‘Radiologist of the Millennium’ Dr Kakarla Subba Rao leaves a legacy behind

It was locally known as the ‘Bokkala Dhawakhana’ or the hospital for bones in the 1970’s. By the turn of the century it emerged as one of the top super specialty hospitals in the country. The transition Nizam’s Orthopedic hospital into the Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences(NIMS) is an exemplary story.

Playing a significant part in shaping this makeover was Dr Kakarla Subba Rao, a noted Radiologist. He oversaw the change, growth and diversification in the mid 1980s with a tough, no-nonsense and committed attitude. Today, the NIMS is a huge facility with expertise and research capabilities in almost all disciplines of modern healthcare.

Though, personally invited by the then all powerful and charismatic Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh,  N T Rama Rao to take up the responsibility of developing the Nizam Orthopedic Hospital and backed fully, he faced rough weather with opposition from a section of medical doctors to pressures from politicians.

Not only did he diversity the hospital facilities but he introduced discipline, adherence to protocols and increase the role and importance of the medical fraternity. He was also known to have not taken any salary for years. “I recall one of the several instances when he made a legislator wait giving precedence to patients. This led to protest and complaints against him. But, Dr Rao did not budge and finally won the day.”
Dr Kakarla as he was known, left a lucrative practice as a Radiologist in the US and landed in Hyderabad in 1986 at the behest of NTR, the Supremo of the Telugu Desam Party and government. He was the founder President of the Telugu Association of North America (TANA), USA, dominated by doctors at that time of Indian origin from Andhra Pradesh.

On Friday morning at the ripe age of 96, he passed away due to age related issues. Dr Subba Rao was undergoing treatment at the Krishna Institute of Medical Sciences (KIMS) for nearly a month. Till very recently he was active as the chairman of KIMS Medical Research Foundation and Chairman of International Educational Academy and Kakarla Subba Rao Radiological Educational Sciences Trust (KREST), which he founded at Hyderabad.

He was born on January 25, 1925 into an agricultural family of  Venkata Ratnam and Manikyamma at Pedamuttevi of Krishna District, Andhra Pradesh.

A visionary and disciplinarian

The two distinct traits that set apart Dr Kakarla Subba Rao from his peers and held him in good stead over a career of 50 years of contribution were his discipline, both at work and personal life and the vision he had for the medical profession, especially the NIMS. That, even at the age 90, when he delivered a speech and mixed with doctors with a smile, exchanging notes at an event in KIMS, where I had a chance to meet him, was truly a result of that disciplined life.

During the early 1980s, the medical facilities in Hyderabad were restricted to the dominant government run hospitals like the Osmania, Gandhi, King Koti, Fever, Niloufer Children’s hospitals etc., mostly built during the Nizam’s or British rule and run on government funding and leadership. They were of good standard, given the large number of medical graduates the State produced, but woefully short in meeting the spiralling demands for a fast growing city and medical challenges.

At the NIMS, what Dr Kakarla could do with the Autonomy provided by the NTR Government was to attract talent both from within and also a large section of the Non Resident Indian (specially Andhra) doctors. The hospital soon had Dr Somaraju, Dr Bhaskar Rao, Dr Krishnam Raju, all promising cardiologists then. Later, they moved on to start the CARE Hospitals group.

Similarly, the neurosurgery department grew with the likes of Dr Raja Reddy, Dr Mohan Das and Dr A K Purohit. The last named, could learn and perform one of the first surgeries to treat Cerebral Palsy in children under the guidance of Dr A J Peacock, a renowned global expert from Australia. NIMS attained national recognition in later years for this specialty treatment.

Dr Rao was bent on constant upgradation of medical skills of the doctors and Para-medical. Hence, during his tenure began a constant activity of Continuing Medical Education programmes and national and international medical meetings too. In the Orthopaedics department, several doctors grew in practise and treatment was taken to greater heights.

It was during this period that  APJ Abdul Kalam came in contact with the NIMS. Mr Kalam as Director of the DRDL and Programme Director, Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP), along with Dr P Rama Rao, Secretary, Department of Science and Technology (DST), launched the societal mission projects to develop indigenous technologies and products. The NIMS was a major partner for work on the composite based Polio Calipers (boots) to artificial pacemaker. Dr Harisharma, Dr Vidyasagar, Dr Narendranath (who later was conferred a Padmasri) and many did pioneering work.

However, everything was not smooth sailing for Dr Kakarla Subba Rao. The change in political leadership with Dr Channa Reddy led Congress coming to power in 1989 presented challenges. Similarly, the high number of NRIs, efforts to set up the controversial Mediciti hospital near Shamirpet and other developments put pressure on the NIMS and leadership.

The fast paced changes and diversification of activities and bringing in talent also attracted allegations of ‘Caste, rigid rules and favouritism’ against Dr Kakarla Subba Rao. But, his commitment to the cause of NIMS and the recognition it was getting due to the work of the doctors and staff marginalised many of these over the years.

However, he faced rough weather as Chairman of the Basavatharakam Cancer Hospital & Research Centre and quit in 2010. Similarly, his dramatic statements in the sensational shoot out case involving Nandamuri Balakrishna too landed him in trouble, though the later got a reprieve through his politico-medical connections in high places as widely reported then. The popular but controversial Balakrishna was involved in a shooting incident of his fellow Tollywood professional and producer,  Bellamkomda Suresh.

Early years and contribution

Dr Subba Rao had humble beginnings. He studied at the Srimanthu R High School in Challapalli. Then moved to The Hindu College, Machilipatnam. He qualified for and did his MBBS from the Andhra Medical College, Visakhapatnam around 1950. He left for the US for higher studies at the New York University.

 However, he returned to India in the late 1950s and joined the Osmania Medical College, where he taught for sometimes and rose to head the Radiology Department till around 1970, when his second calling to the US happened.

He specialised in Radiology and worked as Professor of Radiology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine before he returned to Hyderabad in 1986.  In addition to being a prominent figure among NRIs, he also founded the “Susruta Society of Radiology” US, now known as Association of American Radiologists of Indian origin (AARI).

After relinquishing from NIMS, Dr Rao served as Chairman of the private sector Medwin Hospitals, Hyderabad. He was also chairman of SVIMS, the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam supported hospital in Tirupathi.

In his long and contributory career, Dr Kakarla served as the  Chairman for the Indian College of Radiology and Imaging from 1993 to 1998 and National President of Indian Radiological and Imaging Association for the year 1999. He was conferred with the Padmasri in 2000 and awarded the Radiologist of the Millennium too by the Indian Radiological and Imaging Association, according to a note on his biography.

He has presented more than 450 papers and published more than 250 articles. He is the Chief Editor of the recently released book of 3 volumes on Diagnostic Radiology  and wrote a book titled Forgotten Skull.

Somasekhar Mulugu, former Associate Editor & Chief of Bureau of The Hindu BusinessLine, is a well-known political, business and science writer and analyst based in Hyderabad.

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