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'Humanity is what binds us': Neurosurgeon combines skill, compassion
The Shreveport Times
Published Sunday, May 6, 2007

Up close, personal
IF HE WERE GOING TO THE MOON, HE'D TAKE: "My wife and kids and our mothers."
IF HE COULD COULD GATHER FIVE PEOPLE IN ALL OF ETERNITY FOR DINNER, THEY WOULD BE: "My dad, William Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, Marcus Aurelius, Jesus, the mystical poet called Kabir and William Faulkner.
BEST ADVICE HIS MOTHER GAVE HIM: "'Be good.' She never gave me any bad advice."
BEHIND HIS BACK, THEY SAY: "He works too hard."
IF HE'S LEARNED ON THING IN LIFE, IT IS: "Be humble. Be kind. Be generous."
THE MOST FEARLESS THING HE'S EVER DONE: "Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and diving the Blue Hole in Belize."
THE SCARIEST: "Hiking with my wife who was six months pregnant on the cliffs of Marjorca."
LAST BOOK HE READ: "'The Road' by Cormack McCarthy."
THE THEME FOR A SPEECH HE WOULD GIVE TO A CLASS OF 18 YEAR OLDS: "Knowledge, goodness and service to others."
BIGGEST ISSUE FACING THE WORLD TODAY: "Global warming and terrorism."
HIS EPITAPH WILL READ: "He tried to see God in everyone."

"And even in our sleep
pain that cannot forget
falls drop by drop
upon the heart,
and in our despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God."

- Aeschylus

The words are a mantra by which Shreveport neurosurgeon Anil Nanda lives.

It is just one among passages by ancient and modern writers he tosses out of the air to make a point.

"If I weren't doing this, I'd be a history and literature professor," said Nanda, professor of surgery and chairman of the department of Neurosurgery at LSU Health Sciences Center, as well as chairman of the Brain Research Group.

"He is as close to a classical-educated gentleman as I have ever met as far as his breadth of knowledge of literature ... and, generally, factors outside of medicine," said colleague Dr. Don Smith, center clinical professor of neurosurgery.

But medicine is his field. Nanda is a neurosurgeon, a physician who deals with a person's diseased brain and works to make it whole again. And, he shares his expertise with other professionals here and around the world.

Nanda is considered a world expert in removal of skull base tumors and aneurysms and he directs a department that sees 2,500 cases a year. "One of the busiest in the nation. It puts us on the map academically," Nanda said.

He arrived at LSU Health Sciences Center 17 years ago, the only neurosurgeon in a department left empty when three neurosurgeons departed at once.

"That didn't seem to scare him. He was willing to take on this process. ... It took courage. He took this opportunity to develop his own department from the ground up on his own. He did it beyond my wildest expectations," said center chancellor Dr. John McDonald, who recruited Nanda.

In those 17 years, Nanda has made his mark on:

n The local hospital and community by his own reputation in the operating room and the research laboratory and starting, in 2002, a neurosurgery residency now approved for nine residents. And he has brought 100 of the top neurosurgeons from around the world here to speak.

n The national neurosurgery program. He just completed a term as president of the Southern Neurological Society and is secretary/treasurer of the Society of University Neurosurgeons meeting in London in June. Smith predicts Nanda will be president of the American Association of Neurological surgeons within the next five years.

n Neurosurgery itself. Nanda has shared his knowledge in some 30 countries, giving such speeches as "Skull Base Approach to Vascular Lesions" in Shanghai, and "Futuristic Skull Base Surgery" in Australia and Dubai. He spoke in Toronto last week and is in Prague this weekend. His biography is a half-inch thick and filled with documentation on published research, speeches, books and presentations.

n The wider community. He is on the board of the Robinson Film Center and Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities and LSUS Foundation. He and his wife, attorney Laura M. Nanda, are contributors and volunteers to nonprofit groups in a wide spectrum of endeavors.

His career

Nanda arrived here from a Fellowship in Microneurosurgery and Cranial Base Surgery at Presbyterian University Hospital, Pittsburg, the last of seven institutions where he studied.

In his field of expertise, the skull base was at one time considered inoperable and research and techniques developed here have helped make such surgeries successful, Nanda said.

He brought the high-tech gamma knife here in 2000. Called "knifeless brain surgery," the $4 million, 20-ton machine makes it possible for surgeons to operate on abnormal areas of the brain with radiation instead of scalpels. It pinpoints the problem areas exactly.

Of all the cases he has done, the most complicated and the longest? "An 18-hour operation on a 27-year-old woman to remove blood clusters in the brain. It was like a bomb in the brain," Nanda said.

The patient had been told her case was hopeless. There was a time through the mid-20th century when neurosurgery was a shot in the dark, Nanda said. "Sometimes we didn't know what we were dealing with."

But during his training both MRIs and CAT scans became commonplace diagnostic procedures.

Though today it sounds like science fiction, he thinks 50 years from now brain surgery will be much less invasive. "There may be some magnetizing agent you rub on a forehead and, boom, it (the aneurysm, the tumor) is gone. All medicine is going through less-invasive methods," he said.

He is a fine surgeon, said those who observe his work.

"He is technically very adept, which is important in neurosurgery. He is able to perform delicate manipulations of surgical procedures easily," Smith said.

McDonald agreed. "He is technically extraordinarily sound. ... Everyone who operates with him comments on how skillful he is."

