Valdosta Daily Times

Local News

March 31, 2013

Birds of a Feather: Friendship endures time and distance

VALDOSTA — Everyone has childhood friends who eventually grow up and move away. Sometimes you meet again at reunions and sometimes you have chance encounters, but few have led the odyssey that two friends from Africa have experienced — an odyssey across three countries and continents for one, four for the other, with all roads leading them to meet again right here in Valdosta.

Shamb Purohit and Dr. Nitin Patel spent their early years in Nairobi, Kenya, part of a number of Indian expatriates who migrated to the former British colony in search of better opportunities for their families. Purohit’s family migrated in the late 1800s, while Patel’s grandfather was the first in his family to do so.

While Patel was born in Kenya, Purohit’s arrival there was a rocky one, as he was born aboard a ship making the crossing from India. He was premature by five weeks, and there were only his father and a medical student on board to aid his mother in the delivery.

“I am number six of seven, so my mother knew what she was doing. They had tried to get back to Kenya much earlier, but nearly all available ships had gone to the Suez Canal because of the blockade,” he said, “so I was actually born in international waters.”

Nairobi at the time, in the 1950s, was well developed as a British colony with a very diverse international population and an affluent Indian community. However, for Indians, education is more important than any other family or cultural aspect, and both were sent to India to attend school while still very young boys. They lived with extended family in the same village and attended the same schools, all the way through college.

“For our families, it was all about having a better life so they sent us back to the village they were from, Karamsab, which is in the western area of India,” said Purohit.

“It was very common for children to be sent there for their education,” said Patel. “It was important to our families that we learn about our culture from living there, not just from visits.”

While schools were strong on education, they lacked other essentials. Purohit said they sat on the floor and wrote on slates as there were no books. All instruction was in English. The two moved on through their high school years, which ended at age 16, and both applied for college and were accepted. Patel was accepted into medical school, while Purohit chose to study business and accounting.

While Patel was in school, his father moved back to India for a short time and then moved on to England as the Kenyan economy was struggling at that time. Following his graduation, he joined his family there.

“Those were his best years,” chimed in Patel’s wife, Reeta, “because that’s where he met me!”

Although this story is primarily about the two childhood friends, Reeta has a fascinating story that deserves reporting as well. She shares that although Indian, her family also left before her birth and settled in Africa, in Uganda, also a former British colony.

“After Idi Amin took over the country, he decided to expel our family. There were planes waiting at the airport to bring us to England, and we were only allowed to leave with the clothes on our backs, literally,” she said.

Dictator Idi Amin seized control in Uganda in 1971 and expelled all Asians living in the

country, with those holding British passports among the luckiest. (BBC news online has a number of stories on the topic for those who wish to learn more).

The families settled in England under different circumstances and at different times, but when Nitin met Reeta there, the rest, as they say, is history. Patel did his psychiatric residency at the same Liverpool hospital Paul McCartney was born in and decided in 1988 to move to the United States in search of further education.

“We spent several years in Baltimore, Md., where I worked at one of the top ten psychiatric institutions in the country. I wanted to learn forensic psychology, so I attended the University of Florida and then we lived in Tallahassee for two years. I had the opportunity in Valdosta to work with Behavioral Health Services so we came here in 1993,” he said.

Patel works as the medical director of BHS and also has a private practice with South Georgia Psychiatric Associates. He practiced for a time at Greenleaf as well, but no longer has the time.

“I was always very interested in how the law and psychiatry interact, which is why I went into forensic psychiatry. I work at times with the legal system, evaluating individuals to determine if they are mentally competent to stand trial. I also serve as a witness in civil cases, in insanity defenses, and in competency hearings,” he said.

“Working in Valdosta has given me the opportunity to work in both public and private health,” Patel said.

For Purohit, following his time in college, he returned to Kenya to work for several years as the chief financial officer for a large manufacturing company. He met his wife Trupti in India, and decided to get married and settle in the United States.

“The other six of my brothers and sisters were all already here, so when I had the opportunity to move to the U.S. in 1980, we came.”

He began his career with Hospital Corporation of America at its headquarters in Nashville, Tenn., and worked his way through a number of positions with the company. However, at one point during their large acquisition phase in the early 1980s, he was working for them as an internal auditor.

“In 19 months, I visited 84 cities. I was living out of a suitcase and was tired of it,” Purohit said. “Trupti said no more, so I took a job in Knoxville, Tenn., as a controller and she went to the University of Tennessee for a degree in nutrition.”

From Knoxville, they moved to Johnson City and then to Elizabethton, where they stayed for nine years. While working in Tennessee at various hospitals, his path crossed with Robert Bauer, the former CEO of Smith Northview Hospital in Valdosta.

“I worked with Robert for several years, and when he moved to Smith Hospital in Hahira, he asked me to come too.”

In 2001, Purohit came to Valdosta to take a look at the community. Bauer recruited several Indian physicians to meet with them at Charlie Trippers so they could offer Purohit some perspective on the community. One physician was Dr. Padhiar and one was Dr. Nitin Patel.

“Now, keep in mind that the last time we had seen each other was in 1980, and 21 years had passed. We were riding a bus together in India and he was moving to England then and I thought he had moved to Scotland, so he was the last person I was looking for!” said Purohit.

“It didn’t help (as he rubbed his bald head) that I looked a bit different than I had as a boy,” said Patel, smiling, “but we recognized each other and were so excited.”

“I figured if he could live in Valdosta and recommended it, then we could live here too!,” Purohit said.

He moved his family to Valdosta, where he first worked at Smith Hospital in Hahira as CFO with Bauer before they built and moved into the new facility on North Valdosta Road, Smith Northview Hospital. After South Georgia Medical Center purchased Smith Northview, Patel stayed with SGMC and is now the interim CFO for the hospital.

Moving here allowed Patel’s son and Purohit’s two daughters to grow up around each other, much as their fathers had years before in India and Africa.

The families are part of a large community of Asian and Indian families that have migrated to Valdosta. They observe Hindu festivals together, and Purohit is a Brahmin, which means he can perform Hindu religious ceremonies.

The two have an easy rapport, born of a childhood camaraderie and years spent growing up, going to school together, and playing cricket together, often in the streets outside their homes. Both speak a multitude of languages, including Swahili, the common language in Kenya, along with English, Hindu and other Indian dialects.

You never know where your life’s journey will take you, and when you will again meet someone from your past. But if you’re lucky, if you do, it will be as happy a reunion as these two men have experienced despite many years and thousands of miles of separation.

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