Suvas and Nima

Nirmala S. Desai, MD

Nima: “I went to medical school in Baroda, which is in the Western part of India, about 250 miles North of Mumbai. It was in the early 60s and women in general were not going to professional schools. I came from a conservative Southern family—girls were educated, but then they got married, stayed home, and raised family. That was the way of doing things.

Somehow, from early childhood, I always wanted to be a physician, even though there were no physicians in my family. Against the rest of my family, my father encouraged me to pursue my dream. My mother was completely opposed to it. She felt like it would interfere with my getting married and all that. 

Thanks to my father, I went to Baroda medical school. That’s where I met my future husband. He was my classmate. My maiden last name was Bangalore, which is the name of a city. His last name is Desai, so we were alphabetically close. We were dissection partners and when we worked in small groups, we were in the same group. We got to know each other over the many years. That’s how we met and decided to get married.

During my second year of medical school, the World Health Organization (WHO) had an exchange program involving Indian medical schools. Our medical school was selected, as was the medical school of Edinburgh. Under the exchange program, the Edinburgh professors would come to Baroda medical school and the Baroda professors would go to Edinburgh and spend a year. Neonatology had not yet emerged as a sub-specialty of pediatrics. However, in 1962 Dr. Furquhar came as a visiting professor. He was a pediatrician with a special interest in neonatal medicine. He gave several lectures to the students.  He was inspiring to me and that was the beginning of my neonatal journey.

My husband and I came to the US in 1967, initially to Philadelphia. Subsequently, I did my pediatric training at Boston’s Children’s Hospital. Normally, for international medical graduates to get a place at Boston’s Children’s Hospital was difficult. Perhaps, I was in the right place at the right time. 

At that time, neonatology was an emerging specialty and there were very few training places. I did my training at Boston Lying In Hospital. Now it is part of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital. At the time, my husband did his urology training at Lahey Clinic Medical Center in Boston. 

In 1972 I joined the faculty of the University of Kentucky Medical Center and established the neonatal intensive care unit in 1974. I was the first trained neonatologist to come to Kentucky. Initially the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit had 17 beds and has currently grown to a 95 bed NICU. 

Neonatology has now evolved as a pediatric subspecialty. When I started in the 70s, babies born at 36 weeks of gestation had high mortality. Now in 2021, we have babies weighing as little as 350 grams, less than a Coke can, with reasonable chances of survival. Twenty-four weeks used to be considered as the viability threshold. Now we resuscitate babies who are born at 22 weeks. Surgical advances, modern technologies, and newer medications have improved survival. The quality of the survivors also has improved over the years. 

I have also had the pleasure of following these babies in our follow-up clinic. I have taken pride in the fact that in Kentucky, we take care of our infants as good as anywhere else in the United States. And it’s all because of team work. We have very well trained NICU nurses, nurse practitioners, dietitians, social workers, and pharmacists. 

It was also a privilege to train other neonatologists over the years. We have had more than 100 fellows. Now they work all over the United States and outside the country as well.

The last forty-eight years have been a thrilling, fulfilling and gratifying journey. I am grateful to the divine powers that I have been placed in the right institution. Now, when we travel to India, we do volunteer medical work and share the things we have learned. At the University of Kentucky there is a program called the Global Health Program in which we have a sister relationship with Ecuador and we go there as a medical team to train medical personnel and do volunteer work there too. 

I raised my two children here. My daughter was born in Lexington. My son was born in Boston. Both of them are physicians. It’s definitely an immigrant’s dream fulfilled. 

On the whole, it has been an exciting journey in professional academic medicine and neonatology, especially with the evolution and advances in neonatal medicine and being part of this transition since its inception at the University of Kentucky Medical Center. It has also has been an exciting and gratifying journey being a first-generation immigration physician in a new country. Kentucky and the USA have given us a lot; hopefully we have been able to make a small contribution in return as first-generation immigrants.”

