Welcome to ENTtoday’s inaugural edition of “The Voice,” a column that will feature interviews by Sarah K. Rapoport, MD, of surgeons, researchers, and other readers to highlight human stories that represent who we are holistically. Each of us has personalized narratives of our personal and professional journeys, triumphs, and tribulations and, collectively, these stories have influenced and enriched others in our otolaryngology community and beyond. Many of our stories are untold, as most of us know one another by our “accomplishments” and become known for our “expertise” in various subspecialties.
Explore This IssueDecember 2019
Alex Chiu and I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Rapoport recently at the AAO–HNS annual meeting in New Orleans. We were quite impressed by Sarah, whose vision for this column was inspired by the “Corner Office” in The New York Times. Each edition of “The Voice” will present human stories through short, documented interviews in each subject’s own voice. We hope this column will entertain and inspire you. Please provide us with your feedback and suggestions for colleagues whom you would like Sarah to interview, and let us know if you would like to share your own story. Send suggestions and comments to email@example.com.
Julie Wei, MD
Associate Editor, ENTtoday
Meet Ashok R. Shaha, MD. Born in 1948 in Bastawade, Maharashtra, India—a town south of Mumbai—Dr. Shaha currently holds the Jatin P. Shah Chair in Head and Neck Surgery at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York City, and is one of the world’s most respected head and neck oncology and endocrine surgeons.
After graduating from the Maharaja Sayajirao University Medical School in the city of Vadodara, India, Dr. Shaha completed a general surgery residency and a surgical oncology fellowship in Mumbai. When he came to the United States in 1975, at age 27, with $8 in his pocket, he was required to repeat his entire residency from the PGY1 level forward.
Decades later, as an attending surgeon with a magnetic and animated personality, Dr. Shaha laughs as he admits that, even half a lifetime later, he still recalls the agonies of the long days in his residency retraining in the United States. By that time, he had a young son and a wife who had also emigrated from India and was herself training as a pediatrician.
Yet, Dr. Shaha has never lost sight of his humble upbringing. In everything he does, he carries with him the nonviolent values of the Jain religion, in which he was steeped from childhood. Said Dr. Shaha: “My culture taught me not to put anyone down—the janitor, the OR nurses, the residents, and students—you must remember that every person around you comprises your team.”
Dr. Shaha is certain that his positive attitude, as well as the steadfast support of his extended family, sustained him through those years. “I would tell myself, ‘If you’re honest and you work hard, nobody can hold you back.’”
This interview, condensed and edited for clarity, was conducted via phone in September 2019.
Dr. Rapoport: What was your childhood like?
Dr. Shaha: I was born into a very modest family. I lost my mother when I was very young. I have no memory of her. My father was a small shopkeeper who raised me along with my three elder brothers. My eldest brother was a professor in economics and he pushed us all to work hard and pursue careers. My second brother was a college principal and the third is a most successful lawyer. My eldest brother’s wish was for me to become a doctor because there were no physicians in my family. Since we lived a life of very modest means, our expenditures were reserved for what was most essential: our education. It was the most important thing in life to us. Only one of my brothers is still alive—the other two we lost—and their five children are doctors, so now everyone in the family is interested in going into medicine!
SR: Was it hard to attend medical school so far from your family?
AS: Yes. Mainly, it was difficult trying to meet the finances. I was admitted to medical school based on merit, and I received some scholarships that were quite helpful, but my brothers went out of their way to support me financially.
My school was located 400 miles north of where I grew up, so I had to move from one state to another, to a place called Baroda, which was north of Mumbai. It was a highly educational town, and I would say, from my class, about 75% of the graduates are now in the United States. Watching so many others emigrate for the hope of a better future provided me with the optimistic mentality of “If he can do it, I can do it!”
SR: Can you tell us the story of that first trip from India to New York City?
AS: Believe it or not, I left India with only $8 in my pocket because that was the largest amount I could take out from the Reserve Bank of India. So, I landed in New York City without enough money even for a taxi. And since I did not want the cost of my trip to be taxing on my family or my brothers, I flew on TWA using a scheme they called, “Fly Now, Pay Later.” So, I flew to the United States without paying for my ticket. Obviously, after I came here, I eventually paid off the cost with interest, but it was quite daunting to travel from India to the United States not having a job in hand, not knowing with whom I was going to stay. But friends who had come to America ahead of me were very helpful. Dr. Jatin Shah helped me throughout my academic career.