Dr. M. Mohan Rao: Pioneering Transplant Surgeon (MBBS: batch of 1955; MS- General Surgery: batch of 1962; M.Ch Urology: batch of 1965)
Meeting Dr. M. Mohan Rao, the pioneer transplant surgeon is a humbling experience; particularly because, he himself is so humble and unassuming. I had the opportunity to interact with Dr. Mohan Rao when he had come to Vellore in February 2015 for his class reunion (Batch of 1955). His is a fascinating story.
Born and brought up in a small, mofussil town near Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh, he applied to CMC for the undergraduate medical studies in 1953. His Group Observer (G.O) for the interviews was the redoubtable late Dr. C.K. Job. Dr. Mohan Rao did not make it that year. He went back home and completed his B.Sc. Two years later, he applied again. His G.O. for the interview- Dr. Job, again. Dr. Mohan Rao was so sure that he would not be selected that at the time the results were being announced in the Sunken Garden, he was climbing College Hill. But God had other plans for him, and on the way down from the Hill, he learnt of his selection to the Batch of 1955.
On completing his MBBS, he joined the postgraduate programme in General Surgery in 1962. He passed the M.S. in the first attempt, a rare occurrence in those days. In 1965, he joined the fledgling Department of Urology and the M.Ch programme under the legendary Dr. H.S.Bhat. Dr. Mohan Rao had the honour of belonging to the first batch of M.Ch Urology in India.
Soon after his training, in 1968, the then Principal, Dr. Jacob Chandy asked him to go to Australia to train as a kidney transplant surgeon under Mr. Peter Knight at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Adelaide. Mr. Knight had performed the first successful kidney transplant in Australia and Dr. Mohan Rao spent two very fruitful years under his tutelage. He returned to CMC in 1970 and almost immediately began planning for a kidney transplant surgery On February 2, 1971, he and Dr. K.V. Johnny (Nephrology) and their dedicated team performed the first successful live donor kidney transplant in India. Ten days later, they followed it up with another successful transplant. This was the beginning of what is now over 3,376 kidney transplants done by the Department of Urology (till March 31, 2016). Not one to be content with keeping knowledge to himself, Dr. Mohan Rao shared his skill and expertise with other centres in India, including AIIMS, New Delhi and KEM Hospital, Mumbai.
Transplants were not easy in those early days. Apart from the surgical implications, this was unchartered territory with regard to the ethics of donation. There were also questions asked regarding the need for transplants in India where malnutrition, infection and basic health were more dominant issues. But Dr Mohan Rao persevered, perfecting his technique and mentoring others in the same.
Additional training took him to Oxford on a Senior Commonwealth Scholarship. In 1977, Dr. Mohan Rao left CMC and returned to Australia. In 1995, he learnt that the John Hopkins University team had removed a live donor kidney using the laparoscopic method. A surgical company, Autosuture, offered to support him with laparoscopic instruments and funding. In Dr. Mohan Rao’s own words, “Since my laparoscopic skills were minimal, I got two colorectal surgeons with laparoscopic skills as part of my team. When we were confident, I asked a mother (who was scheduled to give her kidney to her adult son) whether I could try this new procedure on her. I told her that I had not done or seen it being done on humans, but had only practiced it on pigs in the laboratory. I explained the benefits of laparoscopy – markedly reduced postoperative pain, quicker recovery and shorter scar. I also told her if we succeeded, every donor will be offered this method and we would discontinue the more painful open method. I am very grateful to her for her consent.” Thus, in 1997, Dr. Mohan Rao performed the first laparoscopic live donor nephrectomy in Australia. In 1999, Dr. Mohan Rao came to CMC Vellore and helped perform the same procedure, the first ever in India.
Dr. Mohan Rao also introduced this procedure to Malaysia and a couple of centres in China. In 2011, just before he retired, he introduced the Single Site laparoscopic donor nephrectomy – instead of using three ports and a small incision to remove the bagged kidney, both dissection and removal are done through a single site.
Over the years, Dr. Mohan Rao has trained numerous surgeons from Australia, Malaysia, India, China, Thailand and Poland. His professional contributions have rightly been recognised by his peers and the community – the Lifetime Achievement Award (1997), Pioneer in Transplantation (2007) by the Indian Society of Organ Transplantation, and Pioneer in Transplantation (2013) by the Indian Society of Nephrology. He was honoured by the Australian Kidney Foundation in 2005. His receiving the Member of the Order of Australia in 2009 on the Queen’s birthday was a tribute to Dr. Mohan Rao’s ‘service to medicine, particularly renal transplant surgery, as a mentor and educator and through professional development’.
Dr. Mohan Rao has fulfilled in so many ways the motto of our alma mater, giving so many the chance to live and hope again. “I have not done anything extraordinary,” he quietly maintains, “just my duty.”