Transcript of the interview

Dr. AppaRao and his wife Dr. Sumathi AppaRao served Pujya Gurudev for many years and hosted him whenever he visited Michigan. They played a major role in his health care. Dr. AppaRao has served Chinmaya Mission West (CMW) in many capacities. He is also a member of the board of trustees of the Chinmaya International Foundation, Chinmaya Vishwavidyapeeth and CORD (Chinmaya Organization for Rural Development). The devoted couple have set up Chinmaya Vijaya, a beautiful and idyllic home for needy girls in Vijayawada. In this interview, they share many of their experiences during their close interaction with Pujya Gurudev through the years.

11:23 onwards

Swamini Kaivalyananda: By then his first bypass, he stayed with you for how many weeks uncle, 6 weeks?

Dr. AppaRao: More than 6 weeks.

Swamini Kaivalyananda: More than 6 weeks right, so… personally treating Gurudev as doctors, you have to share those experiences uncle.

Dr. AppaRao: It was tough, condition was tough. It was June-July of 1980 and the decision was made that Swamiji needs heart surgery. By then he had had a heart attack 10 years before that, and the heart was pumping only at 80% capacity. Means one is not functioning at that lower level but Swamiji was giving discourses actively and to submit him to surgery was a definite risk of not coming out of it successfully, but that’s selfish. And basically Swamiji made the decision himself, it’s not we that said that. We laid down the facts with Gurudev.
I told him “Swamiji, you have a problem with the heart, and the heart valve was blocked up and we need to do a by-pass and there’s a very very good chance of coming out successfully but any surgery of this sort is risky”. He thought it would be, he said “yes, yes”. He says “how long does it take”? “Swamiji if you say yes we’ll consult the surgeon, we’ll (incomprehensible word) and later a few days in the hospital, a week or so”. “And how long? When can I get back to work?” I lied, I said “maybe couple of weeks”. I knew in my own heart its going to be couple of months, not couple of weeks. He said, “what will it cost?” I said, “not much”.

Next day morning having breakfast he said “yes, lets plan”. Swamiji was staying in the basement because he could not walk up the stairs we had to walk out the basement where the car will come to the back. Then where my radiology library was, the night before Swamiji went through the angiogram books and figured out the anatomy of the blood vessels and the heart. He said “you have to show me where the blocks are”. I showed him this, this and this. “What does it do”? I said “they take the vein from the leg and they pass it back and all that”. Then he understood what exactly they do. Then I said “Swamiji we may need to send out a letter to all the devotees”. He said yes. He dictated the letter under my signature. He said “don’t mail it till after the surgery is over”.

So it was in Houston, and Dr. Cooley came and met Swamiji. It was on a Saturday. He said, “Swami, what is a good day per Hindu calendar to have surgery”. He said “Cooley, any day is a good day as long as Cooley is operating on me”. He was kind of awestruck when he said that, “how about Monday”? I said, “Cooley, any day is a good day. I’m also ready tomorrow, let’s do it right now”. But remember what I said, “as long as Cooley on him, not your sisters not your fellows”. He said, “yes Swami I understand”.

Swamini Kaivalyananda: He alone.

Dr. AppaRao: So I was told it was the first time after a long time that Cooley did the surgery completely on his own from skin to skin. Normally he does the most crucial part of the surgery where you by-pass the vessel, but in Swamiji’s case he did the whole thing from incision to the close up. As many of you have seen Swamiji’s heart, where… with the Polaroid camera that time was very popular, that Cooley himself took a Polaroid photograph of the heart, of the by-pass graft that he made of Swamiji’s heart and gave it to us as a souvenir. And that we distributed to all the people that donated the money for the heart.

It was a successful surgery and Swamiji was discharged within a week or ten days. This was in Houston. You know how active Chinmaya Mission is in Houston right now, but at the time we had trouble finding a family that will give Swamiji a decent vegetarian meal. So we had to go 60 miles out of Houston to one of the devotee’s homes who happens to be related to senior devotees of Chinmaya Mission in India. It was Dwarkanath Reddy’s family, their family was not too far from Houston so they used to bring some food. Before that there was no family that could cater to our needs.

Swamini Kaivalyananda: 60 miles just to get the food?

Dr. AppaRao: To get the vegetarian food for Swamiji when he was in Houston. Now..

Dr. Sumathi: The first year after the surgery, because nobody was there to give him any Indian vegetarian food so we gave hospital… the clear soup they start with. So he had just… my brother was there and helping him that day, so he had one tiny spoon, put it in his mouth and he just spit it so fast and he said – what was that – he said…

Dr. AppaRao: He said, “this smells like chicken broth”.

Dr. Sumathi: Chicken broth.

Dr. AppaRao: Vegetarian soup with chicken broth. There vegetarian soup also has some base.

Swamini Kaivalyananda: After that like how long was he in hospital?

Dr. AppaRao: He was in hospital for a week or ten days, then he came to Michigan and he recuperated there for two three weeks in one of the resorts in Upper Michigan. Then he came home and spent a few weeks at home. One of the things the doctor recommended was he should be walking, a part of cardiac rehab after surgery. So I used to go to work, come home by 4-5 o clock and we used to go. One day I came and…

Dr. Sumathi: From work… he used to come from work and ask…

Dr. AppaRao: Around 4:30-5 o clock “Swamiji let’s go for a walk”. “Oh, I finished my walk today” he said. I said “wow, how long did Swamiji walk?” “4-5 miles”. Then I asked my wife, “did you guys go out already?” She said no. I said, “I don’t think Swamiji went for a walk”. He said “I told you I went, I walked mentally today 5 miles. No physical walk”. He said “I finished my walk today, no more”. And again in 91 May when he was in (incomprehensible words) and that was the time we made plans to professionally video-tape the Bhagavad Gita, this was a marathon camp in Piercy, California. At that time Swamiji was in heart failure, we took him to Dr. Chatterjee in San Francisco. By then we knew that heart is not functioning very well and Dr. Chatterjee said that Swamiji is not the candidate for surgery. At the time the decision was to submit him to a second surgery to bypass the blocks. The gaps are just to manage him without surgery just with medications. Dr. Chatterjee one of the authorities in heart failure said that he’s not the candidate for surgery and we will manage him medically. And slowly deteriorated health from 91 to 93 and 93 again he had a cardiac arrest. We did try desperately to do a second bypass surgery after the heart stopped beating, again it was not successful.

Swamini Kaivalyananda: Gurudev – did you ever feel he was a superhuman?

Dr. AppaRao: Yeah absolutely, no question. Swamiji was undergoing bypass in one operation theatre in San Francis… in La Jolla, near San Diego and operating rooms were there, 7-8 of them… in the next room was an orthopaedic surgeon, an American doctor was operating and he came to this room, I was watching the surgery obviously. He said, “I feel some vibrations in the operating room, something is going on, some great Mahatma is here… and we showed him…

Swamini Kaivalyananda: He’s a Westerner?

Dr. AppaRao: Westerner, he said I can feel him in my room.

Dr. Sumathi: The next operating room he was operating on somebody else, he doesn’t even know what’s going on – Gurudev in the next room. So he just felt some vibrations it seems something…

Dr. AppaRao: Unusual, unusual and pleasant and out-of-body experience was going on…

Dr. Sumathi: So he asked the nurses “what’s going on around? I feel some vibrations here, something different than usual”. They said, “we don’t know but some Swami is getting surgery next room”.

Dr. AppaRao: And that was July 27th or 28th… and the, to have been part of Swamiji’s healthcare was a blessing and a great experience.