Interview: Lael Best

“It is a great honour to be recognized by your home country”


Lael Anson Best measures his words with surgical precision

Prof Lael Anson Best was presented the 2nd INDIA EMPIRE NRI Award for Excellence in Medical Sciences by Union Minister Salman Khurshid on January 10 (see citation and awards section in the magazine). He talks about his life and times
Please tell us about your growing up years…
I was born in Bandra in what was then Bombay on August 11, 1951. My Parents Dr. E M Best was Professor of Physiology in the B J Medical College in Ahmedabad and mother Ms. Ivy Best hailed from Bandra. I was brought up in Ahmedabad and did my early schooling in St. Xavier's High School Ahmedabad. The last two years of high school I spent in the Rajkumar College in Rajkot. The years at the Rajkumar College added confidence and etiquette to my basic schooling in Ahmedabad. 
In 1969 I commenced my medical studies at the B J Medical College Ahmedabad. In the early years my father was the Dean of the B J Medical College and Civil Hospital Ahmedabad. Later he became Director of Medical Education in the state of Gujarat.

I pursued my medical studies and did very well however it was very difficult to get credit as Dad was teaching in the area since 1940.

After passing my Master in Surgery in 1977 I got married to Rebecca Abraham, daughter of the late Brig David Abraham (IA). In 1979 we immigrated to Israel and joined the Rambam Medical Center and Health Care Campus as a resident in Cardio Thoracic Surgery. Soon after qualifying, I decided to pursue a career in General Thoracic Surgery and was the first General Thoracic Surgery Fellow at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester MN in the USA. I had the opportunity to train under world's leading surgeons like W Spencer Payne, Pairolero, Trastek and Westbrook. Very soon on my return to Israel, I became Chief and Head of the Department of Thoracic Surgery (1989) at the age of 38. This was possible due to my intense surgical exposure in India, Israel and the US. In 2005 was acknowledged as Clinical Associate Professor at the Technion Faculty of Medicine and also appointed as Chief of Surgery.

BEING THE BEST: The Indian origin professor from Israel receives the Award from Union Cabinet Minister Salman Khurshid

Going to Israel or any foreign country is a very traumatic experience. You have to prove that you are better than three local persons put together

What prompted your decision to leave India for Israel?
The main reasons to leave India were multiple. First of all I always was under a very large shadow of my late father. Secondly the Jewish community was dwindling in India . Thirdly I was just 27-28 years old and felt that I need additional training. In those days I met a young surgeon by the name of Dr. Manoj Mehta who implored me to do something better for myself and attain higher goals. In those days there no further training programs available in India.

I held on to my Indian Passport for 3 years but in those days there was no dual citizenship and then had no way to return. Coming back for a visit was practically very difficult. It was not till the early 1990 that things stated to change.

Going to Israel or any foreign country is a very traumatic experience. In 1979 very little was known about India in Israel. Nothing was taken for granted, the challenges are immense and you have to prove that basically you can perform better than three local persons put together. I passed my entire exams at first attempt though they were in Hebrew. 

No doubt, Israel is a targeted nation, and working as a surgeon there is full of challenges. How has it been working in Ramban?
There was never any racial discrimination to our community in India.

Where in India are your roots?
Our children were born in Israel. We eat Indian food at home, but mildly spiced. We listen to Indian music and see Bollywood movies. Here we are Jews of Indian Origin. We hail from the Bene Israel Community. Our community comes from the villages around Mumbai on the Konkan coast. As per reports we have been around in India for about 2000 years. Our original family name is Bhastekar. 

I always make it a point to meet with teachers. My parents are buried in the New Jewish Cemetery in Ahmedabad.

You appear to be a frequent visitor to India. What kind of impressions of the country have you carried back as of late?
India has been changing recently. In 1996, I returned to India for the first time. I felt that India had regressed since I had left. Since the turn of the century, though, slowly and steadily the country has been changing for the better. The airports, shopping malls and new hospital wings as well as renovations to old buildings are stunning. The people are prosperous and living at a higher standard.

I have attended scientific meetings in India. I cherish visiting the Alma Mater where I studied and worked. I find them academically sound and well informed of all the changes occurring in the world. 

What are your expectations out of your interactions and engagement with India?
India is marching forward it has a long way to go but it is trying to progress in the right direction. Environmental hygiene is a very major problem and hope that it will be overcome. Once adequate infrastructure is placed I suppose things will change. 
We have trained a number of physicians from India in our institution and this time I met four of them. There have been major groups from the AIIMS and Ram Manohar Lohia Hospitals. They underwent training in Trauma management. 

Each time an Overseas Indian is recognized in some capacity in India, it must be motivating. Your comments on this…
It is a great honor to recognized by your home country. I was born here and educated here. Being appreciated and then returning to Ahmedabad is rewarding. As if to say, “here you see. I went out to the great world made my mark.” There was no cover of an illustrious father to help me out here. I did it on my own with the blessing of my parents and teachers.

February 2011

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