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YO Spotlight: Christopher Thiagarajah

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For this issue of YO Info, Leslie Jones, MD, nominated a very driven and enthusiastic fellow by the name of Christopher Thiagarajah, MD. Dr. Thiagarajah graduated from New York University and received his medical degree from and did his residency at Howard University. He completed his first fellowship in neuro-ophthalmology at the University of Cincinnati with Karl Golnick, MD, and is currently working on fellowship in ophthalmic plastics with Robert Kersten, MD, also at the University of Cincinnati.

Born to Heal
I grew up very familiar with medicine; after all, both of my parents are physicians — my father is an anesthesiologist and my mother is an internist. Though they thoroughly encouraged me to also become a physician, I wasn’t entirely convinced.

Even though I took all of the required pre-med classes at NYU, I actually majored in economics. After graduating, I worked as a NASDAQ trader for two years. I quickly came to realize that being a trader didn’t hold the same satisfaction as practicing medicine, so I enrolled in medical school at Howard University.

When I started rotations, I fell in love with surgery. Being the curious explorer that I am, I looked into the different surgical options open to me and decided that I wanted to specialize within the surgical realm. After watching several different types of surgery, I opted for the challenge and intrigue of ophthalmic surgery.

Mentors Guide the Way
Like everything in life, there were many factors that led to my decision. But one of the biggest was the ophthalmology chair at Howard University — Dr. Robert Copeland. Dr. Copeland was very charismatic, fun and engaging. In fact, all the ophthalmology guys were fun and energetic, as compared to the other attendings in the hospital. They really seemed to love what they were doing.

Another guiding force in my medical career was Dr. Leslie Jones. It was Dr. Jones who encouraged me to get involved in the Academy’s Advocacy Ambassador program. While each state normally sponsors one or two residents to go to Advocacy Day, since Howard University is located in Washington, D.C., most residents had the ability to attend and were highly encouraged to do so.

In fact, during my first year, I didn’t attend Advocacy Day. After hearing from my friend Dr. Tarek Persaud that it was the best experience he had ever had, I decided to check it out for myself. My second year (2005), I attended Advocacy Day with 50 percent to 60 percent of my fellow Howard residents. I soon learned just how important advocacy is to the practice of medicine.

The Rewards of Involvement
At Advocacy Day, you not only learn how governmental decisions affect every aspect of your practice, but you are also interacting with residents from all over the country, learning how they are trained, what they are researching, etc. Plus, you have the opportunity to meet other attending physicians and doctors that have been in practice for twenty-some years. The knowledge and advice they can impart is invaluable. I found everyone to be really approachable, especially those in my state.

I was so excited about my experience that I asked the Howard ophthalmology department to allow all residents to attend Advocacy Day the following year. I was able to get permission and helped to facilitate it. The next year, all Howard residents went to Advocacy Day, and from what I understand, they had 100 percent again the next year, after I graduated.

Combining Experiences to Create a Career
After all of the amazing experiences I’ve had during my residency and fellowships, I’ve decided to focus my career on a practice as well as academics, ideally in a university setting. This seems to be the best of both worlds. I can help people in need of my services, while also passing invaluable information and education onto people who want to learn.

And, as I learned from Dr. Golnick, you can enhance the practice of ophthalmology itself by teaching the next generation of students and residents. This is what I find truly appealing…the thought of what comes next. As physicians, we have a responsibility to continue educating the next generation of doctors. In the words of my current mentor, Bob Kersten, “Someone took the time to teach me, and now it’s my turn.”

Originally, early residency training used to be limited to just the science of ophthalmology, but recently ethics was incorporated into resident education. This addition was considered to be integral to creating a complete physician during training. I believe the next step will (or should) be the teaching of advocacy. As I learned during my experiences with the Advocacy Ambassador program, advocacy is an integral part of the practice of ophthalmology. In fact, it’s as important as the ethics and the practice of medicine itself. If we are not pushing for the best interests of our patients and profession, who will?

So, until I can set up a practice and begin to teach the next generation of ophthalmologists, I’ll continue to be a sponge, soaking up as much information and guidance from my teachers and mentors as possible. And when the day comes for me to return the gift of education, I’ll be prepared.

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