And, he is very careful, added McDonald. "If he tells you you need an operation, you need it. He doesn't operate on people casually." .... There is a good deal of room for judgment at times and he tends to be very careful about it."

To chief resident Dr. Anthony Sin, Nanda is a gentle person. "He really cares about his cases. And, technically, he is as good as anybody I've seen. He is a phenomenal surgeon, especially in the decision-making process," Sin said.

"For me, he is a perfectionist with standards that are very high. He expects you to rise to his level of expectation. ... In the operating room, he doesn't throw tantrums, but gets highly upset if things don't operate smoothly," said R.N. Deborah Phillips, who has worked with him 17 years.

"He is the one we would like to do our brain surgery," Phillips said.

"I tell the residents when you open a brain to operate on an aneurysm, it is not a Democrat aneurysm or Republican, an American, a Mexican, a South American aneurysm. It is a human. Treat everybody like God's child. You have to do that," Nanda said.

His patients love him, Phillips said.

Among them: an actress' father, a governor's husband, an oil man's wife, the late Grambling Coach Eddie Robinson, but also the poor from the country and prisoners from Angola.

Charles Ford, of Pineville, is among his patients. Nanda has operated on the father of "Murphy Brown" and "Hope and Faith" star Faith Ford three times, said Ford's wife Pat.

"He is so kind and so wonderful," she said.

However, she also appreciates his candor. "He doesn't paint a rosy picture. He tells you just the way it is in a way that is honest. And it is from a standpoint you feel he knows exactly what he is talking about. He doesn't make you think he can work wonders," said Pat Ford, talking from Pineville.

When the operation was successful, he gave the complete credit to God," Faith Ford said.

Nanda is sensitive to those who are poor. He points to a square desk cube on his desk that says. "Wise men still seek him." It was a gift from a very humble and poor patient.

"That is so basic, so humbling," Nanda said.

In a wider world

"As a leader, he is basically someone who gets things done when he assumes a role ... and he is a tremendous fundraiser," said colleague Smith.

Under his presidency, the annual Southern Neurological Society meeting in Sea Island, Ga., grew from 50 to 200 because the meeting was arranged around a group of tremendous speakers, Smith said. "Entertainment was superb and he got sponsors for all of the meetings," Smith said.

To top it off, Nanda's "Dharma to Dixie" speech was the hit of the meeting that included a talk by "Rising Tide" author John M. Barry.

Nanda describes himself as "very demanding" in his quest to practice, teach and serve, a job that involves much travel.

He doesn't do it alone.

A planning session with four staffers, each of whom has specific duties they execute exquisitely, goes at a staccato - and light-hearted - rate as they discuss upcoming business trips - Prague, London, Toronto, New York - and accommodations for people coming here. In the middle of it all, he asks that flowers be ordered for a staffer's wife who has just had a baby.

"He loves what he does, he really does," said wife Laura.

With friends and family

"Life with Anil is always interesting and always fun," his wife said.

An attorney, she gave up a lucrative practice to be a stay-at-home mom. The son of a physician and a community volunteer, Nanda was born in New York and reared in India.

He learned tolerance from his father and independence at a Jesuit boarding school far from home. With caramel-hued skin, dark brown eyes and slivers of silver in jet black hair, he is handsome in an exotic manner.

And at 6 foot 3 inches, 193 pounds, he is imposing whether in an elegant suit or rust or green scrubs, one of those men who makes a grand entrance wherever he goes.

And, he is a romantic who sends Laura flowers "just because ..."

They attend their children's sports games - Alex's baseball and Chris's and Mary Catherine's soccer.

They include the three in their travels to far away places like China, but also relax at their camp on Lake Bistineau.

The five enjoy movies together and like to lunch at Jason's Deli.

Nanda starts every day early with meditation in the room reserved in their southeast Shreveport home for a Hindu temple.

He works to stay fit, running daily, lifting weights and riding a bicycle.

"I have breakfast with high protein, with cereal and fruit. Lunch is a pack of tuna or salmon - straight," he said, pulling a pack of each from a nearby drawer in his art-filled office.

"And I drink tea," he added.

Although Nanda is Hindu, he attends St. Elizabeth Ann Seaton Catholic Church with his family.

"He is very religious. He has read the Letters to Paul and unbelievable amounts on Catholicism and on faith," Laura said.

Among his good friends is Dr. Fred Lowery, pastor of First Baptist Church of Bossier City.

It is an unlikely match, this friendship between conservative Southern Baptist preacher Lowery and liberal Hindu Nanda, men born and reared in very different parts of the world.

But they meet on level ground, their commonality is prayer, a belief in miracles and family, Lowery said.

They were introduced around a hospital bed where Lowery prayed for a church staffer's wife. The patient came through the surgery when odds were against it.

"I was so impressed with his bedside manner. He was so warm and caring," Lowery said.

The two became fast pals, calling on cell phones just to chat or pray when one or the other is in a difficult situation or to run something past the other.

When their schedules allow, the two meet for lunch at the Cambridge Club where their freewheeling discussions might include business or ancient philosophy and a book exchange.

"He is a fascinating person. I learn from him every time we are together. I have tremendous respect for him," Lowery said.

"All rivers go to the same ocean," said Nanda, about religious beliefs. "True faith is the feeling of your fellow human sufferers."

Start asking Nanda about the power of the neurosurgeon, his international reputation, leadership, he answers, as is his bent, with a philosophical thought.

"Death comes on all of us and we all die alone," he said. "End of day, humanity is what binds us."

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