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‘Doctors and pilots lead an identical life’

Dr.Nikunj Mittal, a brain and spine surgeon and an alumnus of Apeejay Saket, shares his journey from being a Commercial Pilot licence holder to a doctor.



Hailing from Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, Nikunj, Dr.Nikunj is trained in Skull base and Vascular Neurosurgery. He did a 6 year M.Ch Neurosurgery course from Christian Medical College, Vellore and is working as an Associate professor and Senior Consultant with the Krishna Institute of Medical Sciences, Karad, Maharashtra. For the uninitiated, Neurosurgery is the surgical specialisation that treats diseases and disorders of the brain and spinal cord. Almost all procedures are done under the magnification provided by the microscope. Though both Neurologists and Neurosurgeons diagnose and manage nervous system disorders, the former do not perform surgeries. In a candid chat, Dr.Nikunj decoded the challenges of being a neurosurgeon. Edited excerpts: 

Share with us your journey.

I studied in Apeejay, Saket. I had a fantastic time in the school and learned a lot from the teachers who never failed to inspire students. I was always fascinated with aviation, so after completing class 12, I went to Canada to pursue a two-year course in Civil Aviation.  At the same time I was also pursuing a BSc in Zoology from an Open University. I got my Commercial Pilot licence in 2003 and soon flew back to India. After some brainstorming, I decided to forgo aviation and make my career in medicine.

Why did you leave the aviation sector and what sparked your interest in medicine?

When I was about to finish my aviation course, I realised that this field is not for me. Despite being captivated with aviation for all my formative years’, I somehow couldn’t convince myself to become a pilot. Both my parents are doctors and you will be surprised to know that I never wanted to follow their footsteps. With lack of flexibility and hectic work schedules, I have seen from close quarters how challenging it is to be a doctor. One of my uncles (Mama ji) is a Neurosurgeon and I remember watching him in awe in the operation theatre as he operated on a patient’s brain, who was in a critical condition. He managed to save the life of that patient. This whole experience left an indelible mark on my psyche. That’s when I decided to get into medicine and in the first year itself I forgot all about aviation. I won half-a-dozen gold medals during my MBBS.

How did you get into neurosurgery?

In the final year of my MBBS I met my mentor Dr. Iype Cherian, one of India’s most prominent neurosurgeons. When I expressed my ambition of becoming a neurosurgeon to Dr. Cherian, he said that ‘the life of a neurosurgeon is like a coin, it has two sides: the glamour and the hard work. Nobody sees the latter part which involves a lot of sacrifices.’ When I worked as his Assistant for a couple of years, I realised it’s a difficult path to tread, but I gave my all to assist him. There were many days when I slept for just three hours a day. Impressed with my work ethics, he advised me to pursue post-graduation in Neurosurgery from the reputed Christian Medical College, Vellore. At that time the college only used to offer two seats and it took me two years to clear the entrance exam and get myself enrolled in the college. During this time I continued to work in the Christian Medical College.

You said your parents being doctors led a hectic life. How about you?  

I just talked about the other side of the coin, the one involving hard work. My wife is a Radiologist and I have a four-and-half-year-old son. I rarely get to spend time with them. If there’s an emergency in the hospital I have to go, there are no ifs or buts. We use a phrase called ‘time is brain’, it is used to emphasise that the longer you wait to treat a stroke the more damage is done. However, I never get tired of doing my job. After all, it’s my passion.

Do you sometimes miss flying planes?

Over the years, I have come to realise that doctors and pilots lead an identical life. The most stressful time for a pilot is when the plane takes off and when it lands. The pilot is relaxed when the plane is in the air. Similarly, the doctor stays unflustered for the most part of the day, but when he’s performing the surgery he is under tremendous pressure, just like a pilot is at the time of take off and landing. A doctor is single-mindedly focused on the treatment even if there are some family or personal issues that need his urgent attention. Having said that, of late, I have reignited my passion for flying. So after every six months I go to Nepal to fly small planes. In India, I couldn’t do this due to some technical reasons.   

How do you see the future of Neurosurgery in India?

I see a bright future. You will be surprised to know that we came up with a new method called Cisternostomy to treat traumatic brain injury. It was pioneered in India by Dr. Iype Cherian. Normally, Decompressive Craniectomy is performed for the treatment of severe traumatic brain injury. It’s a surgical procedure in which part of the skull is removed to allow the brain to swell without being squeezed. However, Cisternostomy is defined as opening the basal cisterns to atmospheric pressure. This technique helps to reduce the intracranial (within the skull) pressure in severe head trauma as well as other conditions when the so-called sudden “brain swelling” troubles the surgeon.

Dheeraj Sharma is Asst. Editor (Newsroom). He covers events, webinars, conducts interviews and brings you exciting news snippets. He has over 10 years' of experience in prominent media organizations. He takes pleasure in the small things in life and believes a healthy work-life balance is key to happiness. You can reach him at [email protected]