Elements of success: Dr. Saurin R. Popat
As a surgeon and specialist in clinical care for head and neck tumors and conditions requiring major reconstructive approaches, Dr. Saurin R. Popat seeks and finds ways to connect in every element of his life.
Popat earned his MD in 1992 and is now in private practice at the Delaware Medical Group and in academic practice in the department of head and neck/plastic and reconstructive surgery at Erie County Medical Center (ECMC). He is one of the few local surgeons trained to perform robot-assisted procedures on neck and throat tumors.
Popat’s family is originally from India, but, in the 1800s, they became part of a colonial-driven influx to Uganda, where they settled and thrived. His parents were both doctors; they worked and raised their family in Kampala until Idi Amin’s mass expulsion in the early seventies. They lived for a time in London, before emigrating to Canada, where Popat and his brother were raised.
The surgeon didn’t think he would follow in his parents’ footsteps: “Up until grade eleven, I did my darndest not to,” he says. “But my love for biological sciences evolved, and eventually it became a foregone conclusion.”
As a scientist, Popat, now forty-three, is deeply engaged by his field: “I chose head and neck surgery because the anatomy is fascinating.” His training includes general surgery residency at Los Angeles’ Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, an otolaryngology residency at the University of Toronto, a fellowship in head and neck surgical oncology and microvascular reconstructive surgery accredited by the American Head & Neck Society, and a fellowship in skull base surgery in Switzerland.
“In order to work in this area, you have to know a bit about neurosurgery, as well as thoracic and orthopedic medicine,” says Popat. “It’s complex. To this day, when I am removing lymph nodes or taking out a tumor and then reconstructing the tongue, the jaw, or the lining of the throat with tissues from various parts of the body, it is still amazing. Week in, week out, it’s a great thrill.”
As a care provider, Popat is committed to personal relationships with his patients and collaboration with his fellow providers. “[Patients] are experiencing profound changes. A key factor in our practice is that people deserve [communication and caring treatment]; they also need to develop trust in you,” says the doctor. “I may have to tell someone that I am going to remove their jaw, and replace it with bone from their leg. I have to let them know they’ll have a tracheotomy and a feeding tube over a ten-to-twelve hour operation. It is unthinkable unless we develop that connection.”
As thorough a businessman as he is a doctor, in 2010, Popat earned an MBA through a joint American/Canadian program administered by Cornell University and Queen’s University. “I’m interested in healthcare policy and economics, and how managerial and business issues fit in,” he says. “You know, seventeen percent of this country’s GDP is from healthcare; in Western New York, between seven and eight percent of all employed people work in private physician offices, let alone hospitals! It’s a huge economic and cultural impact.
“The MBA helped me to connect with greater insight to the economic influences. I work with the administration at the Catholic Health System and ECMC, and now I can speak ‘medicine’ and ‘business.’ I can be that interface between people of various backgrounds.”
How does he communicate complex and sometimes frightening news and information to his patients? “People are much more sophisticated in medicine than they think they are,” Popat says. “They watch medical shows, go on the Internet, read newspapers. And if someone is getting glassy-eyed, I can alter the complexity of the words, and take a step-by-step approach.”
Once he has diagnosed a patient’s condition, Popat says, he and his colleagues make sure they are well informed. “I offer patients options, and then help them choose. I tell them about others they’ll need to see, like medical oncology, radiology, cancer care coordinator, nutritionist, maybe a speech therapist or prosthetician. They don’t leave the office until they have all their appointments in line, a full comprehensive plan, a referral to the American Cancer Society, and a follow-up with me.”
Popat is passionate about his educational responsibility. “Since the advent of modern medical education in the US, the culture of physicians is that we’re here to guarantee the next generation’s quality by teaching them,” attests Popat. “We are honored and obliged by our philosophy and ethics to teach. Older medical students teach younger; I not only teach medical students and other doctors, but give lectures to a broad range of related professionals, like nurses, fellows, and speech therapists.”
To finish off his day, he says, he reconnects with his wife Katherine, a nurse and speech therapist. It is his favorite time, when they sit and quietly reflect over a cup of tea.
Describing their ritual—after their long day is over, their three kids in bed—brings a smile to his face.
Biggest personal challenge:
Keeping up with the kids—two boys and a girl, twelve, ten, and eight. Participatory activities include lacrosse, swim, golf, baseball, basketball, hockey, piano—the boys play wind instruments and, to top it all off, his daughter figure skates.
Tie between Thai and Indian.
In his spare time?
At any given time, he’s reading three books. “I will continually buy and borrow another three. Sometimes my wife says ‘Stop. Finish the one book.’”
Can’t fit into his schedule?
Hockey, although he loves it. “The challenge with men’s hockey leagues is they start really late. You get home at 1 a.m. Your adrenaline is going, and you have to get up for 5 a.m. surgery.”
Memory from early life:
In Kampala, villagers would give his parents varying forms of payment, even though the care was free. “When I was three or four I remember we always had a rooster in the back yard. They are huge and territorial.”
Jana Eisenberg writes on a variety of topics for Buffalo Spree.