17 Responses

  1. Nima– what a difference you have made in so many lives! Thank you and your family for your gifts❤️

    1. Hi Harriet! I’ve always remembered how sweet you were to me when I was younger. Just wanted to say hi and hope you’re doing well!
      Laura Cunningham Schrader

  2. I have always been in awe of Dr. Nirmala Desai. She is one of the most humble, intelligent and hardworking woman I have known. So proud of her being featured here

  3. Nima-
    You were a brand new faculty member when I was a medical student (‘73) but my experience in the NICU was great preparation for my first rotation at Hopkins although I wasn’t prepared for a nursery less up to date than UK! Congratulations on a great career and your inspiration for so many UK residents and medical students.

  4. I worked many years with your husband at Baptist Richmond. You are an inspiration to all women.

  5. Sweet sweet lady. In 1989 I gave birth at 27 weeks to twins, a boy and girl. We feel Dr. Desai is the reason they survived. She will always have a special place in our hearts. We are very grateful to know her. Best Wishes, love, Wade, Sandy, Neal and Tracie.

  6. Congratulations on your retirement Nima! You are so deserving of this and I wish you and Suvas all the best! I would love to celebrate with you and my parents when the time is right. Congratulations! Laura

  7. Nima Aunty – you are the best! We enjoyed reading this and learning about your experiences.

  8. I gave birth in 2009 at 25 weeks to a 1.9 lb baby girl. We wholeheartedly believe that Dr. Desai is the reason we have a perfect, beautiful, intelligent 11 year old daughter today. We were so blessed to have you in our lives. Congratulations & we wish you nothing but joy & happiness!! You will forever be in our hearts. Shawn, Malinda, & Peyton

  9. NIMA!
    You’re a true inspiration. You did it ALL and did it so well. Such a privilege to have worked with you just as I was starting out.

  10. Thank you Dr. Desai for the many inspirational years of service to babies, Neonatology and the generations of trainees lucky enough to have crossed paths with you. Our annual meetings at the PAS (often with Jackie Noonan present) over the last 3 decades have remained a source of joy, interrupted somewhat by the current global pandemic; but I do know this too shall pass and we shall meet in person again soon. All our love to you and yours and best wishes in a well deserved retirement.You are still much needed in global medicine and volunteerism. Stay safe and be well. Best. Balaji [email protected]

  11. Nima- You encapsulate what it means to be a beautiful soul. It was the honor of my life to be able to work with you and learn from you. UK was so lucky to have you! Congratulations and I look forward to the time when we can get together and I can make you the biggest salad ever. Much love- Gilson

  12. Congratulations Nima. It was my honor to work with you for 32 years in the NICU and graduate clinic. I learned so much from you during our years together. I was inspired by your kindness and compassion you shared with every patient, parent and staff member. When you say it’s a team effort, you mean it! You include and respect the input of all team members.
    Enjoy your well earned retirement. I miss you!

    1. Our family was blessed with the Lord putting Dr Desi in place when she was actually scheduled to be off on that fateful day of 9/11/2007; Our Kalieana was born at 24weeks5days gestation with severe brain bleeds on both sides! While some staff said she would only be a vegetable; Dr Desi kept fighting for our girl to become the wonderful, healthy & highly intelligent 13 year old lady she is today!!! & from the depths of our hearts I’d love to see you again, but at the least we extend to you our greatest love & warmest thank you for pushing on & never giving up on Kalieana!!! Dr. Desi restored my faith in humanity & I strive everyday to set examples for my daughter to keep reaching for the stars & believe anything is possible; because God has a purpose for her & each of us, & he has angels to walk along beside us when the road gets hard, & you were that angel given to us for those many days in that NICU, Dr. Desi & you remind me that all things are possible!!! 🌟

  13. As both a UK alum and a woman, I am so inspired by your story, Dr. Desai. Thank you for your contributions over your long career and being a pioneer in your field, and for representing the University of Kentucky so well. Enjoy your well-deserved retirement.

  14. My dear Nima,
    Congratulations for the many years of service and the great dedication to save lives and keep high risk children healthy. Those who have worked with you admire you for your kindness and greatness as a pioneer in neonatology. We love you.

  15. Nima,
    I have always felt so privileged just to know you much less have worked for almost 20 years with you. Our babies were so lucky to have you as their advocate. Wishing you joy in all your future endeavors.
    Joni Paul

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