In every industry there are people who become known for being innovative and progressive difference-makers, who build and leave a legacy that impacts others. A few are recognized as celebrity titans like Apple’s Steve Jobs or Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. But the ones I admire most are those who tangibly impact lives firsthand through their wisdom and perseverance. At Chippenham & Johnston-Willis Hospitals, Dr. Sahni is a neurosurgeon who has done just that. Dr. Sahni has focused his entire 30+ year career helping patients recover despite challenging odds. He is internationally recognized as a pioneer and a visionary in his work in treating both brain cancer and many other debilitating neurological issues. I have had the opportunity to get to know some of Dr. Sahni’s patients and each of them share stories about living today because Dr. Sahni gave them a chance and gave them hope when they didn’t know it was possible.I recently sat down with Dr. Sahni to get his perspective.
Tim: You have had a long successful career at Johnston-Willis Hospital. How did it begin?
Dr. Sahni: I joined Johnston-Willis Hospital (JW) and my group, Neurosurgical Associates, in 1988 when it was a much different program. There really wasn’t a comprehensive neurosciences program at the time on the south side of Richmond. My practice was uniquely brain surgery rather than traditional spine surgery. At the time, every hospital wanted to grow their cranial surgery program. The administration of Johnston-Willis at the time said, “Give me your wish list to make JW your home base.” I wrote down the equipment and staff I needed and eventually opened an office. Today, we have five neurosurgeons covering Chippenham & Johnston-Willis Hospitals.
Tim: Why did you become a neurosurgeon?
Dr. Sahni: In the 8th grade my 5 year old cousin died in a car accident overseas. I was told he died because they didn’t have a neurosurgeon. It was in that moment that I decided to become a neurosurgeon. Eventually I did my medical school overseas at an American university which was affiliated with UPENN and concluded with my residency training at Medical College of Virginia.
Tim: What are the major changes you have seen since the inception of the neurosciences program?
Dr. Sahni: JW is a much bigger institution now with complex and cutting-edge technology often reserved for the most elite academic centers in the country. One example is our Gamma Knife which is one of only three in Virginia. Gamma Knife is a very exquisite form of targeted radiation which only kills the tumor and spares the normal brain. We are fortunate to be one of the Top 10 Gamma Knife centers in the country. Our neurosurgery patients are able to recover in a state-of-the-art Neuro Intensive Care Unit and Neuro Step Down Unit. The personalized care that patients get here at JW is unique. The other important aspect of our program is the consistency of the nursing care on the floors and in the operating rooms. The combination of our physicians and hospital staff has led us to be the only Joint Commission Certified Brain Tumor center in the country. We treat the cancer patient in a multi-disciplinary approach which includes the radiation oncologist, the medical oncologist, and the neurosurgeon. Our patients with brain cancer live longer because of the comprehensive and detailed approach.
Tim: Tell me about your unique specialty focus areas in neurosurgery.
Dr. Sahni: My clinical practice focus is on two things: a facial pain syndrome called trigeminal neuralgia and secondly brain tumors. I started the Virginia Trigeminal Treatment Center. We are proud to have hosted the national symposiums 3 times which is attended by the people from all over the county. These are patients who have pain in their face, which is described as an excruciating electrical pain that happens unexpectedly. It is described as the most painful human affliction. The pain starts intermittently and ultimately becomes long lasting and unbearable. I have been treating these patients since 1983 and have taken care of over 3,000 patients. We treat them with medication and if that doesn’t work, we can use the Gamma Knife or surgery when required.
For brain tumors, I often rely on the Gamma Knife for both benign and cancerous brain tumors. Treatments can be as short as an hour. Previously to do this, when only surgery was available, was a 10-14 hour operation with long recovery and inpatient stay. Now they can even be outpatients.
Tim: I have had the opportunity to see you in many different settings: the hospital, the Board of Trustees, and the broader Indian community. You are one of those unique people that is looked up to for advice and wisdom. I am not sure a lot of people know what really drives you to be so focused on your specialization. Can you share your thoughts on that?
Dr. Sahni: I lost a daughter at 8 years old to leukemia. I am passionate for anything I can do to care for kids. I can’t personally do it because I get too involved. Working with children as a physician would be too emotionally difficult. My wife would tell you I am known more as the big uncle. Not just uncle for relatives but also my community. They look to me to help them with their medical issues even when it isn’t my area of expertise. Often former patients reach out to me when they need something. They feel comfortable calling me to help them navigate their situation. I feel honored. The biggest pleasure and reward that a doctor gets is when your patient does well. I have cancer patients that are 10 years out, when they may have thought that wasn’t possible, and together we are happy because someone with cancer who wasn’t supposed to be alive is still doing great.
Tim: Tell me about your take on serving on Chippenham & Johnston-Willis Hospitals’ Board which you have done for years.
Dr. Sahni: The CJW Board has evolved over the years to be very diversified, both with physicians and community members. As a practicing physician, I feel I have a good understanding for what is going on at the hospital staff level and also from other newer physicians. It allows me to share firsthand experience for how things are going on the floors and be their advocate. I am focused on making this hospital thrive at a higher level by keeping us balanced.
Tim: What is your vision for neurosciences at JW?
Dr. Sahni: Over the last decade we have really focused most of our efforts in the neurosciences around expanding inpatient services. We have a clear vision to compliment these services with a comprehensive outpatient neuro-diagnostic and therapeutic center. Our goal is to be able to care for any patient with a complex neuro problem at Johnston-Willis in one building. These are often patients with very complex conditions and diseases; centralizing the service will make our center what world class centers like Mayo Clinic are today. My hope is that my legacy will be that world class center here in Richmond, Virginia. We are well on our way and this team has a lot to be proud of for the impact on our community and region.
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