Dr. Rahul Kalia

Medical Director - India, International SOS

Hitting the wall to break it down...!
by Sunayana Nair
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Dr. Rahul Kalia, Medical Director, India at International SOS is many at once – a son, a husband, a father to a 13-year-old boy and a 7-year old girl, a weekend physician for the charitable cases he takes up, a cyclist, an innate mechanic who builds his own bikes for the races he participates in, a triathlete, a footballer, a certified Krav Maga practitioner and a Muay Thai enthusiast, whilst a leader at work striving hard to help organizations realize their wellness goals. However, if one were to zero in on just a word which would describe him to the ‘T’, it would be, by his own admission – stubborn. His story of growing up as a shy, ‘lazy’ boy into becoming a dynamic, resilient, gritty leader within an unorthodox calling, who thrives consistently on ‘hitting a wall to break it down’, deserves a mention. Not only since it has not been spoken about much, but, because it resonates with a sincerity and rawness that forges an instant connect. Especially, since it is constantly unravelled through striking moments of being at the crossroads across various junctures of life, where all one has is the self-belief to make tough decisions and the stubbornness of doing it to the best of one’s ability.

“Every change of habit needs a right environment.”

Rahul grew up under the buzzing skyline of Mumbai in a middleclass Punjabi family raised by a father, who was more like a friend, and a larger-than-life mother who lovingly indulged her young lad’s aversion to waking up early morning. Unsurprisingly, his family remains his biggest strength and influence. His decision to become a physician was largely influenced observing his studious elder sister, Archana study medicine. As a sixteen-year-old, he devoured her books on the human anatomy and resolved silently to delve into it when his chance came.

“My parents were never prescriptive and always encouraged my sister and me to choose what we wanted to pursue. Even when it was about dedicating time towards football in school or eventually choosing studies over competitive football, the decision was mine.”

But when life presented itself, it wasn’t as straightforward a journey as anticipated. A delay in the medical entrance test results had him secure a mechanical engineering seat in a reputed college. So, when his doting father excitedly went to his engineering college, well into his first semester, to deliver the news to him personally that he had secured that coveted medical seat, the decision whilst tough was not difficult. Even though he had an innate love for understanding how everything worked, even assembling his own motorbikes, he was most intrigued by the human body as a machine than any other, to devote his life studying it. His family was never ‘prescriptive’ and let him make his choices uninhibitedly – a freedom that helped him carve a path for himself with much confidence and one that he is indebted to them for.

“The choice wasn’t very difficult. While I loved mechanics, subconsciously, I was always intrigued by the human body more than a machine and I am glad I took that decision.”

And while he plunged into the world of medicine and understood both the marvellous fragility and tenacity of human life, it did not take him long enough as an intern to be certain that he wasn’t going to be content practicing medicine within the dynamics present then. Even though he nurtured the ambition to study abroad to become a neurosurgeon, the prevailing circumstances of the family did not permit him to do so. This was when he embarked into the then relatively unorthodox pre-hospital care domain. He soon realised that it perfectly complemented his desire to ‘influence larger numbers that comes through policy level change’.

“What I find most gratifying is to be in a role wherein a few critical decisions can positively impact so many lives.”

Dr. Rahul Kalia - formal

At an event

Setting up and leading emergency health care units in places far flung and mostly inaccessible in a country like India can’t be a joyride. It is fraught with innumerable challenges but it was that which got him hooked to rehaul the approach in prehospital care. The fulfilment from saving lives in the nick of time, fighting all odds, was a reward most invaluable to Rahul. His most challenging task was when he once saved the life of the captain of one of the drilling vessels in the middle of the sea, 100 nautical miles away from the shore. The captain had suffered a heart attack and his cardiac function was rapidly deteriorating when Rahul stepped in and attempted to stabilise him. It took the team 6-7 hours to reach the remote location and admit him to a hospital. Another very rewarding experience for Rahul was when recently, within first three months of its launch, the medical services team of International SOS in Hyderabad saved four lives including that of a young recently married man who suffered a heart attack.

“As a trained physician, the learning curve was not very challenging. It helped me connect with my body, heed to the signs. I knew what not to do if at least I didn’t know what to do!”

