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Indian-born US surgeon still remembers his roots

Chief surgeon at a top New York hospital, S Ravikumar, returns every year to train Indian doctors in latest methods of cancer surgery.

india Updated: Jan 07, 2004 13:05 IST

Perhaps it was his father's death from cancer that propelled him towards oncology. Today Indian American surgeon Thanjavur S Ravikumar is in charge of over 65 full-time and part-time surgeons at an American hospital.

He is professor and university chairman, Department of Surgery, at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and surgeon-in-chief at its affiliated hospital, the Montefiore Medical Centre.

"As you know, cancer is not one disease, it is a collection of diseases," he said.

And so we have to find the cause of each cancer. Right now we still don't have all the cures, but it is manageable. For instance, 80 per cent of breast cancers are curable. But we need another decade or two to understand and unravel the genome structure. We need to understand how genes react with other genes."

When not busy with his administrative duties, he specialises in cancer surgery, particularly liver cancer surgery.

In the mid-1980s, he pioneered and popularised image-guided liver surgery techniques, using ultra-sound as a tool, techniques that are now widely used by other doctors.

His latest project is a free-standing institute for minimally invasive surgery, "the only one of its kind in the city", he says.

"We deal with holistic treatment for healthful living, with nutritional programmes, weight reduction techniques, cosmetic and plastic surgery, psycho-social treatment, occupational therapy and even yoga and exercise programmes, when necessary," he says.

Today Ravikumar is at the top of his profession with patient care, teaching, research and administrative duties taking up more of his time than a 24-hour day will allow.

He still remembers the time when he first came to the United States, after a brilliant scholastic career in Chennai, and had to start all over again as a resident at the Maimonides Medical Centre in Brooklyn.

From there, he went on to become a fellow in surgical oncology at the University of Minnesota Hospital in Minneapolis. His career took him to the Harvard Medical School, the Yale University School of Medicine, the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey, and now back to New York at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Along the way, he has collected innumerable medals and awards and published widely. He goes back every year to teach and train Indian doctors in the latest techniques and methods of surgical oncology.

"I always wanted to be a doctor, though my family's background is mainly in business," he recalls. And right from his school days in Thanjavur, he knew he wanted to be a surgeon.

"Perhaps it was my father's death from pancreatic cancer that subconsciously propelled me to oncology," he says.

He also oversees academic activities at the Weiler Hospital in the Bronx, the Jacobi Medical Centre and three other hospitals affiliated with Montefiore.

Montefiore is one of New York City's great hospitals and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine is one of the most high-powered medical schools in the country.

The American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPI), which recently celebrated its 21st anniversary, has over 35,000 members - a good proportion of them in New York City.

Throughout his career Ravikumar has prided himself on never turning away a patient, whether he or she can pay or not. "It's exciting when you take on a difficult case," he says.

He says the healthcare bureaucracy in the US is the largest and most complicated in the world, with doctors spending precious time filling insurance claims forms when they could be treating patients.

First Published: Jan 07, 2004 10:37 IST