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Dr. Sharma's fasting day

Published by Forbes on 1998-12-28

ACCORDING TO the American Medical Association, nearly a quarter of the doctors practicing in the U.S. are immigrants. As of 1996, for example, there were 737,761 practicing physicians; 168,326 of them graduated from foreign medical schools. One of these immigrant-physicians is Samin K. Sharma, now 43.

Sharma came to the U.S. over a dozen years ago with little to his name but an M.D. from prestigious Jaipur University in western India. While studying to qualify to practice cardiac surgery in America, he worked as a delivery boy for an Indian grocery store in New York and later for an Indian jeweler. A vegetarian, he lived mostly on peanut butter and milk, all he could afford.

These days Dr. Sharma is one of the U.S.' leading cardiac surgeons, earning more than $ 1 million a year. He performs angioplasty at New York's Mount Sinai Medical Center -- more than 1,000 procedures per year -- opening clogged arteries and often saving patients from undergoing costlier and riskier heart bypass surgery. In medical circles Sharma is known as the "Master of the Rotoblator" -- a new angioplasty tool incorporating a miniature diamond-tipped power drill that operates at speeds of up to 190,000rpm (an average car engine cruises at 3,000rpm).

"It takes a unique combination of energy and enthusiasm -- belief in yourself, as well as a lot of patience -- to do what Dr. Sharma does," remarks Dr. Donald Jenny, a Green Bay, Wis. cardiologist, who traveled to New York recently to study Sharma's technique.

Born to a Brahmin family in the dusty town of Alwar in India, Sharma -- even as a young boy -- dreamed of becoming a heart surgeon. He graduated at the top of his class at Jaipur and also ranked first in the state. But as an ambitious young Indian with scant personal means, he had another dream: to go to the U.S., where he felt his talents would be developed more fully than they could ever have been in India, where, among other barriers, his high-caste Brahmin ancestry would be a hindrance under India's equivalent of affirmative action laws.

Sharma chose Pittsburgh as his first stop, chiefly because he knew an Indian immigrant there. "I knew that I was being foolhardy by turning up like that in a strange country, but I deeply believed that something would work out for me," he says.

Not at first, it didn't. The Indian acquaintance declined to host him. There were no jobs available for a doctor without a U.S. license. In the end it wasn't his education but his odd menial jobs that gave him his break: An Indian jeweler in New York's diamond district was complaining of headaches and incontinence. "I told him that it sounded like he had a brain tumor on his frontal lobe, which can affect bowel and bladder control," Sharma recalls. "He thought I was crazy. He said he'd seen the best doctors in New York and that no one had made such a diagnosis. I insisted that he get a CAT scan done immediately."

Sharma had been right on. The grateful jeweler, Manak Rawat, gave Sharma a place to live and $ 800 a month while he crammed for the New York Medical Board Certification exams.

Sharma passed with flying colors, then did a three-year residency at Manhattan's Beekman Hospital (now NYU Downtown Hospital), followed by a two-year fellowship at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, N.Y. He was keen to work with Mount Sinai's renowned chief of cardiology, Dr. Valentin Fuster, but Mount Sinai had no funds to pay Sharma a salary. "I was determined to work with Dr. Fuster," Sharma said. "So I offered to work for free. I moonlighted as an emergency room physician in Queens to pay my bills. Dr. Fuster assured me that if I proved myself, I'd be hired by him. I did, and about a year later I was made a paid angioplasty fellow."

Although he typically works from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. each weekday, he saves his most difficult surgical cases for Tuesdays. Why? "Because that's my fasting day," Sharma says. "I feel that God is on my side on that fasting day. I know there's no scientific basis to this belief, but that's my belief and I follow it. I've always followed my belief -- in myself, in my profession, in America."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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