Shaleen Vira feels right at home on the fast track.
As a teenager growing up in Maryland, he immersed himself in biomedical research at the nearby National Institutes of Health. By the ripe old age of 17, he had been accepted to six medical schools, eventually choosing New York University.
In college, he interned on Capitol Hill and several of his speeches were read on the House floor. He also traveled to underdeveloped countries in medical school to help provide access to modern health care.
His résumé includes fellowships and training from prestigious academic medical institutions such as the Cleveland Clinic and Harvard, not to mention his years at NYU’s Grossman School of Medicine (ranked No. 3 by U.S. News & World Report). At UT Southwestern, he has dual faculty appointments – in neurosurgery and orthopedic surgery – and he is also Director of Spine Surgery Research. He leads multidisciplinary efforts to develop ways to make spine surgery safer and more effective.
Frisco is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, which makes it a perfect fit for this rising star in the field of spinal surgery and research. Dr. Vira is eager to build the Spine Center at UT Southwestern Frisco and deliver thoughtful, leading-edge spine care to patients in the community.
Tell us a bit about your background and your journey to becoming a physician.
“I was born and raised in Maryland and attended Rockville High School. I was fortunate because my high school was only 20 minutes from the National Institutes of Health, so I would find myself on lunch breaks driving to the NIH molecular bio physics laboratory as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute scholar. At that time, I was studying influenza membrane biology. That entire experience, along with participating in a series of national science competitions, ignited my interest in medicine.”
So you knew pretty early what you wanted to do with your career?
"I did get admitted to six medical schools as a high school senior. What I finally chose was the combined bachelor’s and medical school track at NYU. I just thought this would be the best college-medical school experience I could have. As an 18-year old, it would be my ultimate introduction to New York City. I did my four-year college program and then upon graduation, I just walked right into NYU’s four-year medical school program."
Did you consider any other paths?
“The development of a top surgeon requires multidisciplinary education. Medical school and surgical training are a major part of that. They enabled me to treat an individual patient. However, in order to affect health systems on a larger scale and make an impact on entire patient populations, I double majored in biology and economics. I especially enjoy the whole economic development aspect of improving access to health care in developing countries. As a visiting scholar I worked with both Harvard Medical School and Harvard Business School to apply business techniques and concepts to improve the delivery of health care to underserved areas, mostly in Haiti. I have since volunteered at medical camps in developing countries.”
"When I see patients in Frisco, I will treat them the way I would want my Mom or Dad to be treated. ... I think that kind of evidence-based surgical practice will be appreciated in Frisco.”
How did you first get interested in orthopedics and specifically spine?
“One of my mentors in college was Dr. Frank Schwab, a highly prominent orthopedic surgeon in NYC who sparked my interest in spinal deformity surgery and the need for statistical modeling of various quality-of-life scores for spinal patients. As a result of my work with him, it became a no-brainer to apply for an orthopedic residency and from there I always had a focus on spinal surgery. Indeed, I had the privilege of training under some of the best spine surgeons in the world, many of whom are in NYC.”
What are some of the dangers to the spine most of us don’t think about?
“Historically, the human body didn’t last as long as it does today. As you get older, your head and body tend to hunch forward, and the spine loses its normal contour. Now we are living long enough that we have to deal with spinal deformities. The other challenge is that people expect to be active at an older age. Now a 65-year old wants to go out rock climbing, biking, or at the very least play golf. So surgeons have to come up with more creative solutions to restore their spine to an ability where they can function at a higher level.”
You have a definite philosophy when it comes to doing spinal surgery?
“I think what ultimately distinguishes UT Southwestern is that we consider spinal surgery often a last resort and that, in general, only the smallest spinal surgery should be recommended that fixes the problem. Being at a large academic medical institution, we have an entire toolbox at our disposal. We take a multidisciplinary approach to pain, where we work very closely with other specialists – say in physical medicine & rehab and pain anesthesia – to optimize the care for a given problem. In the Frisco Spine Clinic, we are excited about bringing the latest, minimally invasive methods and conservative care to the community.”
Can you give an example of that “conservative” care approach?
“For adults with scoliosis, a lot of times the textbook answer calls for a very large operation. The patient may not be able to tolerate such a morbid procedure or may not be willing to bear the associated postoperative pain. We think outside the box to address the pain generator, without doing a full operation the patient might not tolerate or really need. What this implies is an evolving understanding of the tools that allow for a minimally invasive procedure. If the bigger surgery is warranted, we can definitely do that, but we realize that the biggest surgical hammer doesn’t necessarily do the best job.”
What do you think UT Southwestern will bring to Frisco?
“It’s a beautiful, brand-new facility, so we have the most up-to-date technology. And it will be great to be able to bring the best possible spine care to Frisco and all the areas of North Texas. When I see patients in Frisco, I will treat them the way I would want my Mom or Dad to be treated. That means I operate on a fewer percentage of my patients than my colleagues do, but, again, I think that kind of evidence-based surgical practice will be appreciated in Frisco.”