Mahesh Sharma, MD, joins the UNC-Chapel Hill Department of Surgery as Associate Professor, Section Chief of Congenital Cardiac Surgery, Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery. He also serves as Co-Director of the North Carolina Children’s Heart Center and Director of Pediatric Heart Transplantation and Mechanical Circulatory Support. Dr. Sharma discusses how he went from dreaming of being an astronaut to what led him to his current role of performing open heart surgery on children, as well as advice he would have given his younger self before starting medical school.
What brought you to UNC Department of Surgery?
I chose to join UNC Surgery because of it afforded me the opportunity to lead a growing service line while providing care for the children and adults of North Carolina who have congenital heart disease. I have the opportunity to work alongside a terrific team including Drs. Michael Mill and Dr. Timothy Hoffman, to help usher in the new phase of this program. We will be adding components to our congenital cardiac program such as artificial heart technology while strengthening the existing elements to ensure that we provide comprehensive care for each child. Our vision is to establish UNC as one of the premier congenital heart centers in the region.
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
Growing up in Houston I was surrounded by NASA, so originally I wanted to do something in the space program, maybe even be an astronaut. I was a competitive athlete for years and thought I might want to be a professional tennis player, as well as a radio station DJ.
When did you decide to pursue medicine?
While playing tennis in college, I started to have severe knee pain that was hindering my ability to play. I went to see a doctor who informed me that I had a tumor in my knee which forced me to undergo surgery to have it removed. My orthopedic surgeon at the time was very good friends with a world-renowned heart surgeon and knew I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to pursue as a career. He recommended that I spend the summer watching open-heart surgery. I didn’t think much of it at first but figured it couldn’t hurt to observe. As soon as I witnessed the miracle of chemically stopping the heart and working inside of it, I was hooked. Fortunately, The Texas Medical Center in Houston at that time was the capital of cardiac surgery and as such, left a lasting impression on me.
How did you choose your specialty?
Initially, I thought I wanted to be a cancer surgeon. However, being exposed to so many expert cardiac surgeons who were very welcoming and supportive, my interest shifted to cardiothoracic. It was when I walked into the room to watch a child’s heart operation I knew immediately that was what I wanted to do, and the rest was history. Those early interactions, watching the pediatric cardiovascular surgery and my subsequent relationship with a mentor The University of Pittsburgh solidified my career aspirations. This led me overseas to London, England to complete my formal training. I was the last North American to train at a hospital called Great Ormand Street Hospital, which is one of the oldest hospitals in the world, and one of the pioneers in pediatric heart surgery in Europe.
Why do you do what you do?
The ability to change a child’s life for better health is why I do what I do. It’s what I see as my mission. Whether it’s a newborn or a young child, you impact them forever and affect the course of their life. An extension of that for me is the outreach and international charity work that I do on mission trips. For the past six or seven years, I’ve been traveling to different parts of the world, to countries that have little to no medical care at all. Children’s heart care is nonexistent in many parts of the world and children are dying with relatively simple defects that can be corrected.
What are you excited about your field of specialty?
I think the molecular basis of congenital heart disease is still largely unknown. Research is ongoing into why these defects happen and how can we change the course of the genetic defect earlier. Finding the answers to some of these questions may make some surgeries obsolete because these lethal conditions could be cured earlier with different interventions, such as in utero. This would be a real win for the patient. Personally, I think fetal intervention has a lot of potentials. When a baby is yet to be born, is there something we can do in utero, in the mom that could change the life trajectory of that patient?
We are getting more sophisticated with tissue engineering and the potential of replacing organs. One day it could be possible to tissue engineer a heart based on a patient’s bio-markers at birth and then replace the diseased heart completely. Thus, the child would not require immunosuppression or medications to prevent rejection. I think that would be an area of development that needs to happen. It’s an exciting time because even though a lot of discoveries have been made, there is a lot more work that needs to be done.
Do you have any pre-surgery ritual?
I spend time mentally rehearsing complex operations the night before the operation. I try to do some form of cardiovascular exercise the day of surgery. The workout, for me, helps “turbocharge” the day, and I have a lot more clarity in what I’m doing. These rituals are important because operating on children’s hearts is a very high-risk endeavor which requires you to be in a peak performance state to give the child the best opportunity for an excellent outcome. As a mentor once told me, “Every day is the Super Bowl, except if you throw an interception, the patient can die.”
Do you have a favorite quote or life motto?
“It takes a village to raise a child.” – Unknown Proverb
When a child gets sick, it’s not just the child that has to deal with the disease, the whole family is involved, what I refer to as the supporting cast, which also includes the community around them. I think it’s really important that the growing community of Chapel Hill, Raleigh, and Durham rally around a big cause like congenital heart disease. When a child has congenital heart disease, it requires the support of the bigger community to help them get the best possible care.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
Be true to yourself. I think everything revolves around that. If you’re true to yourself, you can do the best for humanity, for your friends, family, and colleagues. If you are doing something you aren’t passionate about, it shows; you’re just punching a time card. You have to have passion, and I think that comes from being yourself.
If you give your younger self one piece of advice what would it be?
Is there anything you wish your colleagues or patients knew about you before meeting you?
Doing what I do, day in and day out, for me it’s a calling more than a job. There were a lot of jobs I could or would do but chose not to pursue. A true calling like this, being a doctor, specifically a pediatric heart surgeon, requires a deep-rooted desire. A desire to make a difference and have the perseverance to overcome any obstacles or challenges to reach that goal. This journey is a marathon, so you have to be prepared for the long haul not just personally but professionally.
If you could pick the brain of someone alive or dead, who would it be?
The Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius. He controlled a massive empire that is probably the largest that has ever existed. I would like to pick his brain because I think he was a very learned individual, a very introspective leader; during his reign, there were a lot of advancements. I believe he is one of these people who transcends generations. He wrote a book entitled “Meditations” which talks about life lessons from centuries ago that are still appropriate for today.
What are some goals you would like to achieve during your time at UNC Surgery?
During my time here I want to provide outstanding care to the children and families in this region and beyond. I want to help continue to develop a team, and that team subsequently continue to build on a world-class program recognized as one of the very best in the nation. On a personal level, I’d like to incorporate myself into North Carolina. As a Texan, being in North Carolina has been a relatively easy transition. I feel very much at home here and would like to engross myself in the amazing university atmosphere here. Just from walking the campus and all the things going on around you, it’s a special place to be. I’m looking forward to contributing to the university community and our department in a meaningful way that helps the mission of the school of medicine, hospital system, and department of surgery.
For more information about Dr. Sharma, check out his profile.