Dr. Rahul Kalia at an event

Speaking at an event

Needless to mention, his understanding of the human body had an enormous impact on his lifestyle and achievements. Rahul recently completed his Ironman 70.3 (considered to be the ultimate triathlon event) within six hours in June amongst the pristine surroundings of Zurich lake, Switzerland, with his family cheering him on. Even though Rahul has always been a lover of the outdoors, even as a child, the stubbornness to achieve set in much later. Lazy to get out of the bed, he had a perfect partner-in-crime in his mother who would play along the sudden bouts of tummy aches he would complain of in the morning – a pretext to miss school and go back to sleep. It wasn’t until he underwent a major life lesson as a fifth grader when he learnt to become accountable and responsible towards himself.

“The conversation switched on a sense of responsibility and was a major turning point of my life. My father’s advice of just doing my best, being really present, stayed on with me.”

Dr. Rahul Kalia with a colleague

With a colleague

As life teaches us, some of the most profound life altering moves, begin with seemingly simple occurrences. Incidences which have the biggest impact over us and more often than not, it occurs during our childhood. For Rahul, it all began with a conversation he had with his father at the end of an open house session in school, when both were walking towards home. Rahul had failed a paper for the first time and even as he was bracing himself for a show down, he was thrown off guard with the poise, calmness and understanding his father approached the situation who only wanted to know if Rahul had put in his 100% efforts. Thereafter, he always scored a distinction and above to eventually secure a seat in one of the top medical colleges in Mumbai. But, above all, it taught him the importance of giving it the best he can when in the moment – which went on to become his core life motto.

“Football changed my personality. It was like a switch waiting to be toggled on.. I discovered I could run and learned not to give up.”

And even as he went on to climb peak after peak in his professional life from a consultant in prehospital care to leading the Indian vertical of the topmost global providers in the domain, it was the football goalpost that had enabled the shy teen to break away from self-limiting beliefs, reclaim his identity and seek the best out of him. Rahul had discovered football when he changed his school in the ninth grade and the principal as he fondly recalls, played a major role in drawing out the shy teen – anxious about being surrounded by fluently-English speaking boys who were much driven — and instilling some discipline into him. Football made him discover he could run and it made him soon want to jump out of his bed for his early morning practice sessions. It was from there that his journey into discovering and pushing the endurance limits of his body and thereafter his mind, commenced.

“My fascination with sports had much to do with the people and friends I hung out with. My family with their support only fuelled my drive especially in my formative years.”

Dr. Rahul Kalia running a marathon

At the Half Ironman Event

It is this drive to push the mental, physical limits within that led him to imbibe martial arts like a duck takes to water. It began as a fascination with watching Jackie Chan movies, jumping on beds with cousins and amusing summer camps. A much rigorous association commenced only much later when Rahul discovered Muay Thai (a ruthless combat sport much like kickboxing known for the gruelling eight points of limb contact), with a close friend who had begun practicing it from a fitness perspective. It made him aware of the existence of various muscles in his body, screaming its protests through the intensive practice sessions. Unfortunately, with Rahul’s temporary shift to Delhi and without any known avenues of Muay Thai around, Rahul had to end his tryst with the combat sport. But, not without having discovered his next love – Krav Maga.

“The best fight is the one that is avoided. The more you learn Krav Maga - how much damage you can actually cause someone - you are less likely to hurt someone else. It gives you extra confidence and also responsibility. It helped me calm down immensely.”

With his training in Muay Thai, Rahul had believed he had conquered it all until a day when he was challenged by one of his friends trained in Krav Maga – an Israeli military self-defence technique. Rahul was humbled after a strenuous duel and it was then that he began practicing Krav Maga which opened a new world for him. Krav Maga borrows itself from various martial arts and it is extremely strenuous and once again revealed to Rahul a dimension of himself he had not experienced before – of mastering one’s mind. The intense training led him to get a command over his mind at an entirely different level. It calmed him down and Rahul soon noticed the change in himself. He became a Krav Maga level 2 instructor and began teaching it to adults and also did a kids-instructor course to teach to children, starting with his own. As luck would have it, it was his move back to Mumbai with International SOS in 2014 that once again changed his direction. Even as he grappled with his busy schedule to take time to teach to kids, the newfound responsibilities and hectic traveling made it difficult to devote as much time to it.

“Starting something different is always challenging. One has to go through the stages of pre-contemplation, contemplation, getting into the change and then there is always a relapse. The key to sustain the change means to keep the relapse stage shorter.”

