Get To Know: Shekhar Kumta
Professor Shekhar Kumta, the University of Melbourne’s Academic Lead, Department of Surgery at Northern Health, is most emphatic when speaking of his patients.
When he says, “It is THEIR stories that drive me”, you know he means it. Besides being Professor of Surgery, Shekar is also a member of the Northern Health Research Executive Committee, tasked with promoting, coordinating, and supporting research activities across our health service. He is also the Chair of the 2023 Research Week Working Group.
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Q: How do you like your coffee?
I like to brew my own coffee, there is certain earthiness to the smell of good roasted coffee. Something that brings us back to nature and reminds us of our roots. It’s not the stimulation of the caffeine but the soothing aroma of the roast that makes my day. Every day a 5 am coffee is a must!
Q: Tell us about your role at Northern Health?
I hold the post of Professor and Academic Lead to the Department of Surgery. My primary role is to drive research and bring in technology and/or innovation together with some mentoring to colleagues who may be interested in research. I believe almost everyone is interested in some form of research. Research in its simplest form is nothing but a systematic way of studying and seeking answers, so that we may find explanations or work around problems.
Any good and conscientious clinician wants to provide the best care for their patients. Therefore, research is an obligatory component of good clinical service and continuous quality improvement. It does not necessarily have to be high-tech or fanciful.
However, clinicians are busy with their duties and there are few incentives to drive research and that’s where I thought I could contribute, beyond just the Department of Surgery. I am very keen to bring in novel technology to the bedside and I would like to bridge the divide between clinicians and basic science through translational research.
Q: Briefly, can you tell us of your roles and career prior to Northern Health?
I trained in Mumbai as a traumatologist. I cut my teeth on resuscitating and operating on patients with massive injuries from trucks and train accidents. It’s a ghastly experience to put together someone who has fallen off a train or been run over!
I moved to Hong Kong to join the Chinese University of Hong Kong, specifically to be with the Hand and Microvascular Department, where I learnt the skills of ‘toe to hand’ transfers from my mentor and chief, Professor P. C. Leung – one of the pioneers of microvascular reconstruction. I then transferred my reconstruction skills to Orthopaedic Oncology and that was where I also got the opportunity to indulge in cutting edge oncologic research, particularly in the molecular development of tumours and related biological signalling.
I was also the Assistant Dean of Medical Education, a role I enjoyed for 20 plus years. In addition, I was the Executive Director of the Chinese University’s Centre for Bioethics, a role that I held for two years.
These two roles were crucial, as I was also responsible for the supervision and mentoring of interns across Hong Kong.
Q: Any anecdotes you would like to share?
We often talk about the greatness and wonderous achievements of our medical colleagues – to my mind, this is a duty, one does not need glory. On the other hand, I am deeply impressed by the tenacity and the will of patients – it is their stories that drive me; their bravery and desire to survive and these two stories immediately come to mind:
- I was in Sudan on a WHO sponsored education mission when I came across a lady outside Khartoum General Hospital. She was very tall, extremely thin, carrying a child and looked really exhausted. She stopped to ask my friend, a local Sudanese doctor, where the hospital was. Her story brought tears to our eyes. She had just walked across the Chad Desert, a distance of 800 km with her four-year -old son who had epilepsy. Her journey had taken four months, and her only possessions were a pair of slippers, a tiny cloth bag and absolutely no money. All she had was her desire to see her child cured. I was humbled.
- The second story involves a palliative care surgical service I had established in Hong Kong. One day I was visited by a woman in her late 60s with a fungating wound about the size of a dinner plate over her pelvis. She had crossed the border from Shenzhen, walking 220 km. She said she needed treatment as she was kicked out of her rental housing, and no one would offer her any housing because of the smell from her wound. She had sold all of her possessions and had no more than a few hundred dollars left – but she had hope, and that was her strength. Once again, I was humbled. We were determined to get her wound healed. It took a few weeks, as we moved heaven and earth, to over-turn the usual administrative hurdles. She survived two years and every few months we would receive a letter from her. Her story and her will to survive often gets me out from my laziness.
Q: How would you describe Northern Health?
I like Northern Health, it’s a busy place, a happening place. There is a sea of activity here, a swathe of humanity and some amazing diversity and richness that makes it so human. I can sit at Henry’s Cafe and watch the world go by. Even in the few months I have been here, I have seen the activity grow – it is very impressive.
Q: What does the future hold for Northern Health in your view?
Where there are people there is a need. Where there is a need, there will be people, who will rise up to fill that need and so the cycle of life continues. It is that simple. There are many inspiring people at Northern Health – their stories are what the future is.
Q: Tell us something about you that will surprise our readers?
I am passionate about extreme sports. I used to be a free climber – till my ex-partner had a near-death fall and I moved on to another extreme sport, white-water kayaking. Then a friend got trapped in a rapid and had a cardiac arrest. We retrieved him and did an in-water CPR. He survived and I moved on to yet another water sport and became an endurance paddler, participating in long distance ocean races. That’s a continuing passion of mine.
Q: Tell us of your plans for Research Week?
As the Chair of the Research Week Working Group, I am keen to reflect the fact that research exists in many dimensions – not all research comes from the lab. Getting our allied health and digital health colleagues to present along with some of the stalwarts of new technology such as nanotechnology, will stimulate participants to understand the wider, broader implications of research. It is shaping up to be an exciting week!