Dr. G.Balamurali, MBBS, MRCS (Edin), FRCS (Surgical Neurology), MD (UK),
Head of Spine Surgery, Kauvery Hospital
His father being a teacher, Dr.Balamurali was highly motivated right from a young age to become a doctor. He was an all-rounder at Montfort School, Yercaud and completed medicine with distinctions. With high hopes, aspirations and dreams to be a surgeon he landed in London 2 months after his internship. He completed his MRCS after training as a general surgeon from the Royal college of Surgeons Edinburgh. To become a Neurosurgeon in the 1990s was next to impossible for the minority race! Having failed 8 interviews with a decent CV and publications, he was very frustrated that he could not become a Neurosurgeon which was his dream.
The biggest lesson he learned at that time was to think beyond the routine and refuse to accept failure. He then decided to take an alternative route and did research in Cambridge University and got a Research MD with ground breaking results and published his monogram with several awards. Just married then, his wife Dr. Vennila was his pillar of support during these difficult three years of unpaid research. After this more interviews and jobs came his way from the best universities. He started training as a Neurosurgeon from Manchester, Hope Hospital and The Walton Centre, Liverpool which was 6 long years. He further sub specialized into becoming a spine expert. He received a travel award from the American Association of Neurological Surgeons and spent 2 years in Chicago and San Francisco doing a clinical fellowship in Minimally Invasive Spine Surgery. He also did a complex spine fellowship at Zurich, Switzerland. On his return he was appointed as the youngest surgeon at consultant level at Queens Medical Centre, Nottingham, the largest and high volume Spine Department in Europe.
Moving back to India
Having been in UK for 15 years by then and a happy family with 2 daughters Mekala and Nithila, he started searching for a “LIFE BEYOND WORK”. He had no intention to return to India and he had never interacted or operated patients in India. Invited as a visiting faculty, Dr. Balamurali spent 2 weeks at Ganga hospital, Coimbatore operating and interacting with people, he was very intrigued about the quality and quantity of work performed and there was so much to change still in the country. It was then he decided to come back to India for good. He felt it was time to return home as he has seen the best of best. And he wanted to be one among the people he grew up with and make a difference to a country that needs more. His family's wishes were also aligned.
Mix of flavour
After a few months he was shocked to see that not a lot had changed in 15 years, apart from a privatized healthcare system with equal facilities to the west. The training, care of patients and need gap basis of the service system was still insufficient. One incident that prepared him to beat the challenges in our society was, when a paraplegic spinal cord injured person’s wife fell at his feet and begged him not to save her husband’s life when he came with repeated complications. This was shocking when she said, "my husband has drained all our resources, kids’ education and future, so please let him die”! It was an eye opener to him. He was in search of a solution and what little impact he can make to the society.
He became a Rotarian which gave him huge networking opportunity to the class of people who believed in making a change in the society. He applied for a global grant through his contacts abroad for 60 lakhs rupees and provided free rehabilitation for the spinal cord injured and made a difference to 45 patients in one year. This project called RASTRA (Rotary Aid for Spinal Treatment and Rehabilitation) was recognized as the best project in the Rotary District for 4 years and was recognized and awarded by our former late president of India Dr A P J Abdul Kalam through his “Lead India 2020” organization 6 months before he died. Dr Balamurali was very privileged to spend several hours with this great man and felt that this was the best moment in his life so far. He created an NGO called “AMISH” (Awareness Movement for Injuries to the Spine and Head) through which volunteers educate school and college students on road safety. This project won one lakh award from the Neurological Society of India (NSI) in 2018.
At Kauvery Hospital
With no contacts in Chennai, no referral doctors to boast about and no patient back up to bring he was very pleased to find sanctuary at Kauvery Hospital. He thanks Dr Aravindan and Dr Chandrakumar for their trust in his capabilities to create a world class Spine Department which is in the happening! Having not much to do initially with very little patients to operate and bored at times he accepted and completed 6 book chapters in 1 year. Slowly having become busy in his own practice, he felt a definite need for restructuring higher surgical training. He started a company called Royal Academy for Clinical and Surgical excellence (RASCE) and International Spine Academy (iSpine) (www.ispine.co.in) which runs courses for spine surgeons both in India and UK. The Spine Boot Camp was a new concept that has gained huge popularity among spine surgeons nationally and has a waiting list to attend. Several courses for doctors in soft skills, presentation skills, live surgery, seminars and even a major conference has been done in the last 3 years. The intention is to provide education to spine surgeons on various aspects of spine surgery, planning and treatment and form an online university of knowledge, he says. Currently he has been involved in training more than 200 plus spine surgeons and is also a co-editor in Journal of Spine Surgery, Executive Committee member in the Minimally Invasive Spine Surgeon of India, teaching faculty in all National Spine societies and in the board of several International spine societies. He has lectured and presented research papers world-wide in more than 400 conferences, has 14 book chapters, 4 patient books and 100 plus publications in journal and other health care articles and performed more than 30 live surgeries in India and abroad. Kauvery hospital has been put in the world map for spine in Spine Specialty and he is thankful to Management for their support.
