Graduating High School at 13 and Medical School at 17, the real life Doogie Howser continues to have astronomical aspirations.
Dr. Balamurali Ambati’s family immigrated to United States for opportunities, certainly attained it quicker than most can even imagine. At the age of four, while in the hospital for burns on his body, he realized then that he would want to do something that would help others.
What advice would you give to aspiring physicians after having achieved all that you have?
Focus on a field where you can balance all you want to achieve. Decide early on whether you want to be a person who happens to be a doctor or a doctor who happens to be a person. Never forget about family and giving enough attention to that side of life. Try to give back in service – international health, underserved people, teaching or research.
Was it hard fitting into medical school at such a young age?
At orientation, one of the speakers mentioned a wide age range for the class – oldest student was 35 and the youngest was 14. There was of course a hunt for the kid. But even a month later, people came up to me and asked, “Have you met the 14 year old?” I was always tall for my age, and carried myself much older I guess. So by the time they found out, I was their friend and they were my friend and so it really didn’t matter. And as far as patients, when one is 80, whether you are 24 or 16, you are still young to them.
What is the accomplishment of which you are most proud?
My brother and I wrote a book on AIDS when he was in college and I was in high school. Targeted for students, we hope we helped increase awareness and fought misperceptions about the disease. This was back in 1989 when there was still a lot of miseducation floating around.
What motivates you?
To make a difference. I realize that what I have done in the past should not be the end-all–that would be depressing! It should be a stepping stone, and to leave things better than when you find them, to be useful in the truest sense, that is very important to me.
What is the best thing about being a physician?
I am an ophthalmologist, and so taking the patch off the day of surgery and seeing the patient smile is a truly wonderful thing. Vision, next to life, is the most important thing to most people, and so we are in a blessed field where we can usually fix vision problems and make quality of life better. The ability to train residents and students and conduct ground-breaking research is also very precious.
Recall an experience that you have had with one of your patients that has really touched or moved you.
On my second day as an attending, I met a young lady [aged 30] with a two-year old, whose ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend had thrown lye in her face. I met her two months after the incident (she had been in a burn unit), and her eyes were badly damaged – both corneas were very opaque and swollen, and she could only see light and a little bit of motion. Over the next few years, we did multiple surgeries (amniotic membrane, stem cell transplant, cataract, cornea transplant, vitrectomy, iris-sutured intraocular lens and finally artificial cornea), and now she can see, read, and drive! It was truly wonderful!
Where do you see yourself in 5 years? 10? 20?
My family has started a foundation (AVASC Foundation) to identify talented students in math and science and make a difference to the health of India. We hope to eventually start a school for Indian-Americans in the US and an eye clinic in India. I also have aspirations for public service, and hopefully our research collaborations (of my brother and I) will bear fruit to find new technologies to improve vision
What does it feel like knowing that you are the world’s youngest doctor?
Of course it feels good. Yet, it should only be a prelude hopefully to much more important things.