It’s been a daunting quest, but the determination that’s led Pradeep Merchant — the son of a humble cloth merchant from Gujarat, India — to become Site Chief of the Division of Neonatology at the Ottawa Hospital-Civic Campus has now also made him the recipient of the Order of Canada 2021.
The recognition, one of the highest civilian awards, was for his lasting contributions as a distinguished neonatologist and community leader both in Canada and in India, where Merchant’s journey begins in a fishing hamlet in Gujarat called Malwan.
When his father moved to Bombay for better prospects, a young Merchant had to get used to living huddled in a room. But it was his father’s entrepreneurial resilience that was also the driving force for Merchant, who tutored other students during his school days to pay his own fees.
Diligent and unflagging, Merchant earned his medical seat in Bombay’s Topiwala National Medical College, affiliated to the Maharastra University of Medical Sciences. By 1984, he graduated with a medical degree — and there was no looking back after that.
That same year, life presented him with new horizons when he married Anita — his “rock and guiding star,” he tells New Canadian Media — and together immigrated to Canada.
But it wasn’t easy for the Merchants at first.
At a time when many medical graduates took odd jobs, including driving taxis or running small stores, an undaunted Merchant kept walking into every hospital in the Greater Toronto Area looking for a break. His fellow aspirants had warned that he would have to wait about 10 years before he could practice in Canada.
Of course, that did not slow him down.
The Children’s Doctor
Things began to look up when he joined Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) for a neonatology fellowship in 1985. With his pleasing manners, soft smile and efficiency, he endeared himself to his patients and the staff, who lovingly called him the “Children’s Doctor.”
Unstoppable in his tracks, in 1987 he began his “core” pediatrics training at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario for three years. During this time, he learned to deal with rudimentary equipment such as mechanical ventilators, respirators, and to perform cumbersome procedures. It was also during this time that he recalls having some of his most trying cases.
Merchant recalls the case of a 24-week-old premature infant that challenged his ingenuity. Against all odds, Merchant saved the infant’s life, even managing the oxidation and nutrition intake through infusion. The baby was “grown” for a whole year at the hospital in 1989 before being released. Today, he’s a 34-year-old strapping young man whose mother keeps in touch with Merchant.
In another instance involving a brain-damaged baby who had to be transported from Kingston to Japan, Merchant helped coordinate a trans-continental journey involving three flight transfers. It was perhaps “the timely transport of a sick baby across the longest distance in the history of neonatology,” he says.
By 1994, Merchant had passed the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada examination with a specialty in Pediatrics. He then wasted no time annexing degrees, including the much prized Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Canada (FRCPC) in Neonatology that same year.
With his wife taking care of the home and children, Merchant was able to dedicate his time to his medical career and philanthropic work. Brilliant and hard-working, he was accepted into the University of Ottawa’s Department of Pediatrics as an assistant professor in 1994.
By 1997, he was promoted as Chief of the Division of Neonatology at the Ottawa Hospital–Civic Campus and as Medical Director of the Special Care Nursery – two positions he still holds.
Never a dull day
Merchant’s ability to slip out of casual attire and into scrubs to handle perilous situations on a dime requires impressive mental acuity.
For instance, there are times when a doctor has to perceive the different dynamics of a case, he explains, which may include factors such as ‘cultural chastity,’ which he describes as the “insistence on not being attended on by male doctors.” But experience has helped him gauge each situation carefully.
“When labour pains become unbearable, women who are fussy give in and any doctor then becomes acceptable,” he says.
“They just want to be released from their pain.”
On other occasions, he adds, “we have had to call the guards to keep the fathers away in certain emergencies.”
On average, Merchant says he attends to thousands of deliveries a year, though he admits he’s seen an increase of deliveries during the pandemic, especially among immigrants and refugees.
“It is a delicate matter,” he explains.
“Privacy seems to be a determining factor with refugee couples who have lived in cramped spaces and camps. Many immigrants find improved standard of living and medical facilities in Canada as encouragement for more conceptions.”
The Order of Canada 2021 is also awarded for people’s varied contributions which have “enriched the lives of others and made a difference to this country,” according to the government’s website.
Some of Merchant’s achievements include philanthropic endeavors like developing a modern Civic Campus of the Ottawa Hospital. He’s also raised nearly $1 million for the infrastructure development of the neonatal intensive care unit in Ottawa.
He was also a founding member of the Indo-Canada Ottawa Business Chamber (ICOBC), which supports and encourages people-to-people and business-to-business relationships.
His holistic approach in dealing with education, water sanitation, health, and agriculture for economic development was reflected especially in his home state of Gujarat, where in 2016 he joined forces with Canadian volunteers to adopt the village of Kalthana in Rajasthan. The idea, as he puts it, is to build “a better world, one village at a time.”
He also sits on Carleton University’s governing board and is a founding board member of its Centre for Excellence (CICE) in Science, Technology, Trade in Policy in Ottawa, where he plays a key role in student and faculty exchanges among Canadian and Indian universities.
There are no scales to measure Merchant’s ongoing dedication and tireless efforts. Indeed, the Order of Canada 2021 appears to be simply playing catch up to a doctor always running the extra mile.
Gita Abraham is a journalist of 45-year standing and has worked in national dallies and magazines in New Delhi including Hindustan Times and India Today. For 15 years she was the Feature Editor of The City TAB in Bangalore. She was also a Professor of Journalism, at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai. Treading the thin line between fact and fiction, Gita has launched her debut novel “Daughter of the Blue Hills” early this year. She and her husband are snowbirds shuffling between Chennai and Ottawa. She has two daughters and two frisky grandsons who inhabit her world.