#DefendersOfOurFreedom: Surgeon Rear Admiral Sheila Samanta Mathai, NM, VSM

Aug 25, 2021, 17:25 IST

Freedom, First
This August, the month of our 75th Independence Day, Healthntrends celebrates the Defenders of Our Freedoms, women who are at the forefront of ensuring liberty and safety on a national level. With this feature on women from across India’s armed forces – the Army, Navy and Air Force – we reiterate our respect and gratitude both for the service they offer and the inspiration they provide to women across India and the world

“We are not men or women we are all warriors...”
Surgeon Rear Admiral Sheila Samanta Mathai, NM, VSM

Woman Namy Forces
Photographs: Vinay Javkar

Surgeon Rear Admiral Sheila Samanta Mathai, NM, VSM, joined the Indian Navy in 1985 after completing her MBBS from the prestigious Armed Forces Medical College, Pune, where she was awarded the Kalinga Trophy for the Best Outgoing Student of her batch. She then did her MD in Paediatrics and DM in Neonatology from Mumbai University. She was awarded a Commonwealth Visiting Fellowship to the UK in Neonatology in 2003, and was conferred a Fellowship of the Foundation for the Advancement of International Medical Education and Research (FAIMER) in 2014. A paediatrician and neonatologist of national repute, she has set up paediatric departments in the naval hospitals in Port Blair and Goa, and neonatal intensive care units in service and cantonment hospitals in Mumbai and Pune. She has held the prestigious posts of Professor and Head of Department – Paediatrics, AFMC, Pune, Director & Dean, Institute of Naval Medicine, Mumbai, and Command Medical Officer – Eastern Naval Command Visakhapatnam. She has the distinction of having been the Commanding Officer of INHS Asvini, the premier tertiary care hospital of the Indian Navy in Mumbai, during the COVID pandemic and has steered it through this difficult time, ensuring that not a single serving personnel of the armed forces succumbed in this hospital during the pandemic. She is the senior-most serving lady officer of the Indian Navy today and currently holds the post of the Command Medical Officer, Western Naval Command. She has been awarded the Chief of Naval Staff commendation in 1993, the Vishisht Seva Medal in 2012, and the Nao Sena Medal in 2021.

Hailing from a defence background, Surgeon Rear Admiral Mathai did her schooling at Loreto School in Kolkata. Her father served in the Army Medical Corps as a reputed surgeon. Having lost both her parents early in life, she was inspired to follow in the footsteps of her late father and joined the Armed Forces Medical College in Pune to pursue a career in the armed forces and has never looked back. She is married to Surg Cmde KI Mathai, VSM (Retd), a reputed neurosurgeon working at KIMS Hospital, Kerala, who himself served for over 35 years. The couple has a daughter who has graduated from Harvard Business School.

“Work with both your head and your heart – it gives the best results.” – Surgeon Rear Admiral Sheila Samanta Mathai

Surgeon Rear Admiral Mathai is very well known in her field and has published numerous papers in her specialty in indexed medical journals. She is a popular guest faculty at conferences in her subject, a reputed medical teacher in paediatrics and neonatology, and has been examiner to a number of universities at the undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate levels. Besides having been the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Marine Medical Society, she has also published a book on paediatrics and co-edited a textbook of neonatology, both of which are popular with medical students. She has constantly mentored her younger colleagues to excel in their profession, and is known for her unique blend of professional excellence and sound administrative capabilities.

A multi-faceted personality, her other interests are writing short stories, running half-marathons, and birding. She has also participated in adventure activities such as caving and trekking.

Woman Namy Forces

Photographs: Vinay Javkar

What are the top lessons being part of the armed forces has taught you?
The top lessons that I have learned in the past 35 years in the Indian Navy are these: Never say never; anything is possible! Work with both your head and your heart – it gives the best results. In uniform, always put Service before Self, and you will never go wrong.

What is a typical day like for you?
As a senior officer working in the headquarters and head of the medical assets of the ‘Sword-Arm of the Indian Navy’, namely the Western Naval Command, I always have a full day. Ensuring that all my hospitals are running smoothly, helping my medical teams to trouble-shoot, solving problems and making decisions on various aspects of the health care of our dependent clientele are some of the important aspects that I take care of.

What makes the Navy a perfect fit for you?
The Indian Navy is ideal for someone who wants to excel in their profession yet get a chance to participate in numerous other activities as well as opportunities, for these abound in this service. I joined the armed forces to be a good doctor and serve both patients and my country, and I am proud to say that I have been able to achieve this. In addition, it has given me a chance to indulge in adventure and other outdoor activities, which I have enjoyed doing. I have also had a full family life, and both my husband and I humbly acknowledge that whatever we have managed to achieve is because of the service in which we have served. The Indian Navy is a very fair service with a gender-neutral environment and gives credit to merit. I feel, particularly as a woman, that I could not have made a better choice.

“Freedom means the opportunity to choose between right and wrong.” – Surgeon Rear Admiral Sheila Samanta Mathai

What does ‘freedom’ mean to you?
For me, freedom means the opportunity to choose between right and wrong. It gives me the choice to decide who I want to be, how I want to live my life, what example I want to set, and what legacy I want to leave behind.

Why should more women join the Navy?
The Indian Navy gives you the opportunities to bring out the best in yourself, so women should seize this opportunity!

Your message to women across the country…
When you wear the white uniform, don’t keep thinking of yourself as a woman officer (or sailor, when we start taking in women below officer rank); just think of yourself as a person who is proud to don the uniform because, in defence uniforms, we are not men or women – we are all warriors!

Also read: #DefendersOfOurFreedom: Major Smitha L