Inside NYP: Dr. Sowmya Sreekanth
This young physician from India created a new career and home at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia thanks to the support of many mentors.
I came to the United States from Davanagere, India, with the dream of becoming a surgeon.
After completing my medical training from JJM Medical College and a year of internship in Davanagere, I wanted to explore the most advanced techniques available and learn from the pioneers in the field. I never considered living long term in the United States. I thought, “I’ll go, learn, and come back.”
I did not know anyone in the United States and thus wasn’t aware of any established methods to navigate what is definitely a complicated system. Yet I came. My parents supported my decision; I packed my bags and arrived at JFK airport in July 2008.
I found my way to a hotel I had booked. At first they couldn’t find my reservation. After a couple of nights in this hotel, I started searching for housing and found a room to share on 165th Street, coincidently next to NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center. This was my introduction to the United States.
I had been here only a few months when the financial circumstances with my family changed, and they could not extend their support anymore. I still remember the exact moment when I had only $7 and the helplessness I experienced with the realization that I had a difficult road to travel. This was a completely alien feeling for someone who grew up in a big, overprotective family. I was standing at the crossroads with a difficult decision ahead of me. The biggest assets I inherited were my father’s hardworking nature, my mother’s discipline, and a never-give-up attitude. I was not ready to give up on myself and my aspirations and decided to do this on my own. I started my journey thinking, “Where do I go from here? How do I support myself?”
My major hurdle was that I could no longer afford my room. I kept looking for options. Finally, I found an ad for someone who needed a person, similar to a home health aide, to stay with his mother at night and to alert her family in case of an emergency. I stayed there for eight to nine months. I have very fond memories from that place. The other caregivers and the mother looked out for me, offered me food and were supportive. I remember they used to leave sandwiches for me by my door to make sure I had something to eat. This is the first moment I felt safe and secure among these women who were strangers to me until then.
Though my housing was now secure, I needed to earn money and move ahead with my career. I spent more than a year in unpaid positions, observerships, and internships. I began to reach out to hospitals in New York City, making hundreds of calls and sending thousands of emails to physicians. I knew that I had the knowledge and expertise to offer, but I was completely unsure of where to start. I walked them through my skill set and was able to get a good number of interviews.
Around this time, I started noticing changes with my health. They were minor initially and limited to weight gain and fatigue. But then it became difficult to walk a few blocks. One day, I was reading on the computer and all of a sudden I completely blanked out for a few seconds. I had insurance with limited health coverage and was referred to a physician in New Jersey who concluded that I was stressed out and probably had a migraine.
After looking for a job for four to five months, I received a response from the director of research at Columbia Cath Lab. He said he was conducting a lot of research projects and could use some help. I was beside myself with excitement when I read his email. He gave me his direct cellphone number to call him, which of course I did. I went to Columbia to meet with him; he offered to let me assist with research four to six hours a week when I wasn’t in class.
After I had worked at the Cath Lab for eight to nine months, I started looking for a job. Many people were willing to give me a job but getting a work permit was a major issue. Once my student visa ended, Dr. Roxana Mehran, an interventional cardiologist and renowned researcher then at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, gave me my first job as a research technician in the Catheterization Lab and said, “I’m willing to sponsor her.”
This was an amazing opportunity and one of the happiest days of my life. My first day in the Columbia Cath Lab was love at first sight. I had never witnessed something so amazing and incredible. I observed the most cutting-edge interventional cardiology techniques and devices there. For the next several months, I worked as a research tech at the Cath Lab. Dr. Mehran also mentored me with my first presentation at TCT 2010, an annual scientific symposium for Transcatheter Cardiovascular Therapeutics.
A curveball presented itself in 2011. I went to an ophthalmologist for a routine visit to get contact lenses but was diagnosed with pseudotumor cerebri, which finally explained the symptoms I had had for two years. I was asked at the doctor’s office to provide an emergency contact before they would let me go. My parents were in India, and the only person I could think of was a fellow student, Dr. Vijay Gorumuchu, whom I knew from the study program we were in.
