Dr. Pillai retires after half century in ‘the right place’

April 2, 2023

He came to Inverness for two or three years. He’s stayed for 51.

Known to a few medical colleagues, family and friends as Gopi, the man most Inverness County residents know simply as Dr. Pillai recently hung up the stethoscope after more half a century of caring for patients in Inverness.

Dr. Pillai’s family practice closed last summer, but his last day as head of surgery at Inverness Consolidated Memorial Hospital was December 21, when staff there threw him a retirement party.

“I thought I’d do a year or two, and then that year or two ended up 51 years,” he says of his decision in the early 70s to come work for Drs. Jim and Bernie MacLean.

Soon after arriving in Inverness, which at the time had two hospitals, St. Mary’s and the Memorial, he started his own practice. In the 51 years since then he’s learned time and again that he made the right choice to stay.

“The best part here is it’s just like home,” he says. “The people are so good, so nice.”

If there had been any doubt in those early years, it would certainly have been erased in 1986, when Gopi suffered a heart attack, and the people of the Inverness area stepped up to help him and his young family.

“Day and night people were in and out and they looked after everything for us,” he recalls. “It gave me the impression that I was in the right place.”

Early exposure to medicine

Gopalakrishnan Pillai was born June 2, 1938, in Kerala State, an area of southern India known for 100 per cent literacy. His father was a surgeon, and Gopi knew from an early age that he wanted to follow in his footsteps.

“I had exposure, just seeing patients coming into the hospital,” he remembers. “If it was on a weekend or something like that, they’d let me watch. So, I had the opportunity to see things, and then I was never scared or worried about anything.”

Gopi received his medical training at Mysore University, also in the south of India, in a city near where he grew up.

“When you come out of there you don’t have any specialization,” he explains. “It’s just like a family physician.”

So, he applied for a passport so that he could receive specialized training in a foreign country, and that’s when a problem all too familiar to Nova Scotians today placed a roadblock in his way.

The Indian government had imposed a moratorium on granting passports to newly-training doctors.

“They noticed that people are leaving,” he says. “They’re going away and they’re not coming back. They’re losing their doctors. Only if you’d completed 10 years of practice in India, then you can get the passport.”

Gopi had a relative who was minister of external affairs and he encouraged him to take the matter to court. So he and two of his medical colleagues challenged the moratorium and won their right to leave India in 1964.

Having made arrangements before leaving, Gopi headed for upper New York State, to Charlottesville Memorial Hospital in Johnson City.

“I was anxious to get out (of India),” he says, noting that his time in Johnson City was short-lived, as he soon learned that the Exchange Visitor visa he had received did not allow him to stay more than five years, which was not enough time to complete specialized training.

So, after just six months in the United States, he moved on to Moncton, New Brunswick, where he spent two years receiving his surgical training, before arriving in Halifax for four years of specialized training in urology. It was while he was in Halifax that he paid a couple of visits to a friend who was practicing in Inverness at the time. Eventually, he decided that Inverness offered an opportunity that appealed to him – a rural practice.

“I did the real rural practice. When you do a rural practice, you have to look after patients as much as possible, and you have to have exposure to different methods of medicine – like surgical training.”

The “real rural practice”

“I did the real rural practice,” Gopi notes. “When you do a rural practice, you have to look after patients as much as possible, and you have to have exposure to different methods of medicine – like surgical training.”

“That is the importance of doing the rural practice,” he adds. “There are no specialists here, so we have to look after them.”

Providing that total package of care meant he had to receive training in delivering babies. So, in addition to the many surgeries he performed in his half century practicing medicine, he also delivered about 1,500 babies, including at least 130 by Caesarian section.

He says he knows of at least three families for which he delivered three generations of women.

Another important element of a rural practice, he quickly realized, was making sure you had what you need to do the job, as he spent his early years as a surgeon in Inverness stocking the cupboard with the tools he needed to do various procedures.

That is a job that never ends, he notes, as he was instrumental in a community effort to bring a CT scanner to the Inverness Consolidated Memorial Hospital in 2016. CT scan images provide more-detailed information than plain x-rays, by using computer processing to create cross-sectional images of the bones, blood vessels and soft tissues.

“The CT scanner is very important for us, because we are in a rural area and we have to be able to make a much better assessment by ways of a CT, and then we can make a proper referral to see the specialist (in Antigonish or Sydney),” Gopi explains. “If they know ahead of time that the patient coming in has a certain problem, that’s what they want to know.”

What to do now?

So, what do you do when you’ve devoted 51 years of your life to your patients, and now you have to find a new path at the age of 84?

“Honestly, I don’t have a plan,” he says. “That is a problem that I have right now. I get up in the morning, same as I used to when I was working. I get up at 6:30 or 7:00 every morning. I have my tea and then of course there’s nothing to do.”

He says he always had an interest in music, but beyond mastering at an early age the mridangam, a two-headed drum that originated in southern India, he’s a bit out of his element when it comes to music.

“I talked to [noted Inverness musician] Brian Doyle,” he says. “I asked him if he could give me some lessons for the guitar, and he said, ‘yeah, no problem.’”

He laughs at the suggestion that he may soon be found on stage chording for fiddlers during community concerts. But he has, as he did in his medical career, gathered the tools of his new trade, as he has already bought two guitars.

“I bought a big one and I bought a little one, a three-quarter guitar,” he says, noting that his fingers “are pretty tiny.”

It’s a personal characteristic that served him well as a surgeon, and there’s no reason to believe it will be an impediment to his “next career” as a guitarist.

Dr. Pillai recently purchased two guitars as he plans to take up the instrument in his retirement.