Tycoons in the Making and How I Became a Doctor

Tycoons in the Making

Serene Lake Michigamme in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

In the summer of 1957 my friend Geoff and I worked as counselors at Camp Kechuwa in Michigamme, Michigan, a picturesque spot on a lake. We lived in Chicago.

Geoff was a rifle counselor, and I was a tennis counselor, well, sort of—a little problem was I was lousy at tennis. So, to avoid detection, I focused my efforts on helping the youngest boys; I was considered very dedicated. The older boys would ask me to join them for a match, and I’d say, “Sorry, I need to work with Brewer on his serve.”  I don’t think I played a game of tennis the entire summer.

Anyway, to fill the down time, Geoff and I regularly went through magazines and responded to every offer of every kind, as long as it was free. We sent off for catalogs, signed on for trial memberships, sought information about becoming a taxidermist—you name it.

One day a man appeared at the entrance to our tent—around 35, wearing a snappy dark-blue sports jacket, tie, and sharply creased tan slacks and carrying an attaché case; he introduced himself as Steve Dryer from the Northwestern School of Business. 

He clearly wasn’t too thrilled at what he saw—two 17-year-olds wearing ragged t-shirts and grubby jeans—not exactly the stuff of which corporate leaders were made. 

“Have you got a minute,” Dryer said after a pause, frowning. “I understand you’re planning on careers in business, and I want to tell you why Northwestern would be an excellent choice for your postgraduate studies.”

We stood and mumbled hello, and Dyer shook our hands, with a fleeting look of distaste. The small tent, which had wooden floors and beds, was not exactly built for entertaining visitors, so we stepped outside, the three of us now standing in the hot midday sun. Eyes squinting, Dryer grimly and half-heartedly launched into his spiel, and Geoff and I nodded occasionally to show we were listening, although we weren’t.

“Northwestern tries to develop leaders who inspire growth in people, organizations, and markets,” he said, as two boys in wet bathing suits passed by. 

Dryer’s brown hushpuppies were quickly covered in dust, and he kept wiping the perspiration off his neck and brow with a handkerchief, though never taking his jacket and tie off. 

Checking his watch, he abruptly brought things to a close, asking if we had any questions. Geoff and I looked at each other but none seemed to be forthcoming.

“Ok, then,” said Dryer, who left us with a single brochure and then disappeared, probably not to be returning to Camp Kechuwa anytime soon. Geoff and I did not attend the Northwestern School of Business, as it turned out. Nor did he become a rifle instructor; nor I, a tennis coach. And, as for how the experience made me a better and more mature person, I’ll get back to you.  


How I Became a Doctor (Part 1)

Unlike the U.S., the country of my birth, India, followed the British model and admitted 17 and 18-year-olds to four and a half years of Med School. The British Model did not make us read Great Books, focusing instead on Biochemistry, Math, Statistics and some Physics. By coincidence those who wanted to major in Engineering signed up for nearly identical classes. After “First Year” one took a highly competitive entrance exam where about 60 out of 1,200 were selected.

In the Third (Developing) World of the late 1960s there was no such thing as Vocational Guidance, although the term brings this famous Monty Python sketch to mind. Monty Python – Vocational Guidance Counsellor.  So, I was on my own when it came to making career choices.

By sheer coincidence the Faculty of Engineering had offered the new discipline of Chemical Engineering with only 30 seats and its own entrance exam. As all humans are hard wired for competition as teenagers, I took both exams and was offered a choice: Med School or Chemical Engineering.

I lived in the dorm with a good friend who—being 18–was older and more mature than I was. On his advice I started with Chemical Engineering, giving up my earlier Med School choice. To my horror, I found out that Chemical Engineering classes started at 7:30 a.m. while Pre-Med started at a more leisurely 10:30 a.m. Further, the CE School required an introductory class in Foundry where one had to complete a small project requiring hard physical effort and great manual dexterity. Both of which I sorely lacked.

By the time I realized that I had made a horrible curriculum choice and went to the Dean of Medicine, my seat had been allocated to another candidate. Not to be defeated, I gathered my courage to knock on the Vice Chancellor’s door at his home and plead my case for the reversal of my wrong and hasty decisions.

For whatever reason he gave me permission to change my major back to Med School with the admonishment “Do you know how much trouble you are causing us, young man?” So, to make the story short, I was admitted as number 121 out of 120 and had to make up six weeks’ worth of material in a short time.

Another sideline to my eventual medical career was that at this same time a nationwide joint entrance exam was offered where about 20,000 students took an exam for about 1,000 seats. I took the exam and did not get selected. But I’ve recently learned that future Nobel Laureate Venky Ramakrishnan, who attended the same University as I did, “failed” the exam as well.

My high school buddy who, like myself, was from the Indian middle class, was accepted and went on to have a successful career with Johnson and Johnson’s India division. On a side note, Nehru’s Socialist Government gave him a full scholarship not only for five years but also to study in the USA for his MBA. The only condition was that he then had to work in India for five years in the public or private sector. On a similar note of Socialist horror, Medical School was heavily subsidized with only token fees, and classes were taught by Private MDs who volunteered their time and received only token honoraria.

To prevent brain drain India had asked the US government to stop offering the visa qualifying exam in India. Thanks to democracy they could not deny us a passport, so some of us went to neighboring countries—such as Ceylon, now called Sri Lanka–to write exams.

Eventually, at request of the Indian Government, Sri Lanka stopped allowing Indian students to sign up. However, in the 1970s the package airline travel era had dawned, so I traveled to Kuala Lumpur to take the exam with the idea of becoming a psychiatrist in the USA. The discipline was nearly non-existent in India and what was available was reminiscent of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”.

In those days the exchange visitor visa was given for five years. On my way to the US Consulate one of my better-informed classmates told me that some Psychoanalysis training can take up to seven years; that was his choice for neurosurgery. In about a minute I made a change to leave my family and my country. So much for 22 years’ worth of wisdom.

This was in January of 1973. I soon received a contract for a US internship to start in July. Then, in late April, I received a letter from the US Consulate saying, “We don’t have quota numbers for you.”

I was left waiting for a year. I decided to join a local hospital Psych unit as a fresh intern, only to realize that in Psychiatry, we actually have to talk to crazy people and not just listen to the sex fantasies of beautiful women.

Cast of How I Met Your Mother

So, with this dose of reality, I decided to switch to Medicine, which for some weird reason is called Internal Medicine in USA. As I eventually liked to tell our son, “How I Met Your Mother” is another story.

{A story we hope to add to this series! We think Neil Patrick Harris would be an excellent choice to play Bharat. — Editors}


Robert Strozier’s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in numerous publications including Atlantic, Esquire, The New Times Magazine, and The NYT Book Review. He’s had plays produced in NYC, and a musical he wrote (book and lyrics) has had five concert readings.

He also helped launch five national magazines, then served as Editor-in-Chief of two and a senior editor at the others. He is still considering the idea of becoming a tennis coach.

Bharat Pathakjee MD, is a retired cardiologist who earned his initial degree in his native India and took additional training in Michigan and at the University of Louisville. 

Dr. Pathakjee enjoys reading, running, and learning history, science, and philosophy. (Well, actually, Bharat enjoys learning about anything and everything.)

5 Replies to “Tycoons in the Making and How I Became a Doctor”

  1. Great stories – I’m always fascinated how people got to be where they ended up – never boring
    Thanks!

  2. Love the insight into younger adventures of people I really like, respect and knew would succeed.
    Just how…..now I know! Thanks for great stories.

  3. Always interesting in learning how such talented and great people ended up doing what they did with their lives. and how they ended up in their various professions.

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