Jaypee Brothers Medical Publishers happened to have a glanced at my book. They were on the look for a new book on Orthopaedics as their previous book on the same topic had failed. The representative bought the only copy available in that store and forwarded it to the CEO of the company, Mr. J.P. Vij, and to the editors who responded by saying it was an excellent book and that they should go for it. They got in touch with me, picked up all the 1000 copies that I had printed and reimbursed me for the same. That was the start, twenty-one years later the same book has gotten to its 5th edition and is now available across the country. Followed by the success of my first book, I went on to write several other books on Orthopaedics and even Physiotherapy. There were critics who called my books “a novel” suggesting that this was not how educational books were written, but the students loved it.
And it is remarkable how from being a published author you went on to create a Guinness World Record in Book writing…
My books had started to do well and I got a very positive response from students across the country. This motivated me to author more books like a textbook of orthopaedics for post graduate students and on common orthopaedic problems for laymen. Between February 2009 and January 2010, I realized I had written and published 8 books in Orthopaedics. The only person who had written and published books close to this number was a Japanese author named Shinichi Kobayashi who had authored six books in 2007-08. Suddenly, I had created a world record and was awarded by the team of Guinness World Records in 2010.
The very next year, Okawa, another Japanese author broke my record by publishing 52 self-help books in a single year. I was so shocked. “How can anyone write 52 books in a year?” I wondered if I can break this record. I took it upon me and got in touch with the Guinness World Records team and told them I wanted to challenge this record. They gave me the conditions required to break the record and then gave me a go-ahead. I wrote 103 books in Orthopaedics that year. For every illness known in Orthopaedics, I had written a book. I wrote back to the authorities and told them I had broken the record and had almost got it doubled. They replied back saying that unfortunately, they had removed the book writing category from their list of Guinness World events. I had spent one entire year of my life chasing a record that had now been made obsolete. Nevertheless, I knew I had come out successful in finishing the challenge I had undertaken.
When one door closes, another opens. You went on to create a world record in Community Service!
For me, social service started because of what my mother had told me when I decided to choose this career. What she had told me in my formative years had so strongly gone into my head that I began to go around villages and talk to people about the common orthopaedic problems they faced and how they could take care of it. I used to speak with them in Kannada, their native language, which they were comfortable with. I had affiliated myself with the Rotary Club which allowed me to address people in bigger gatherings. With the help of the club, I was able to organize one of the biggest blood donation camps and a diabetes awareness camp. These too happened to become Guinness World Records. This was simply because I was addressing a huge number of people and had tied up with a social organization who could bring these many people together.
By now we know you had always done things differently, so developing the concept of Wholistic Orthopaedics was no different. Can you shed some light on the topic?
Long back I had a patient with bilateral knee arthritis and her knees needed replacement. No matter how much I tried to convince her, she refused to undergo a knee replacement. Apparently, her sister-in-law had undergone the same procedure and it had failed for her, following which she had been on a wheel chair. Having no other option, I started using Yoga along with modern orthopaedics to treat her. It worked miracles. I presented this case at a conference in U.K. and they told me that introducing a modality like Yoga into Orthopaedics was a great idea. I came back and got enrolled to S-Vyasa yoga University where I pursued a PhD in Yoga.
During this period, I conducted the biggest trial on arthritis of the knee using yoga. One of my students and I even conducted a research where we came out with a result that whenever we use yoga on fractures, the fracture heals 2-3 weeks early.
This is how I developed the concept of Wholistic Orthopaedics. It is the concept of treating a patient as a whole, not as a part. For instance, if a patient comes with the problem of the knee, we not only focus on that but on comorbidities like diabetes, hypertension, obesity, heart disease, and what are the other joints that are affected, among other things. I have 8 proformas based on international guidelines that I fill after which I come to a diagnosis.
In today’s time, most doctors prescribe an MRI as soon as a patient comes with a complain of back pain.
Is there a patient story that you would like to share where your treated with Wholistic Orthopaedics?
I treated Dr. Rajkumar - the doyen of Kannada Film Industry in 2006. He had undergone TKR surgery in Chennai where he was told that his hip and knee surgery were a failure and that he needed to undergo a revision TKR. By now he was too scared to go under the knife and refused the surgery. I was introduced to him by his son. I went to him, filled the proforma and scored the reading on an international scale. He scored 88 on a scale of 100 which meant that 88% of his joints were alright and he was confined to his bed having been said that his joints had completely waned. With Wholistic Orthopaedics he had not only gotten up from his bed but was also walking up and down the stairs. I had not given him a single tablet.
Dr. Rajkumar was abducted by Veerappan in 2000. “That Veerappan was better, he took me to the forest among the green trees, let me have fresh air and gave me decent food. These White-coat Veerappans, that’s what he called the doctors, confined me in hospitals, and gave me only medicines to eat – 17 in the morning, 17 at night”, Dr. Rajkumar told me.
How did your other ortho-colleagues react to Wholistic therapy?
Today most orthopaedicians have started accepting this therapy, but initially they were all very apprehensive. As orthopaedic surgeons, we thrive on surgeries. The wholistic treatment might cost a patient about thirty thousand rupees per month, whereas a knee replacement surgery might come at five times the cost. Basically, lesser revenue for doctors. However, in 2013, AAOS picked up all three of my research papers on yoga and acclaimed it as scientific work of high quality. According to AAOS, incorporating yoga or exercise in OA is the best treatment for a patient as per the papers published. All my colleagues were now forced to accept this as it was now part of the AAOS guidelines.
Any parting thoughts for our budding doctors and medical students?
I will repeat for everyone what my mother told me, “Do not let your success go to your head. If you let that happen, no one else will have to work hard in bringing you down as you yourself would have pressed the self-destruction button”.