Recently he was touched by an incident which led to the creation of yet another project. A New born baby with a large spinal cord tumour was operated successfully and published in the media. A few weeks later he received a call from the head of Neonatology at IOG (Institute of Obstetrics and Gynecology), Chennai if he can collaborate with the Government on treating babies born with congenital spinal dysraphism. Some of these babies would die if not treated in time for no fault of theirs. He agreed and with the gracious support of Dr Aravindan, operated a hand full of new born babies with congenital defects with the very minimal money from the government scheme and the huge subsidy of Kauvery hospital CSR funds. This was very challenging as most babies were of low birth weight, failure to thrive babies and required immense intra and post-operative care to avoid complications. He spoke about this extensively to his circle of Rotary friends and convinced them of a project to sustain the cause as it was becoming difficult for Kauvery hospital to do this long term. After a lot of lobbying in the US and Sri Lanka Rotary clubs he was very pleased to get a huge grant of 75 lakhs to treat these babies. Currently the program called “Thulir” a joint project between Rotary club of Madras North and Kauvery Hospital has performed more than 45 surgeries and he congratulated not only the management but his entire team of doctors and anesthetists who did an amazing job under very subsidized costs to these babies who otherwise would have died if not operated. He is so grateful to the member of his Rotary club without whom this could not have been possible. He mentioned that in the last 7 years after his return, despite being a Country that has a huge number of people in severe poverty and ignorance, it has equal number of people with generous pockets and a good heart. He feels that such public private partnerships can be a bigger solution to the health care deficiencies today. The government must look into this more seriously and identify those areas of health care that can be provided successfully though such concrete partnerships.
He feels that a lot of these accomplishments were only possible by keeping an open mind and being a “YES MAN” to any opportunity. Being a fitness enthusiast, he took to trekking as a challenge to himself in 2013. For the first time having never been a trekker before decided to climb Mt Everest Base Camp (18000 ft). He trained for 6 months and completed it with a group of friends in 8 days. He feels that the most beautiful thing in this world is the beauty of the mountains and nature more than the achievement itself. The mountains call him every time and since the Mt Everest expedition he had climbed several tall peaks in Asia and Europe including the tallest in South East Asia, Mt Kinabalu (15000 Ft) in Malaysia and currently planning another trip to the Himalayas in April 2019. He feels this is best way to recharge the body mind and thoughts. He also feels this ‘Time with the mountains” has increased his productivity significantly and is a source of energy. The mountains also remind you that you are so small and non-significant in this universe. It makes you humbler and more grounded.
A discussion about fitness and weight loss led to development of weight loss program along with his friends from Nepal and USA. A 3 months program called GETFITNESS (Group Empowerment Therapy for Fitness) was developed and is due to be launched shortly. The pilot phase of this project is being completed in the USA and Nepal.
His social service extended during the flood times in Chennai. Medical relief was a huge challenge when Chennai was under water in December 2015 with no connectivity by Internet. He looked out for help outside the state and formed a social media group called DOCTORNET and requested help. More than 100 doctors signed up in a day. Not knowing what to do with them he approached some social groups for medicines, vehicles and other financial help. Within 24 hours he had a huge workforce with 200 plus people volunteering their service. The Tata disaster relief group approached him and brought doctors from all over India and a flight full of medicines. On the 1st anniversary of the Chennai floods, he was given the award of “HEROS OF CHENNAI” by the Hindu at an event. He feels that this is just an example of how vulnerable we are no matter what your social or financial status may be. The DoctorNet (www.doctornetindia.org) company was later registered and his friend Mr Arvind converted this into an NGO which has helped more than 500 patients through telemedicine in rural Tamil Nadu. The telemedicine technology with smart phones that was tested during the Chennai flood relief phase was developed further by his team.
But what he likes the most of all he does, is his “time operating” with music in the background and interacting with his patients. The place he likes most is the “Operation theatre” as that is his temple and that’s what is his mission in life and everything else is secondary. He performs mostly minimally invasive spine surgery and some complex procedures. One of the technically challenging surgeries he performs is surgery for pain following brachial plexus injury and spinal cord injury. In this condition patients suffer severe neuropathic pain refractory to any treatment and may even take to suicide to end the pain. Currently only a few surgeons in the country perform this and he has done more than 30 operations. He looks forward to see these patients the next day after surgery to see their reaction! Nothing is more satisfying than relieving someone’s worst pain or suffering and thankfully God has given him this gift he says. Following this a nationwide patient support group was launched from Kauvery hospital for these patients (www.bpisupportgroup.com).
Time for Hobbies?
He spends time in art and listening or playing music. He specializes in pencil art and portraits which can sometimes take 10 – 12 hours in a stretch. He feels that it is very fulfilling and relaxing to create something. He is a marathon runner and a cyclist. Presently he is learning to play the guitar. He plans to form a band with his kids someday for family parties; if they can match his skills! He prefers a quiet time and loves movies with his family. He owes his success and accomplishments to his patient wife Dr Vennila, kids and parents who adjust so much with him not being around for them. His hero is his mother Mrs Visalakshi, a house maker who has encouraged his in all his dreams and endeavours.
People like him have a big wish list but right now he is in the process of setting up a first of its kind Spine and Brain rehab centre in Chennai in collaboration with Kauvery Hospital. The centre will be called HAMSA, with a mythological meaning of good luck, health and prosperity (www.hamsarehab.com). This is a 20 bed centre which is due to be launched in May 2019 at Gopalapuram, Chennai. The other big wish he has is to spend some time doing nothing which is something very difficult for him to do!