The only problem was that I hadn’t talked to him for almost a year. I’m thinking, “How can I randomly call somebody and tell them they’re my emergency contact?” But that’s what I did. He remembered me, asked if I was fine, and then came to join me at the doctor’s office. He said, “Let’s figure this out, one step at a time,” and from that day on we became a team of two. I had successful surgery at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia in 2011, and one and a half years later, Vijay proposed to me. Before we became engaged, I thought, “This is a great person to be with.” He is so supportive and always brings a positive outlook to any issue. This is so important in life.
After my surgery, I decided to pursue my passion for research. The Center for Interventional Vascular Therapy gave me a platform and opened my eyes to a whole new world of research and cutting-edge care. Many of the devices were still being studied in research trials when I started at Columbia and some of them are clinically approved today for the cardiovascular programs that I manage.
I gained more experience and was then offered the clinical research coordinator role to conduct cardiothoracic surgery clinical trials. It was an exciting opportunity and a privilege to work with Dr. Michael Argenziano, to be part of the team leading the National Institutes of Health clinical trials and representing Columbia on a global platform. I monitored one patient with monthly follow-ups for more than a year. The patient was finally able to receive a heart transplant after three years. I felt delighted that my contribution was making a difference to patients, the hospital, and the community.
During these years in clinical research, one of the most challenging and rewarding clinical trials was the ex-vivo lung transplant study with Dr. Frank D’Ovidio. I connected more with this trial and these patients. The procedure is complex and cutting edge, and provides treatment when the options are limited as there is a scarcity of lungs available for transplant. It is very rewarding to see patients who have no other option be helped with this lifesaving technology. I came to NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia with my basic medical knowledge and learned the most advanced technology available.
Today, I am working as a clinical specialist. In my role within the Cardiovascular Service Line, I manage various programs. I am the connecting bridge between clinical teams and hospital administration. I am involved in the creation of integrated multidisciplinary teams where resources are utilized very efficiently. My current role has allowed me to learn from the best people in the field and contribute my research and clinical experience. With others, I am working to build a hospital-wide system to provide state-of-the-art treatment. The creation of this unique system for various programs helps to save time and money, increasing efficiency to improve the quality of patient care and outcomes.
As a trained physician, my goal has been to treat one patient at a time. I am now moving into the orbit of understanding healthcare not only from a one patient perspective but from a system and community-need perspective. NewYork-Presbyterian has helped redefine my vision, which is pivotal in creating an efficient structure to improve outcomes on hundreds of patients at once. It is so inspirational and motivational to get up and come to work every day.
Although my journey was challenging, the greatest thing I love about working here is that at every stage of my career, I always found support. I am thankful for the mentors, colleagues, friends, and the clinical team who supported me throughout my journey.
As I reminisce about my experience, I am reminded of my belief in life, people, and my motivation to help people in need. I hope I can pay this forward both personally and professionally. I have developed an in-depth understanding of the big and little things that have a profound impact on people’s lives. This has strengthened my belief in standing up to challenges and embracing new opportunities.
Does the dream of being a surgeon persist? Of course. However, I am so proud of everything that I have been able to accomplish. I understand this is an unconventional dream, but I am hoping to create my own unique path. I have much more to learn, accomplish, and contribute in the days, months, and years ahead. I hope that my story gives strength to anyone who is pursuing a journey of their own.
With this incredible journey, NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center became my home. I have grown up here, and I will forever be thankful for the opportunities and the love given to me. I am so grateful that I was given a chance here at NewYork-Presbyterian to learn, grow, and build a whole new life.
Sowmya Sreekanth, M.D., is a clinical specialist for the Cardiovascular Service Line at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center. In this role, she works with clinical teams and hospital leadership to ensure all patients receive the same exceptional standard of cardiac care. She previously worked as clinical research coordinator for cardiothoracic surgery clinical trials, including lung and heart transplant trials. Dr. Sreekanth is particularly focused on quality, outcomes and best practices for patient care across the NewYork-Presbyterian healthcare system.