It is no exaggeration to claim that Prof Pradeep Chowbey is a surgical pioneer. He championed minimal access surgery (MAS) when his colleagues were not convinced. He has been Surgeon to five Indian Presidents, the Indian Armed Forces and has even operated on His Holiness The Dalai Lama. Prof Chowbey spoke to us about his life, career and inspiration.
Can you remember when you first decided that you wanted to be a surgeon?
My inspiration was my father, who was also a surgeon. He graduated in 1928 when surgery was very different.
He practiced everything from medicine to surgery, including ear, nose & throat, caesareans, and hysterectomies. There were very limited medical facilities available, and it was quite primitive – no anaesthesia, just chloroform.
But one thing I remember was that wherever he was posted, he was always one of the most respected people in that town.
How much has surgery changed throughout your career?
The changes have been dramatic. I feel very lucky to have witnessed such important changes that have happened in the last couple of decades, because of the rapid evolution of technology.
I remember attending a conference in New Orleans in 1989 where two surgeons presented four cases of what they called a videoscopic cholecystectomy. They showed the patients walking on the same day of surgery. That really impressed me. As an oncology surgeon, I used to see a lot of pain, misery, and destruction. I was used to cutting more and more during surgery and I realised that I somehow had to cut less.
I started performing laparoscopic surgery in 1990. I had no funds, but somehow I bought the equipment, including my first laparoscopic set, by selling my possessions and borrowing from friends and family.
What did your peers and colleagues in India make of laparoscopic surgery at the time?
They did not believe in laparoscopic surgery. They couldn’t understand the need to use so much equipment. The cost of open surgical instruments was a fraction of what you need for laparoscopic surgery, including camera equipment.
But it was my conviction, and with some force. I was convinced and I didn’t have any hesitation. People called me daring but I saw it as compassion and passion rather than fear.
In 1996 in Delhi, I created the first dedicated MAS department in the Asia Pacific region and I gave up all my other private practice to focus on it. I wanted to dedicate my time to laparoscopy!
Patients were so happy, they called me a magician. “Are you sure that you removed the gallbladder?”, they would say as they were transferred back to the ward. They anticipated severe pain and suffering, but they did not have pain
How much of an improvement did robotic surgery make?
When I moved from conventional surgery to laparoscopic surgery, we achieved so much in terms of minimising pain, improving recovery and good cosmetic outcome. But in the back of our mind, I felt like I had lost a dimension – I’d gone from three dimensions to two.
What robotic surgery did was bring back that third dimension, and so much more. It gives us more precision, it is less tiring, it offers safer surgery, increased dexterity, a wider range of movement.
Why did you decide to choose a Versius system?
For me, the best thing about Versius is that it was designed with surgeons in mind. Some of the robotic systems which are available are basically industrial robots, modified for surgical use.
The biggest advantage to me is that I have freedom to put my ports exactly where I want them.
My second favourite thing is the utilisation of the operating theatre, because it is a mobile system and you can move from one OR to another. Even from one floor to another, or one building to another. You don’t have to have a dedicated OR, which can be such a waste of time.
Another great advantage for me is the open console, which makes you feel part of a team.
You’ve operated on some very famous people throughout your career, including His Holiness The Dalai Lama, how does that make you feel?
I’ve been very fortunate. I have had the honour of being the operating surgeon to five Presidents of India. I still vividly remember when I operated on the President of India in 2000. He was operated on at 83 years old, and walked out of hospital within 24 hours. That proved laparoscopy was established in India.
I think the biggest honour was operating on His Holiness The Dalai Lama, because he is such a world figure. He is such a lively person. He encouraged me with his sense of humour and took away all the stress and behaved like any other patient.
How would you like to be remembered as a surgeon?
I believe you should pass on your wisdom to the next generation, and our aim should be that the next generation should be far, far better than the current generation.
I would like to be remembered, not as a magician or as a great surgeon, but as being passionate about training and teaching. It is better to remember me as a teacher, rather than a surgeon.