At 90, Dr. Hemendra Bhatnagar is living an artist’s life.
Explore This IssueAugust 2020
Since retiring from private practice in 2006 after a 45-year medical career in Waterville, Maine, Dr. Bhatnagar now spends his time painting, woodworking, and taking photos. When he’s not creating, he’s watching videos and online lectures about various topics such as astrophysics, astronomy, particle physics, food, and music. Doing so is a way to practice one of his life’s philosophies: “Learning is a lifelong vocation, and the very essence of life.”
The Origins of an Artist
Dr. Bhatnagar, who grew up in Ajmer, India, learned how to paint from an uncle he visited in the city of Udaipur one summer at age 15. “My uncle did landscapes and portraits, and he was also an accomplished photographer,” he recalled. “He did a portrait of me, my brother, and late father while we were there. He was also an avid photographer, with his own darkroom to develop pictures. It was a very educational summer vacation for me.”
Dr. Bhatnagar found it both relaxing and satisfying to take pigment to canvas, and today focuses on creating landscapes and portraits in oil.
Yet his painting interests took a backseat to medicine; he did not paint while in school or in college (though he did pencil art as a student and completed a few paintings while he was in practice). One of seven children, he graduated from high school in 1945, and from Maharaja College in Jaipur in 1949. After graduating from Sawai Man Singh Medical College in Jaipur, he decided to specialize in otolaryngology and joined the ENT department at the Victoria Hospital, where he served as the chief in 1957. Later that year, he came to the United States for additional training, completed an internship at St. John’s Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio, and joined the otolaryngology department at Boston City Hospital in Boston, Mass., in 1958. There, he worked as assistant, resident, and chief resident.
In 1961, he relocated to Waterville, where he joined the late Frederick Thayer Hill, MD, the founder and director of Thayer Hospital. Two years later, Dr. Bhatnagar opened his own office in Waterville and served as chief of otolaryngology and head and neck surgery at the Elizabeth Ann Seton Hospital and later at the Mid-Maine Medical Center in Waterville.
In 1977, Dr. Bhatnagar launched the American Association of Otolaryngologists of Indian Heritage (AAOIH), which is now known as American Otolaryngologists of Indian Heritage (AOIH). In the past, the organization hosted courses for otolaryngologists in India; today, it sponsors Indian scholars to attend American Association of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery Foundation (AAO-HNSF) meetings.
“I founded the group for social, cultural, scientific, and educational purposes, and to liaise with other medical societies,” he said.
By 1980, Dr. Bhatnagar had opened an office-based cosmetic surgery practice in Waterville, where he specialized in ear, nose, throat, allergy, and cosmetic procedures until retirement.
Family Ties and Artistic Pursuits
Dr. Bhatnagar still lives in the Waterville home he moved into in 1964. He met his wife, Catherine Carol McNulty, in Cleveland in 1957 when she was training as a physical therapist at St. John’s Hospital, and they married in 1961 in Boston. Together they had six children: daughters Sangeeta, Sarita, Sunita, and Tanuja, and sons Nishith and Nishant. McNulty passed peacefully in her sleep from apparent heart failure. Today, Dr. Bhatnagar enjoys spending time with his children, ten grandchildren, and two great grandchildren.
Doing otologic and cosmetic surgery, it was easy to use drills and chisels in bird carving. —Hemendra Bhatnagar, MD
His son-in-law Ron Norton, an economics professor at the University of Maine, recently displayed Dr. Bhatnagar’s work at an exhibit at a local restaurant. Three pieces sold—his first sales—but Dr. Bhatnagar said he isn’t interested in selling more. “This is just my hobby, which gives me satisfaction. I give paintings away to family and friends.” His latest work focuses on portraits, particularly one of a beloved pet dog (belonging to one of his daughters and son-in-law) who recently passed away.
Dr. Bhatnagar is also an accomplished woodworker, creating delicate and lifelike renditions of eagles, blue jays, and other birds perched on logs, as well as sturdy wine racks and rocking chairs. He learned from the late Robert (Bob) Davis, an accomplished woodworker in Corinna, Maine, and the father of Dr. Bhatnagar’s friend and nurse colleague, Miriam Davis. “Doing otologic and cosmetic surgery, it was easy to use drills and chisels in bird carving,” he said. “I did birds while I was still practicing, and after retirement, I did major woodwork under Bob’s direction until his death in 2013.”
Mixing the artistic and the medical is the embodiment of Dr. Bhatnagar’s ideals and appreciation of all that life can offer.
“In our life’s journey, the road is never straight,” he said. “We are thrown many a curve and acute angle. But the quest must go on. For at the end, when all the bits and pieces of our dreams and desires come together and burst into brilliant kaleidoscopic colors and forms, in fulfillment of our aspirations, actions, and accomplishments, we have a chance to say, ‘Thank you, it’s been a great ride.’”
Cheryl Alkon is a freelance medical writer based in Massachusetts.