The Good Doctor

Greenwich physician Sunil Rana is descended from a warrior clan that ruled Nepal with an iron fist for 101 years. “When I started reading about them, I really regretted being a Rana,” he says, resting behind his desk at 49 Lake Avenue between seeing his final patient of the day and submitting himself to the healthful torments of a personal trainer. “They were very harsh, very brutal—and very tall.” He smiles. “I’m just the opposite, of course.”

Rana is a trim, solidly built man of roughly average height—five-foot-six—dressed in a crisp blue shirt and a green polka-dot bow tie. His full dark hair has acquired some distinguished-looking iron at age fifty-seven, but his skin is extraordinarily youthful. “My wife is Korean, so we eat a lot of vegetables, and fruits are our desserts,” he says. He points to a large bottle of water on his desk. “I drink four of these a day. So, simple things. You don’t need a whole lot to maintain good health. Eating right, exercising right, sleeping well—and not getting too stressed.”

Rana’s ruling-class ancestors were famously good-looking people, with wide cheekbones, even features and fierce gazes. Their aberrant height—many were well over six feet tall in a country where five-foot-five was above average—added to their commanding air, Rana believes. “I see the pictures of my great-grandparents, my forefathers, with their crowns and big swords, and they are very tall, very handsome people.” Rana, whose father is six-four, may not share the height gene, but he does share the noble family visage, with this difference: Where the old rulers look out from photographs with cool hauteur, Sunil Rana radiates only kindness and grace.


A NEW RANA RISING

Had history zigged and not zagged, Rana would be ensconced in some Nepalese palace, never having found his soul’s true north. So let’s cast back to see what happened—all the way back to the gentle doctor’s ruthless forebear Jung Bahadur Rana. He was Nepal’s Napoleon Bonaparte, who in 1846 orchestrated a massacre at the palace armory in Kathmandu and declared himself prime minister. (An excellent shot, Bahadur himself had gunned down ministers, noblemen and chieftains; when the guns fell silent, some forty members of the palace court lay dead.)

The devious queen who promoted Bahadur’s rise, and whom Bahadur diligently flattered along the way, now found herself treated like a doormat—and so she schemed to have Bahadur assassinated at a garden party. But Nepal’s political machinations were as richly sinister as any Game of Thrones. The murder plot was betrayed, the conspirators were executed, and the queen was sent into exile (along with her king, whom history regards as cruel but weak), marking an abrupt end to Shah family rule—a rule that had founded the Kingdom of Nepal in 1768. Bahadur then took the surname Rana, an ancient Indian title denoting military glory, and Nepal’s House of Rana was born.

Bahadur left the monarchy intact while reducing the royals to figureheads. Future kings and queens lived in gilded captivity (“the splendid misery of royalty,” as one king sighed) while the eldest Bahadur males inherited the real power—the office of prime minister. At the same time, Bahadur arranged for the Ranas to marry into the Shah family, boosting the family’s social status and dampening their rivals’ will to overthrow the new order. Then the masterstroke: Bahadur deftly allied himself with the British, who would soon establish rule over India but leave Nepal happily on its own—the only independent Hindu nation on earth.

When Bahadur visited London in 1850, he was the toast of the town, a dashing man bedecked in brocade, epaulettes, pearls and plumes. Absurd legends of his physical prowess appeared in the journals of the day: “There is a tale told of Jung Bahadur’s leaping on the neck of a furious elephant, and reducing him to obedience.” Much later, back in Nepal, he hosted Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, on a hunting expedition during which Edward bagged twenty-three tigers.

For the Nepalese people, life was no better under the oppressive Ranas than it had been under the inept (and occasionally insane) Shahs. While it’s true the Ranas freed slaves and built colleges (and a great many palaces, in baroque European style), commoners existed in medieval-like poverty and were obliged to fling themselves to the dirt whenever a Rana passed by. “They were the czars of Nepal,” Sunil Rana observes. “They levied heavy taxes on people who were barely making ends meet, and enriched themselves with everything they wanted. They were not very kind.”

