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Sandeep Sainathan, MD, joins UNC Surgery as an assistant professor in the division of cardiothoracic surgery. He sat down to discuss what inspired him to become a surgeon, why he chose to focus on the heart, and what brought him to UNC Surgery.

Dr. Sainathan received his medical degree from the Bangalore Medical College in 2005 with Highest Honors. He then completed his general surgery residency training at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, followed by a cardiothoracic surgical residency at Yale School of Medicine. Dr. Sainathan received additional subspecialty training in cardiopulmonary transplantation and mechanical circulatory support at the University of Pittsburgh and congenital cardiac surgery at Northwestern University. Dr. Sainathan has published extensively early in his career and is currently the principal investigator for a multi-center study.

What inspired you to become a doctor?

Growing up, I thought of many things that I wanted to be. At one point, I wanted to be a fighter pilot. With time, I was drawn towards science. Hence, I envisioned a career in science, especially in the applied sciences, which left me deciding between engineering and medicine.

Eventually, I gravitated towards medicine because of the unique combination of it being an applied science and the ability to make a difference in the lives of people on an individual and daily basis.

What inspired you to become a surgeon?

In medical school, I was fascinated by anatomy, particularly with the three-dimensional nature of the anatomic structures, and their close inter-relationship. Surgery, to me, is the study and application of anatomy on the living. Also, I found certain aspects of surgery exciting which further drew me to the specialty such as the ability to make an immediate impact on patients’ lives, the unique opportunity to actually visualize the proposed diagnosis, the dexterity involved in executing a successful operation, and the need sometimes to make split-second lifesaving decisions.

How did you decide to pursue your current specialty? Has it met your expectations?

In medical school, I enjoyed anatomy as previously alluded and also physiology, especially cardiovascular physiology. As I progressed through my early surgical career, I had an increasing interest in cardiac surgery as it nicely combined all of my passions: that of anatomy, cardiovascular physiology, critical care, and surgery.

In cardiac surgery, one has the unique opportunity of observing the heart, both structurally and functionally, in real-time. This helps one to visualize and address the anatomic problems and the resulting secondary physiological perturbations in real-time. Many of the operations we perform in cardiac surgery have a dramatic life-altering impact from both the quality and quantity of life standpoint.

I chose to pursue a subspecialty in pediatric cardiac surgery. Years ago, children suffering from heart conditions didn’t have many options. Today, the work we do as pediatric cardiac surgeons is a life-altering experience for them and their families. They have their whole life ahead, and when you take care of a lot of these issues in an appropriate time, it gives them a lifetime. From a technical standpoint, the variety of presentation of cardiac disease in children, and thus, the ingenuity and dexterity needed to address these conditions, drew me to this specialty. It’s a privilege to take care of these children; they are fun to work with, and I have no second thoughts about the choice of my specialty.

What would you like to achieve in your specialty while you’re at UNC?

I want to make a significant impact on each of the three aspects of surgery that I focus on. The first is quality patient care. My colleagues and I provide world-class care for patients in our community. At the same time, we have comprehensive programs that we are continuing to improve that stretch beyond our community to provide the same amount of care for patients from around the country and beyond.

The second area that I want to impact is education. I want to contribute in a meaningful way to the education mission of UNC Surgery, of educating the next generation at various levels, including residents, fellows, and medical students. I am also looking forward to learning from my colleagues and the people I work with.

The third aspect is the research component. I am looking to help to push the needle forward in science, always to find better and simpler ways to do things.

What brought you to the department of surgery UNC?

UNC Surgery is a well-known department of surgery in a highly regarded public university. It has the right combination of patient care, education, and research, which I was looking for when applying for an academic position. It also has a very supportive and collegial environment.

Why did you decide to go the route of academic medicine rather than private practice?

For me, treating patients is beyond performing what you’ve been taught. It’s also trying to bring in new ideas or making improvements to surgical procedures or how we treat a patient. An academic medical institution provides a more conducive setting to accomplish those goals. Also, the educational mission of educating the next generation is also a bit easier to achieve in an academic medical center. However, I am also very respectful of private practice as the common goal of both the practices is excellent patient care, which is our primary purpose.

Is there research that you’re planning on pursuing while you’re here at UNC?

Part of my time spent at UNC will be doing research. I am looking to create a single ventricle animal model and understanding its physiology to look for options for long-term durable mechanical circulatory support.

If you could pick the brain of someone alive or dead, who would it be?

I would love the chance to speak with Clarence Walton “Walt” Lillehei. He was a pioneering cardiac surgeon from Minnesota. He passed away in 1999, but during his career, he was a pioneer in cardiac surgery. He has many of the firsts in cardiac surgery credited to him; actually, too many to enumerate here. I would like to pick his brain about all of the trials and tribulations he experienced throughout his career as he moved operations forward.

When he was pioneering the specialty and honing surgical techniques, cardiac surgery, in general, was frowned upon. The heart was found not to be amenable to surgical corrections. Early pioneers like Lillehei put their careers at risk to try to pioneer and bring the specialty to reality.

What motivates you to get out of bed in the morning?

I think the ability to touch the human heart and fix it every day. There can be no greater feeling.

What do you wish you had known when starting your medical studies?

Patience. With time I learned to have patience, especially in my early surgical career. I also learned that everything you do doesn’t need to be successful and when failure happens, as it inevitably will, from time to time, to learn from it.

What is it you wish your patients or coworkers knew about you before meeting you?

I want patients and their families to know that I am open, receptive, and respect their suggestions. I consider their medical journey as a partnership where they should have the final say with me providing expert guidance.

If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?

While it is critical to work towards a secure future, some-time should be spent living in the present.

How would you describe yourself in one word?


If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?

The ability to empathize no matter how challenging the situation is according to me truly a superpower.