It was at this juncture when he rediscovered his cycling bike, idle since years. As expected, the initial few kilometres were difficult to clock but Rahul decided to see where this could lead him. He set a target of working on his cycling goals while the monsoon lasted, promising himself a brand-new bike if he managed to pull it through the season and complete 1500 km. Sure enough, he did so and gifted himself a well-earned, brand new bike in November. And thus, began an obsession he can’t do without now. Rahul typically rides through Mumbai roads every alternate day at 5 a.m. His most gratifying experience yet was doing the Tour of the Nilgiris last year – a 9 day cycling tour through the scenic hills of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Mysore. A 11-km steep ascent with 36 hairpin bends had Rahul fighting himself to complete the trail – which he did so in 1.5 hours, pacing himself, getting off walking when required. But he has now set a target of completing the same in an hour.

“Cycling is meditation for me. I can go on for over 5 hours alone on the road with my machine.. It is the endurance element that is key more than just the strength of your legs.”

With his love for cycling, him graduating into triathlons might not be very surprising. But Rahul was not a very keen runner and found it boring. His swimming too was quite average. His first triathlon in Thane in the year 2016, had him gasping for breath in the 250-metre swim. But at the end he was hooked enough to sign up for the next triathlon three months later where he featured on the leader’s board! Around this time, he bumped into an old friend from his cricket team, Dr. Alpesh who was an Ironman certified coach by then. Alpesh began coaching Rahul for his Ironman journey. The training, which Rahul admits is always the toughest part, helped ‘put a method to the madness’, increased Rahul’s stamina and refined his technique in a stepwise approach which gave him the confidence to attempt the Olympic triathlon in 2017 and 2018 in Goa. He bettered his time by 15 minutes finishing it in 2 hours 45 minutes which gave him enough confidence to complete the Half Ironman this year. Apart from the Tour of Nilgiris, Rahul also aims to complete the full Ironman in 2020 after another attempt at Ironman 70.3 in 2019.

“Body is the mind’s slave. Pain is a perception. If you convince yourself there is no pain, you can choose not to feel pain.”

Competing in a triathlon requires one to ‘go through the eye of the needle’. Rahul believes in pushing himself the most, the days when he feels like not doing something. The biggest sacrifice he shares, is having to give up on his sleep (which is not healthy he admits). But to him, it is his family that pays a bigger price of not being able to see him around as much as they would want to. The ardent commitment towards oneself, however, has found followers closer home. His son is already getting into competitive swimming, teaching his father techniques. His seven-year-old daughter is a state-level skater and for now also holds the key for his definition of success, which is remarkably simple – being able to carry his sleeping daughter up the 11 floors of his building to put her to bed soundly and not feel tired.

“Endurance sports have taught me that the only competition is yourself. In terms of my potential, the well is deeper than I thought. There is so much more to tap.”

He must know how precious that sleep is, cherished as it was when he was a child until he awoke, with dreams in his eyes – some of a distant peak to conquer on his bike, some yet of making split-second decisions to save a life, and others still of claiming that prestigious title in an endurance sport while getting some time to play football with his friends and children alike – dreams that don’t let him sleep anymore. What is constant is the stubborn glint in his eye, the belief of making the most of life with whatever it throws at you, beyond that unforeseeable hairpin bend..


Favourite colour


Colour that complements personality

Red. All racing equipment, gears are red

Favourite martial arts between Muay Thai and Krav Maga

Krav Maga. It has no rules and is more like yoga – a way of life

One thing you carry with yourself

Passion and Intent

Favourite holiday destination


Memorable traveling incident

The time spent with family in every car journey

Life lesson

You are not big enough to be alone of others. Co-exist, influence each other!

Greatest Fear

Not being myself. Not doing my best. Failing on my expectations.

Recommended Book

Born To Run by Cristopher McDougall

A bitter pill you wouldn’t mind giving your loved ones

Change in attitude to be able to change the lifestyle. To develop a preventative mindset than reactive.

Ritual before a race

Eat three hours before a race, which is typically very early mornings when body doesn’t want to eat

You have participated in Devil’s circuit. If you had to design a God’s circuit what would it be

Would devise a racing circuit where near and dear ones would really have to move

Rahul is..


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