The Rana Dynasty persisted stolidly through secret plots and popular uprisings until 1947, when a long-brewing unrest in India resulted in the end of the British Raj. The lack of British protection, plus the fires of change newly sweeping across Nepal, imperiled the Rana Dynasty as never before, and many a sensible Rana fled to India. Among them was Sunil’s grandfather, Keshav Rana, and then-young father, Bhoopendra, who settled in the ancient state of Gwalior—which, during the Raj, remained its own kingdom ruled in alliance with the British. Keshav died soon after of cholera. “My father always called himself a self-made man,” Sunil says. Bhoopendra Rana had every reason to expect favor in Gwalior, since the queen was a distant cousin; but the king, Maharaja Jivajirao Scindia, declined to help Bhoopendra establish himself. “So he did everything on his own. He went to college by himself, worked hard by himself, and became the chief administrator at the hospital that I later studied at, Jaya Arogya Hospital in Gwalior.”

Thus Bhoopendra set a new course for his branch of the family—a karmic reversal, if you will, of the despotic Rana tradition. Sunil was born in 1958. Raised among physicians, he admired the sense of tranquility they brought to anxious patients. Once, when he was seven or eight, a physician came by to treat his mother, “and I realized that just his presence made me calm,” Rana says. “I wanted to do something like that—to bring calmness to people. That really impressed me. I told my dad I would like to be a physician when I grew up.”


WHEN SCIENCE AND SPIRITUALITY MEET

Sunil Rana’s journey as a physician carried him from Gwalior to Mumbai (formerly Bombay) to Saudi Arabia, where he met his future wife, Eun Hee, an ICU nurse with an artistic bent. From there, the Ranas made their way to New York, where Sunil studied at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency training at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center.

“I wanted to travel the globe—not stay in Gwalior,” Rana says. His wanderlust is part of a larger curiosity about life on earth and elsewhere. “I’m a science freak,” he volunteers with a grin. “I tell my kids”—sons Juho and Benjamin—“that if they want an old guy to go to Mars someday, I’ll be the first to raise my hand.” Whether or not he gets to Mars, he does intend to grow quite old. The goal is not to string as many beads on the necklace of life as possible, “but to see what’s next. What’s coming. There’s so much excitement about the universe! I remember people walking on the moon, which happened in front of me as a kid. And now we have gone way beyond that.”

It was largely his love of science that inspired his boyhood romance with America and his later wonderment at the medical innovations that sprang continually from these shores: “People across the globe still look to New York and the United States for the new things—the cutting edge of medicine.”

A well-rounded man, Rana is also a spiritual seeker. “I was born as a Hindu boy, I took Sanskrit to read the Hindu scriptures, the Bhagavad Gita and the Vedas. In Saudi Arabia I read the Koran, the holy book of Islam. Also in Saudi Arabia I met a missionary from Korea who told me about Christ, and I started to read the Bible. And so about twenty-eight years ago, I became a believer in Christ. I do believe that God has a plan and a purpose for everyone’s life, and so I do what I can with my ability. Death is inevitable. It’s for everyone. I cannot stop someone from dying if it is time, but I don’t want it to be earlier than the planned death.”

Through Harvest Time Church on King Street, Rana has made medical mission trips to Louisiana, Trinidad, Kenya, Senegal and this year, to Nepal. Here in town, Rana has earned a reputation for exquisite doctorly attentiveness: He’s often seen visiting patients at Greenwich Hospital even in his off hours. (Attentiveness and compassion are among the reasons the late Dr. Jack Prunier asked Rana to join his practice in 1998.) “I tease him that God brought him halfway around the world just for me,” says Glenn Fox, who met Rana at Harvest Time and is today both a friend and patient. “Once, when I had a procedure done, the nurse asked me, who’s your doctor. I told her and she said, ‘Dr. Rana! You’re never going to find another man like that, the way he cares for his patients. There’ll never be another doctor like that.’”

Rana modestly deflects personal credit. Any difference that people notice, he believes, might well be cultural. “It was interesting to see—Western medicine is very good, but there was something lacking that Eastern medicine had,” he says. “In India there’s a certain—how shall I say? They’re at ease. They listen to you as if you’re the only person. As if there’s nobody else waiting behind you… . Something makes people work differently here.”

Rana pauses, trying to work it out. “Time,” he says finally. “That’s the thing I saw lacking here. Maybe it’s because of the way insurance companies work, or the pressure physicians have these days to generate revenue. But I think time is shortened here, so you start to interrupt your patient. Instead of letting them tell the story—which is the most important part—you steer the way, and you reach a conclusion because you’re steering it there. You can only be a good clinician if you listen carefully. That’s what my professors taught me in India: ‘Your patient will give you the diagnosis. You just need to listen.’”

