Former surgeon, who is about to celebrate his 80th birthday, personifies what it is like to be fulfilled
“I’m not scared of dying and when I go I don’t want anyone at the funeral dressed in black. It should be a celebration because I’ve had such a fortunate life ... I owe everything that’s happened to others.”
I’m not scared of dying and when I go I don’t want anyone at the funeral dressed in black. It should be a celebration because I’ve had such a fortunate life
Which, in a nutshell, sums up Ramesh Gandhi.
He is a man of great intellect and skill, who has helped countless people throughout the Fylde coast and beyond (for reasons we’ll come to in a moment) and, in 2000, won The Gazette’s Blackpool Man of the Millennium ahead of the likes of Jimmy Armfield.
Yet he displays such dignity and modesty you’d think he’d achieved nothing.
Ramesh turns 80 next month but you’d never know it. He looks years younger and acts that way too - almost as busy now as he was when working full-time.
He visits and helps at so many local organisations that when I contacted him about this interview, he said ‘of course I’ll be happy to speak - but I can’t fit you in till three weeks on Friday’.
What Ramesh is primarily known for, though, is his work in the health service.
After working at several hospitals throughout Britain, he arrived at Blackpool’s Victoria as a surgeon in 1978 and never left.
He tells tales that to him must sound mundane and everyday, but to the rest of us sound astonishing.
“I remember treating one woman quite early on, who was here on holiday from Newcastle,” he says.
“She was very overweight and she was in acute pain so I examined her and we found she had a perforated gullet. But it was a terrible rupture and her whole chest was full of food.
“It was a very bleak outlook and I told her son that I didn’t think she’d survive, maybe a five per cent chance at best and I’ll never forget what he said. He said ‘Mr Gandhi, I would like to request you try because my father is blind and my mother always told him that she would look after him and die after him’.
“I said let’s try an operation then. It started just before midnight and I worked the whole night, opened her up and cleared her whole chest. I couldn’t repair it but I put in lots of drains and tubes and a feeding tube in the duodenum.
“She was three weeks in intensive care, then another three weeks later she was well enough to go home. Her son wrote a beautiful letter of thanks.”
Ramesh worked wonders, pulled off a miracle to save another human being’s life. Yet he tells this story in a matter-of-fact way, not at all boastful - for to him it is simply what he did, day in, day out.
Although he’d never say it himself, he was better than many in his profession.
Often described as a pioneer - particularly in the field of heart surgery in which he specialised - what made him stand out is that he attempted things others wouldn’t.
“I was told surgeons should be daring. If you operate there’s a chance - so I did,” he says.
“I took on a lot of difficult cases. You have to try.”
Ramesh is the man we need to thank for the fact that the Victoria hospital still has a cardiac unit.
Twice when NHS bosses wanted to shut it, in the 80s and again in the 90s, he led a campaign to keep it open.
He was the first man to perform - medical dictionaries at the ready - coronary artery bypass grafting surgery at the Vic and the first to do left internal memory artery.
That won’t mean much to the layman, so I ask him what makes a good surgeon.
“The first thing is that God gives you some skill. The other is not minding blood - some just can’t cope with the sight of it,” he says.
“I was quite good at learning, I questioned things and I was hands-on.
“I always had good teachers too and I remember my first heart operation I opened up the patients chest, then someone else took over. Next time I’d do a little more and that’s how it went until finally I did the whole thing.”
Ramesh says he enjoyed surgery back then, in the 60s and 70s, because of the way operations were conducted.
“The heart needs to be cooled before surgery and at one stage they used to do it by lifting the entire body into an icy bath,” he explains.
“We used to work long, long hours, operate all night and grab a couple of hours sleep in a chair in a little room next to intensive care.
“I only ever went home when the patient was awake and all was well.
“Nowadays they use all sorts of drugs to cool the heart and it’s all totally different and so much quicker.”
Even after he hung up his surgical tools in 1994, he made a difference - becoming director of fundraising and raising a massive £2.36m for the Vic’s MRI Scanner Appeal.
He has also been a councillor (the first Asian elected in Wyre), deputy mayor, chairman of the Organ Donation Committee, volunteer health mentor … well, you get the idea, this is not a man who has ever enjoyed putting his feet up and relaxing.
“Being involved in so many charities and organisations is my way of relaxing - I like to help people and to get things done,” he says. Though he’s lived in England since the 60s, Ramesh was actually born in India, in Ahmedabad, where he grew up in a middle-class home to a father who was manager of three textile mills.
His mother, who raised Ramesh and his three siblings, was illiterate, though, he says, “she had so many other qualities and brought us up in a beautiful way”.
He studied hard, went to medical school, and - after being encouraged to come to England by a cousin in Doncaster - arrived with £50 in his pocket in September 1962, the same year The Beatles found fame (“I wasn’t a fan … but I grew to like them later”).
His first impressions of the UK weren’t great. “You couldn’t buy water anywhere, just Coca-Cola,” he recalls. “And there were absolutely no curry houses. I had to have fish and chips instead, which took a bit of getting used to.”
He worked in hospitals in Glasgow and Worksop, Cardiff and Lincolnshire - to name just a few - before finally settling in Blackpool, a place he has made his home for the last 37 years, along with his wife May. “I just fell in love with the area and the house in which we live (in Poulton) and never really wanted to be anywhere else,” he says.
“I don’t deny the town has its problems with alcohol and deprivation and so on but I have got to know so many people through the job I do and there are some wonderful humans about.
“Everywhere I go people say hello and I get invited to events all over.
“I’ve made some lovely friends and I am so proud of Victoria hospital.
“Blackpool has been very good to me - and life has too.
“I feel so fortunate and whenever I go, I will go a happy man.”