Renowned eye surgeon Dr. Rupal Shah was born into a large family, but she was the only one who decided to become a doctor. Today, she is now one of the pioneers of laser refractive surgery, and one of the first surgeons in India to perform new procedures.
“I was lucky to have chosen ophthalmology,” shared Dr. Shah.
“Initially, I decided upon the ophthalmology field, not because of any personal preference, but because I was able to get admission into it for my studies. Nevertheless, I don’t regret my decision at all. What I love about being in this field is that I get to have a lot of interaction with patients, there are no emergencies, and the results of modern cataract and refractive surgeries are really excellent. Most of my patients are really happy with the outcome and I feel glad that I am able to assist in changing their lives for the better,” she added.
A Challenging Beginning
After completing her residency, Dr. Shah joined a high-volume cataract hospital, where she would sometimes perform 25 cataract procedures a day. However, due to a difficult pregnancy, she had to go on bed rest and quit her job.
“Once my baby was born, my husband suggested that we start a laser refractive surgery clinic. At that time, which was 1994, laser refractive surgery was something that was just beginning in India. We ventured into it and the rest is history,” she said.
A pioneer in LASIK, Dr. Shah has performed more than 40,000 procedures, averaging around 2,000 treatments annually over the last 21 years. In the last eight years, she’s been heavily involved with the development of ReLEx SMILE (often known simply as SMILE, which stands for Small Incision Lenticule Extraction) procedure. She was the third surgeon in the world to perform ReLEx and the first to perform single-incision ReLEx SMILE with the VisuMax femtosecond laser (Carl Zeiss Meditec, Jena, Germany) – the standard way the procedure is performed today.
She also contributed a lot to the growth of SMILE worldwide. As a consultant for ZEISS, she has been involved with numerous studies on ReLEx SMILE, including those for the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) approval of the procedure. These efforts have led to a sharp improvement in the visual recovery after SMILE.
She also contributes to the field of ophthalmology by teaching courses in refractive surgery. With her guidance, more than 1,200 eye surgeons from all over the world have performed their first LASIK or SMILE procedures.
Balancing Career and Family
Even with all her success, Dr. Shah says it wasn’t always easy juggling her career and family, especially when her daughter and son were still young. “In whatever little success I have achieved, there has been both compromise and sacrifice, not only from my side, but also from my husband and my children,” she said.
“When my kids were young, I made it a priority to spend time with them whenever I was at home. I used to travel a lot, trying to build our clinic chain. But when I was home, I restricted my social life and engagements to spend more time with my children. I had very little time for myself during those years. However, I am proud of the fact that today, my kids are independent, capable of evaluating their choices critically, and generally citizens of the world,” she said. Her daughter is currently a lawyer practicing in the UK, while her son has just started his bachelor’s degree in the Netherlands.
Dr. Shah thinks that in general, women need to work harder than men to move ahead in their career. “Working women need to balance work and family, as society still has expectations for women regarding their role as wife, mother, daughter and daughter-in-law,” she said. “This isn’t always easy to manage. Nevertheless, I think that with strong networking and by encouraging more women to enter the profession, we could make the working environment a fairer and friendlier place for women ophthalmologists.”
She also acknowledges the importance of men giving adequate support to their wives, both with work and family. “My husband and I are a team. We work together. He handles finance, technical stuff and relationships with partners, while I handle the medical aspects of our clinic chain. And of course, he supports me at home as well,” shared Dr. Shah.
Living Her Passion
Dr. Shah’s motto in life is to focus on the things that she loves to do, and to pursue them with passion. This is the main reason why she managed to achieve so much in her career. Besides her work, she loves to read, travel and cook. She also enjoys the company of good friends.
“I think that ophthalmology is a great profession. . . more women should really consider ophthalmology as their career choice,” she remarked.
In the future, she hopes to see more focus on patients and less on technology and expensive gizmos. “Ophthalmology generally involves high investments in diagnostic and surgical tools, which are expensive and absolutely necessary to get good results . . . so, more time is spent on technology acquisition and use.”
“Because of this, we sometimes forget that the patient is a real person, who needs empathy, a caring attitude and understanding. I hope ophthalmologists will be more willing to engage with their patients on these grounds,” she concluded.