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Dr. Jatin Shah: Leading the way


Dr. Jatin Shah, Chief, Head and Neck Service; Elliot W. Strong Chair in Head and Neck Oncology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, NY

He's THE BEST in his field. Has been cited in 51 magazines as "America's Top Doctor." The US News and World Report has listed him among "Top 1 % doctors" in the nation in his specialty. That's Dr.Jatin Shah for you. He's the Chief of the Head and Neck Service in the Department of Surgery, Leader of the Head and Neck Disease Management Team and holds The Elliott W. Strong Chair in Head and Neck Oncology at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, one of the leading cancer centers in the world. He is also Professor of Surgery at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University. With an illustrious career as an oncologist and a professor to his credit, this highly respected specialist epitomizes the Indian American success story. He has served as President of The New York Cancer Society, The New York Head and Neck Society, The Society of Head and Neck Surgeons, The North American Skull Base Society and the International Academy of Oral Oncology. He is Founder of The International Federation of Head and Neck Oncologic Societies and serves as its Chief Executive Officer (CEO). He also currently serves as Chairman of the AJCC task force on Head and Neck. He has served in varying capacities for The American Board of Surgery and The American College of Surgeons.


Dr.Shah with Ellis Island Medal of Honor

Awards and accolades have been a regular feature of his professional life. Dr Shah has been the recipient of honorary fellowships from The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, London and Australia. He holds Honorary Ph D degrees from Belgium and Greece. He is recipient of the Blokhin Gold medal from Russia and the "Ellis Island Medal of Honor" from the United States. He was named the Most Distinguished Physician for 2011 in the USA by the American Association of Physicians from India. He has been elected as an honorary member of several head and neck societies in Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa and Latin America. He serves on the Editorial and Review Boards of 18 scientific journals and has published over 5400 peerreviewed articles, 60 book chapters and 8 books. His textbook of Head and Neck Surgery and Oncology, now in its 4th edition has won numerous prizes for the best published book in otolaryngology- Head and Neck Surgery.

"You should have the desire to survive, compete and make it to your goal. This is a land of opportunities and there are opportunities abound, if you don't make use of it then you are the only one to blame."


Son-in-law Dan, daughter Mili, Dr. Jatin Shah and Dr. Mrs. Bharti Shah


Speaking at a world congress in Seoul, Korea, in 2010

He is a much sought after speaker who has delivered over 1000 scientific presentations including 68 eponymous lectures and keynote addresses. He has been a visiting professor in several universities in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Scotland , Sweden , Belgium , Netherlands , Germany, Italy, Spain, Poland, Czech Republic, Estonia, Russia, Ukraine, Croatia, Albania, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, India, China, Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore , Malaysia, Thailand , Indonesia , Philippines , Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, and Mexico.

In recognition of his outstanding contributions and world leadership in head and neck surgery, the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center has established The "Jatin Shah Chair in Head and Neck Surgery and Oncology", The International Federation of Head and Neck Oncologic Societies has established "The Jatin Shah Lecture" at its world congresses and the American Head and Neck Society has established the "Jatin Shah Symposium " at its annual meetings. So what went into the making of this a c c ompl i she d doctor? NRITODAY finds out in a freewheeling interview… "Nothing comes without struggle. You have to earn it, work at it. You have to seize an opportunity and put the right effort to achieve what you are looking for. And that's the fundamental characteristic of a doctor of any ethnic group from around the world trying to make it in the US. You should have the desire to survive, compete and make it. This is a land of opportunities and there are opportunities abound, if you don't make use of it then you are the only one to blame."

"The true quality of a leader is not how high he gets but how many leaders he makes. The focus should be on how do you nurture your younger ones and give them the opportunity to rise to the occasion."

Armed with a graduation degree from the Medical College of the Maharaja Sayajirao University in Baroda, India he was the last from the family to move to the US. A son of a highschool teacher, he chose to specialize in cancer as he lost his father to the dreaded disease. "My brother, an engineer and sister, a psychologist were already here. I spent a year in Philadelphia, in surgical research and cleared exams to get eligible for training in surgery."


On a boat with pet Tommy while on vacation in Maine

He applied for Junior Residency at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, the best place to learn cancer surgery, was accepted and thus got his first break. "Here I saw in reality the way American surgeons work, think and operate. I also learnt that you get rewarded for what you give and produce, there are no other criteria to excel on your chosen path. You don't need anyone to pull any strings for you," he says.

