Dr. Meera Khorana shares her experiences from a life devoted to helping sick and vulnerable children.
By Tom McLean
For over 20 years, Dr. Meera Khorana has looked after the most vulnerable of patients at the Queen Sirikit National Institute of Child Health. A paediatric neonatologist, Meera specialises in the care of newborn children, with the majority of her time being spent working with babies who are born prematurely. A challenging and heartbreaking job, she manages the incredible demands of her position while making exciting plans to further help the lives of premature babies and their parents.
Meera’s intensive, educational journey began in India, where she attended high school. Afterwards, she received a scholarship to attend Lady Hardinge Medical College in New Delhi. Upon graduation, she returned to Thailand, the place of her birth. “I had to do a licensing exam in Thai, which was very difficult. Then, after getting my license, I had to work for three years in order to be able to study further,” Meera recalls. It was at this point that she decided to specialise in working with children, training as a paediatric resident for three years at the Queen Sirikit National Institute of Child Health – her future work place. “Up until recently, this was the only children’s hospital in the country so I’m really fortunate to have studied and worked here,” she says.
Meera then journeyed to the United States to specialise in neonatal care. “Neonatology is a field that is incredibly rewarding,” she enthuses, “The best bit is when the babies recover. I’ve seen a 500-600 gram premature baby come back to me later, doing Tai Chi and other kids’ stuff. You actually see them growing into fully developed people and having fun in life.” Although she has to deal with a rollercoaster of emotions and high-pressure activities daily, her most cherished moments are when she witnesses premature babies with dire diagnoses bouncing back to good health. “We just work. Help. The whole team helps,” she says, “And we have them going home and coming back to you as healthy children. That is one of the most rewarding things for me.”
Meera’s dedication to healthcare is incredible, choosing to forgo private practice – and the large paycheques that come with it – to instead work at a government hospital, offering her wealth of knowledge to parents who cannot afford private healthcare. Although it’s incredibly challenging, she considers it worth it: “the pay is not much, and I still work weekends. In intensive care, I still get called every night, three times a night, for one month continuously. It’s hard work. My family and friends will be out partying while I’m working. Lots of people say that the hospital is my second home, and that’s fair enough. I’m okay with that.”
The Queen Sirikit National Institute of Child Health covers cases from all over Thailand, while also acting as a teaching institution. Meera is regularly afforded the opportunity to share her years of experience with medical students from across the country, often teaching in the wards. She and her colleagues also undertake a great deal of research themselves, constantly striving to learn and improve their work. Her diligent commitment to helping the lives of young children and their parents is remarkable and she is guided and strengthened by the myriad of success stories that she sees. On more than one occasion, she has worked with babies with extremely negative prospects, only to watch them recover, their parents elated and grateful beyond words. When asked about her most rewarding experience, however, she explains, “There have been so many instances that I can’t really pinpoint the most rewarding, especially when the parents come to you and say, ‘Our child wouldn’t be here today if you and your team hadn’t helped them.’” Highly team-oriented, Meera strongly credits and praises her teammates and colleagues in the neonatal unit for their wisdom and support. “It’s never just me,” she says, “You can never do it alone. It’s the whole team as well.”
Meera’s dedication towards saving the lives of babies, however, goes beyond the confines of her job. Looking towards the future, she has striven to create a new, donor milk bank for babies who can’t digest formula and mothers who cannot produce breast milk themselves. The lack of breast milk production is a frequent occurrence in parents of premature or sick babies, as the stress and anxiety of coping with an ill child can greatly affect the milk production process. The milk bank aims to address this ethically: “we give milk to babies in need,” Meera says, “We don’t ask for money and we can’t provide money to donors either. Basically, it’s free of charge,”
Meera is also trying to create a charity for the milk bank, with funding being used towards donor screening, storage and other essential equipment. “The World Health Organization, UNICEF– basically everyone says breast milk is the best nutrition you can give a young child,” she explains, “It decreases the infant mortality rate, the rate of childhood pneumonia, diarrhoea, asthma, and allergies. It even increases IQ.”
The donation process for the milk bank is quite simple but requires strict mental and physical screening. Tests must be taken to ensure that mothers who wish to donate have enough milk for their own child as well. Meera describes the process as similar to a blood test, with special measures put in place to monitor the health of both donors and recipients. The ideal candidates for donation are mothers who have children less than four months old, due to the increased quality of their breast milk. “We only want milk from mums who have babies less than four months old because that is the most nutritious milk for premature babies. It has more protein,” she clarifies.
Meera also offers some important advice to future mothers: “Plan ahead. Make an adequate diet. Folic acid supplementation is essential before you get pregnant. This is incredibly important. A lot of birth defects happen because of a lack of nutrition prior to pregnancy. Remember to get adequate rest and adequate exercise. Do exactly what your doctor advises.”
At the end of the day, although she gives her all to the patients of the neonatal unit, Meera is aided by an empathetic and understanding support network. Frequent chats with her friends and the love of her family keep her going through the hardest of times. She also credits meditation as an invaluable way of relieving stress and unwinding. “Even if I’m up all night, I will try to get at least 10 – 15 minutes a day of meditation,” she says, “I go on a lot of retreats. It’s important to maintain a balance in life and not just be scientific.” Despite the hardships of her career, she’s still incredibly grateful for her work and the life she’s led.
For more information about Dr. Meera’s milk bank, e-mail her at email@example.com