Emirati surgeon dreams of bringing back US experience to Dubai

Inspired by his father as well as the vision of Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Dr Danyal Nawabi hopes to bring back the orthopaedic skills he has learnt from the world-renowned Hospital for Special Surgery in New York back to the UAE.

Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Danyal H. Nawabi at his Upper East Side office in New York, New York, on Wednesday, June 21, 2017. Dr. Nawabi completed his medical training at Oxford University in England and residency in orthopedic surgery on the prestigious Percivall Pott Rotation in London, training at the Royal National Orthopaedic and the Royal London Hospitals. (Bill Kotsatos / for The National)  for Rob Crilly story. *** Local Caption ***  nawabi_kotsatos-16.jpg

NEW YORK // Even the best surgeons in the world can do things better with the help of a robot.

When Emirati surgeon Dr Danyal Nawabi scrubs in for operations at the world-renowned Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) in New York, not only does he have degrees from both Cambridge University and Oxford University, but he also has years of experience working in the best operating theatres in Britain and the United States.

Now, when he cuts and shapes bone for a hip replacement, he also has the finest instruments in the world at his disposal — all hooked up to a robotic arm that monitors every movement.

"One of the problems with these surgeries is they are susceptible to human error," the 40-year-old Dubai-born doctor said before another busy day of consultations and operations. "Ultimately, the way we are cutting the bone, putting these implants in, is largely due to [the] skill of the surgeon. How do you go about training a new surgeon to get it perfect each time?"

The answer is to use a robot programmed with a CT scan of the patient to ensure the tools follow the surgeon's plan.

The use of robots, which was adopted by the HSS in 2007, is just one of several pioneering techniques being practised by the surgeons there. And it was the possibility of learning such skills that made New York an attractive destination for Dr Nawabi to move to from Dubai, as he pursued his dream of becoming one of the world's leading sports medicine surgeons.

Eventually, he hopes to follow his dream all the way home, bringing the orthopaedic skills he has learnt back to patients in the UAE.

That would complete a journey he said was inspired by the example of his father as well as the vision of Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the ruler who put the pursuit of excellence at the heart of transforming Dubai into a modern powerhouse.

Dr Nawabi studied at the Rashid School for Boys in Dubai before leaving for Cambridge in 1994 to attend university. After qualifying as a doctor, he initially considered changing careers and following his father into the world of finance. He was offered a job at Goldman Sachs but asked to defer for a year and it was in the months that followed that he fell in love with orthopaedics.

The turnaround came when an orthopaedic surgeon persuaded him that medical education and his love of tennis and cricket made him a natural fit for sports medicine, and Dr Nawabi realised he had found his calling.

"The patient comes into the office unable to walk, you carry out an intervention and you have changed their whole quality of life," he said. "The impact is immediate."

He went on to hone his skills in knee and shoulder surgeries — specialising in keyhole procedures — at some of Britain's best hospitals, where he also gained experience looking after elite football players from Chelsea and other Premier League clubs.

His mentor Andy Williams, a leading British surgeon, encouraged him to pick a fellowship — a training stint in a more advanced field — that eschewed the usual UK, Canadian or Australian destinations in favour of New York and the HSS.

"It's the best hospital in the world at what we do," Mr Williams told his protégé.

The ambitious route meant two years of planning and study in order to pass the extra exams needed for the US medical system.

But he said the passion instilled in his father's generation by Sheikh Rashid made the decision easy. 

"My whole journey has been inspired by what's happening in my country along the way," he said. "I hear about the big leaps and bounds they are making, and I want to do the same thing to make them proud."

Dr Nawabi also praised the influence of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, in setting an example for Emiratis to pursue excellence.

When he arrived in New York in 2011, the surgeon knew it was the right decision.

"I was blown away by the attention to detail in every single thing that was being done here — be it talking to the patient, transferring the patient to the operating room, setting them up on a table, closing the skin," he said. "Everything had to be perfect."

He now lives on Manhattan's hectic Upper East Side, a 10-minute walk from America's top-rated orthopaedic hospital which has an operating budget of nearly a billion dollars.

His precious spare time is devoted to his daughter, Rania, and newly arrived son, Saeed. At weekends he tries to squeeze in an occasional game of tennis.

A day earlier, he performed two knee arthroscopies — repairing damage with key hole surgery — and a shoulder reconstruction before lunch. He met new patients for consultations in the afternoon before joining a Facebook Live discussion of the merits of robotic surgery.

Like his colleagues, whose officers are decorated with signed hockey and American football jerseys, he has worked with professional athletes, serving for a time as assistant team physician to the New York Red Bulls football — or soccer, as it is known in the US — team.

Dr Nawabi has learnt how to conduct hip arthroscopies, the hardest joint for keyhole surgery, from the sports medicine team at HSS.

He is also an author on more than 50-peer reviewed research papers using data culled from tracking thousands of patients as they recover from surgery.

"That database provides us with excellent material to publish," he said.

So when fans of the Houston Texans recently wanted to know how long it would take a star linebacker to recover from knee surgery, it was Dr Nawabi's research that was cited by newspapers.

Meanwhile, he still has his eye on that ultimate ambition — returning home.

Rather than specialising in one type of surgery, he spreads his load evenly across the shoulder, knee and hip injuries that come in. It is all part of a strategy that he hopes will position him one day to help build a world class sports medicine centre or orthopaedics clinic in Dubai.

Like his brother, who returned home after a law career in the UK and now has a senior role at Emirates airline, he wants to bring the knowledge and expertise acquired overseas back to benefit Emiratis.

"I wish there was an Emirates airline of orthopaedics that I could be the head of something at," he said. "That would be my dream."