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Norwich anaesthetist's family escaped from Idi Amin

PUBLISHED: 17:40 21 November 2011

Anaesthetist Rita Chotai in the Music Room at the Assembly House, her favourite place in Norwich.  Photo: Bill Smith

Anaesthetist Rita Chotai in the Music Room at the Assembly House, her favourite place in Norwich. Photo: Bill Smith

Archant © 2011

Anaesthetist Rita Chotai has come a long way from her childhood in Uganda, when her family fled from dictator Idi Amin.

When Rita first came to Norwich and Norfolk, it was only supposed to be for three weeks as a locum. But she fell in love with the city and the countryside and 16 years later she is still here.

Rita is now associate specialist in anaesthetics at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital and for the past eight years she has cheerfully taken responsibility for National Anaesthesia Day, inviting schools and persuading colleagues to take part.

So successful has this “careers day” become that it has now been extended to include other specialities and already there is a waiting list for next year.

Rita’s enthusiasm for her work is so infectious that feedback from the N&N’s recent open day showed that the theatre tours, led by Rita, were the most popular activity of the whole day.

So what drives her to put so much of her own time and energy into these tours?

It is, she says, the least she can do to express her appreciation and gratitude for “such an amazing hospital”.

Rita’s optimism has its roots in a remarkable childhood that was turned upside down when she was nine years old. Growing up in Uganda, in a loving and wealthy Indian family, she led a privileged life until the military coup of 1971 led to the brutal expulsion and murder of many thousands of Ugandan Asians under Idi Amin’s dictatorship.

Her father was business manager of The People, a national newspaper in Kampala, and her mother ran a successful family-owned food packaging company before the military took power.

“At first, my father was promised that nothing would change. But Idi Amin’s murderous intentions became all too clear when he invited my father and other dignitaries – including the British and American ambassadors – to lunch, under armed guard, and proceeded to unveil a man’s head on a platter. After that we had no choice but the leave the country.

“Compared to many of our neighbours we were lucky – my father obtained official papers and used the excuse that my grandfather in India was gravely ill. But the journey to the airport was nerve wracking. We were stopped at several points along the way and witnessed people being shot dead.

“I will never forget saying goodbye to my father at Entebe airport, knowing we might never see him again, and my mother’s quiet determination to stay strong for my brother and me.

“To out relief, my father engineered an escape three months later, having dodged guards by driving through the night without lights. When we met him at Bombay airport, he was carrying our pet parrot in a cage.

“Seeing my father safe and having us all together was the happiest day of my life.”

The following months and years, spent in India and Canada, were hard. “From being an accountant in Uganda, running a factory with hundreds of workers, my mother was working on an assembly line, while my father found work as a clerk for a thoroughbred racing newspaper in Toronto. They arrived with just 20 dollars between them, relying on loans from our relatives, but within months they had paid back everything they owned and by the time he retired my father was vice-president of the entire company.

“It was tough to begin with because racism was rife – Canada had a whites-only immigration policy until 1967 – and the winters were incredibly harsh, with so much snow.”

Rita said their courage and widsom, and their belief in education, helped her to fulfil her own dreams.

She went on to study biochemistry at Toronto University and trained a clinical perfusionist (a clinical technician) before pursuing her ambition to study medicine in Britain.

“As a medical student in Leicester, I was drawn to anaesthetics because it encompassed so many disciplines – medicine, surgery, pharmacology – and I loved the fact that my training was so wide-ranging. I even learned how to deliver babies.”

In 1995 Rita came to Norwich as a locum anaesthetist and what was initially meant to be three weeks has now become 16 happy years. “It was like being part of a big family, the social life was fantastic and my colleagues went out of their way to be kind. Coupled with working in such a beautiful city, I was totally hooked.”

Now 50, she is happy to be an associate specialist anaesthetist and to encourage a new generation of visitors to discover the “huge variety of careers” available in our hospitals. Away from work she enjoys the company of friends and simple pleasures, such as walking her golden retriever and travelling, particularly to India.

Her parents now have a flat in Pune and she says seeing the poverty over there really brings it home how lucky we are in the UK.

It is a place where children scavenge for leftover droplets of milk from nearly empty bottles behind the back of a bakery, as her father found out, and a place where the same children cry with gratitude because a stranger buys them their own milk and they have never known kindness like it before.

“Looking back, I have so much to be thankful for.

“It’s pure luck that we managed to get away from Uganda when so many others did not, that we were reunited with my father and that I am here now, with our NHS and wonderful, busy hospital.

“I never take freedom for granted because to me freedom is being able to walk down the street without fear and being able to do what you love. Everything else is a bonus.”

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