Dr.Shah put in nearly 20 hours a day of hardwork and produced and published research papers based on which he was interviewed for senior fellowship. He was selected and he continued two years of fellowship spending countless hours in the lab and library. He produced 26 research papers during his fellowship and won the award for being the most productive Fellow in training. Based on his merit he was offered full time staff member position by the then chief, who was quite impressed with him. "I was growing in the right direction but I wanted to get my board certification before taking up a staff position," he says. After receiving his board certification he received an offer from the Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai with a pay of Rs.1500 and condition that he can't have a private practice for seven years. "How would I have survived with that money in Mumbai? I made a counter offer saying I will work for free but I be allowed to do private practice. They said they can't change the rules for me. I let it pass and joined Memorial Sloan Kettering," he says.

The rest as they is history. Dr.Shah steadily climbed the career ladders joining various professional organizations, getting involved with them deeply. In 1986 he came up with the idea of having a world federation of head and neck surgeons to build bridges between experts from various parts of the word, to disseminate knowledge which would eventually benefit patients from all over. "I always believed that education has immense potential. The ripple effect of people trained well will have a much larger impact," he says.

He went ahead and singlehandedly established The International Federation of Head and Neck Oncologic Societies which now has 42 national organizations as its members and holds a world congress every four years.

India too figured in his scheme of things. It had to. "Cancer in head and neck is probably the most prevalent cancer in India compared to anywhere in the world largely due to the habit of consuming tobacco. There was this inherent urge to do something for my people and that got me working with Dr. Ashok Mehta at Tata Memorial hospital to establish the Indian Society of Head and Neck Oncology in 1985," he says.

Dr.Shah also encouraged Dr.Digpal Dharkar, who visited Memorial Sloan as an observer to develop a center of excellence in India. Dr.Dharkar though enthused with the idea was hesitant due to lack of funds. "I told him that for any good idea money should never be a constraint. It will always be available. So he took it upon himself, approached people in Indore and was able to get sufficient land. External support came in from the governments of France, Russia and Japan. Nargis Dutt Memorial Foundation also collaborated and eventually Indore Cancer Foundation was launched in 1988," he says.

Having lived a privileged life, when the time came to give it all back he decided to set up a charitable Foundation which invests in research and education. "The American culture is such that it teaches you hardwork and sharing. In India too people donate but it goes to building temples and putting up nameslabs. People don't think of investing in research which has potential to impact millions and generations to come. I have a very small family. My wife Bharti is a doctor too and my daughter Mili is an architect. One day I had a little chat with her and gave her two alternatives. I told her, your Dad has made some money in this country which you can have it all but it won't give you the opportunity to grow on your own. How about we divide my networth in half, half you can have and the rest goes to a research foundation. She readily agreed. I appointed her executive director of our foundation where she's learning the principles of philanthropy. We usually support research and educational activities. We sponsor American Head and Neck Society's annual symposium on clinical controversies where in audience learn of front line issues, where more work needs to be done."

Education has been a major focus of Dr.Shah's career. "True quality of a leader is not how high he gets but how many leaders he makes. The focus should be on how do you nurture your younger ones and give them the opportunity to rise to the occasion. Five of my former trainees have been presidents of the American Head and Neck Society. It is a matter of immense pride for me. I don't believe in spoon feeding. Create opportunities, show them the right path. Show them the first step of the ladder. If they are smart enough they will run," he says.

Ask him what's his favorite pastime and he says, "The most peaceful and relaxing time I spend is in the operating room, assisting and guiding my juniors. When you see someone emulate you the way it should be it gives you great joy. It is very important to share the philosophy, to teach them to arrive at correct diagnosis and direction of treatment." Dr.Shah is all praise for his 'karma bhoomi.' "If I have to pick a nation to live in, it would be the United States. I highly appreciate the fact that there are no other criteria for growth except your competency and talent. There is discrimination in the world but if there is least discrimination anywhere in the world it would be in the US."

Thinking out of the box has been his success mantra. "The most important thing is your resolve that you want to make a difference. There are opportunities abound, people look at it but don't see it. Many times the inbuilt attitudes do not let you rise to the occasion."

For someone who came to the US with eight dollars in pocket the journey has been fascinating. "I am happy the way life took shape. There is nothing that I would want to change. I came at an opportune time in life and career, had the desire to shoot high and was lucky to be able to put in enough effort when opportunities came along."

[ By Hiral Dholakia-Dave ]

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