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that two of America’s most thoughtful physician-writers, Atul Gawande (Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End) and Abraham Verghese (Cutting for Stone), were born to Indian parents. The writing of Verghese, who completed his medical training in Madras, has focused on preserving the empathy that brings young men and women to the medical field in the first place, but which rigorous training often grinds down. He has said, “This profession is a ministry of healing, it is a calling, and that sense has become greatly threatened.”

Rana combines Eastern élan and Western innovation to give his patients optimal care. But there’s nothing he can do about our system. He is troubled especially by a growing inequality in patient care. “You know, we have such a big discrepancy between people who can afford and can’t afford medical care. It’s getting so polarized.” He looks momentarily somber. “I have patients who are making a living, they live in Greenwich, they have a big house, but they don’t have the cash flow to buy the insurance they need. It’s sad. I see them, we give what we can. Even ObamaCare is expensive for them.

“I’m not an economist or a politician, so I can’t really say how we should change the whole system. But if I could, I would love for everyone to have an equal opportunity to see a physician. Which I think Mr. Obama was trying to do. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out the way it could have. But the vision was good; I agree with the vision 100 percent.”


A HEALING JOURNEY

In 1951 in Nepal, the Rana Dynasty came to an end and the Shahs were restored to the throne—an arrangement brokered by Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru that probably averted a Nepalese civil war. Accompanying the restoration were democratic reforms, such as an elected congress and prime minister. The mysterious country then cracked open slightly, and Westerners got glimpses of it through Edmund Hillary’s ascent of Mount Everest in 1953 (the Nepalese route had been closed before then; most previous attempts had been made from Tibet), and later through accounts of the “Hippie Trail” that sent beatniks and hippies to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, in search of hashish and mind expansion.

The Rana family retained its high stature, partly because some Ranas were royalists who now served as government ministers. But the fresh shoots of hope that came with the Shahs’ restoration were short-lived. In the early sixties King Mahendra, who had little patience for democracy, seized absolute power, arresting the cabinet, banning all political parties, and rewriting the constitution. His successor, the Eton-educated King Birendra, began in similar strong-arm mode, but he softened dramatically as time went on. In 1990 he acceded to the will of his people (and to international pressure) and reestablished a democracy, thereby winning, at long last, widespread affection. In Nepal, however, a tragic turn always awaits: On June 1, 2001, Crown Prince Dipendra slaughtered his parents—King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya, a Rana—and much of the rest of the royal family. Then he turned his gun on himself.

Civil unrest escalated wearyingly in the twenty-first century. But in 2008 the monarchy was abolished for good, and a truer, more fully representative democracy established. If Nepal remained among the poorest countries in the world, at least it had a renewed sense of optimism.

Once again it did not last. On April 25, 2015, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake convulsed Nepal, killing nearly 9,000 and injuring 22,000 more. (Among the dead were twenty-one climbers on Everest, swept away in an avalanche.) Deadly aftershocks continued for weeks. Temples that had stood for centuries crumbled. Villages fell to rubble and dust. Nearly 650,000 families were displaced.

The Red Cross, militaries and other official rescue groups scrambled to save the injured and house the homeless but, with the airport overburdened and the infrastructure broken, missionaries had to wait their turn. A year later Nepal still lay in ruins. It was a land in need of healing, and in June, through Harvest Time Church, Sunil Rana went to do his part. In towns and villages, in blistering heat and in torrential rain, he traveled about, conducting medical clinics, treating hundreds of injured and sick. “It’s so devastating to see these people,” Rana says. “I met like seventy- or eighty-year-old ladies who were pulled out of the earthquake. They’d been in debris for a day or two.”

In Nepal, the Rana name, like Romanov in Russia, has long stirred admiration in some and loathing in others; but it also inspires a kind of historical awe. “The older generation, they knew the history, but they still were very respectful to me when they heard my name,” he says. “I just loved them as my brothers.”

What meaning does Nepal hold for Sunil Rana? When visiting the country in his youth, he felt the traveler’s enchantment but not the call of ancestral blood. This time was different. “It was a very emotional journey for me somehow,” he says. “Every day I cried. Maybe because I’m getting older I understand things better. I hugged everyone, I cried with everyone. I preached in two churches. I took the sand in my hand and I said to them, ‘I am a Rana, my name is Sunil Rana, I was born in India, I live in America—but my soul and spirit is from this place.’”

 

 

share this story

© Moffly Media, 2008-2022. All rights reserved. Website by Web Publisher PRO