Riverhead doctor on a mission to save lives across the globe

09/01/2016 6:00 AM |


Dr. Rajesh Patel was standing inside a big, empty hospital in a remote region of Brazil in 1999 when a nurse summoned him to the emergency room. Lying on the floor was a pregnant 16-year-old, seizing and frothing at the mouth. 

Recognizing the girl was in the throes of eclampsia, a life-threatening pregnancy complication for which delivery is the only treatment, Dr. Patel ran outside to locate his colleagues Dr. Medhat Allam and Dr. Ravi Kothuru.

“I can remember it so vividly,” the 52-year-old Riverhead pulmonologist recalled last week. “I said, ‘We have an emergency. We have to do something.’ ”

The three men gathered what medical tools they could find and performed an emergency cesarean section. The girl survived the ordeal, but her baby boy, born premature and measuring no longer than a standard flower vase, wasn’t breathing.

Dr. Patel didn’t know what to do. After all, he had just arrived at the poorly equipped hospital as part of his first mission with International Surgical Mission Support, a Southampton organization that provides free medical care to poor patients around the world.

There was no time to brainstorm. A nurse handed Dr. Patel an infant-sized intubation kit that, with any luck, would restart the newborn’s breathing.

At that point in his career, Dr. Patel had only intubated rats in a lab, where mistakes were easily forgiven. All he could do now was hope for the best.

“I just said, ‘Oh God, help me’ and put the tube in,” Dr. Patel said, his eyes welling with tears at the memory. “And luckily, we saw the blue baby turning pink.”

Photo caption: Dr. Rajesh Patel, a Riverhead pulmonologist and member of International Surgical Mission Support’s New York team, cradles a newborn baby girl in Ghana in 2012. The infant wasn’t breathing when she was born following an emergency cesarean section and it took medical professionals 40 minutes to resuscitate her, Dr. Patel said. (Courtesy photo)

Seventeen years later, Dr. Patel and his colleagues at International Surgical Mission Support have performed lifesaving operations on hundreds of patients in countries like Kenya, Nicaragua, Myanmar and Tanzania. The secular, non-political organization’s work hasn’t gone unnoticed: On Sept. 22, Dr. Patel and the 21 other doctors and nurses who comprise its New York team will travel to Winnipeg, Canada, to accept Rotary International’s annual Douglas MacRae Peace Award. The prestigious honor recognizes individuals and groups who promote peace and international goodwill through humanitarian activities.

“When they announced it, I was totally taken aback,” said Dr. Patel, a 10-year Riverhead Rotary member. “What I felt was humbled, of course, but I also thought about a whole lot of other people in the Rotary world who probably deserve it even more. I’m just starting: I’ve only been here 10 years.”

Riverhead Rotary president Beth Hanlon, who said the local organization couldn’t be prouder to count Dr. Patel as a member, is used to watching her friend eschew the spotlight.

“He’s so self-deprecating, like what he does isn’t a big deal,” Ms. Hanlon said. “But it really is.”

Want to help ISMS?

International Surgical Mission Support will host a fundraiser Saturday, Sept. 10, from 6:30 to 10:30 p.m. at Laurel Lake Vineyards. Tax-deductible tickets, $125 per person, include wine, beer and dinner. To RSVP, email [email protected].

Dr. Patel, who owns Eastern Suffolk Pulmonology in Riverhead and is associate director of intensive care at Peconic Bay Medical Center, was born in India and spent his childhood in Zambia. His father was a dentist at a local hospital and Dr. Patel grew up playing with the children of domestic workers.

Some of them, he recalled, were so ill with parasitic infections they urinated blood.

“Every once in a while, you would see a child who was so sick and it was impossible to help them,” Dr. Patel said. “I was — what? — eight, nine years old at that time.”

He couldn’t cure them then, but when he returned to India for high school, Dr. Patel didn’t forget the children he’d played with as a boy. He enrolled at Ambedkar Medical College in Bangalore, traveling to the city’s impoverished outskirts as part of his training.

“That’s where you saw real poverty and lack of health facilities,” he said. “Wound infections, tuberculosis, malnutrition — little kids with big, huge bellies and drawn-out faces. It was terrible.”

After graduating in 1987, Dr. Patel moved to the United States to complete a fellowship at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. He landed on the East End in 1997 and lives in Quogue with his wife, Shobha, an internist at Southampton Hospital. The couple has two sons.

In 1999, Dr. Patel was enjoying a day on the water in Hampton Bays with friends Dr. Medhat Allam, a bariatric and general surgeon at Southampton Hospital, and Robert Mineo, a nurse anesthetist there, when they began chatting about humanitarian work. Three years earlier, Dr. Allam and Mr. Mineo had co-founded ISMS with Dr. Ravi Kothuru, a New York City thoracic surgeon.

“I come from Egypt, from a very poor family,” Dr. Allam said last week, explaining his motivation to help establish the organization in 1996. “My mother always made it clear to us that you’re not in this world alone. No matter how bad it is, other people have it worse than you. Don’t forget about those people.”

While they were out on the water, Dr. Patel told his friends he wanted to do something to help the disadvantaged.

Well, the men told him, ISMS was already doing it — and they were traveling to Brazil on a medical mission later that year. Would he like to join them?