REUNION REFLECTIONS: Nirmalendu “Niru” Pandeya “Driven to become a doctor”

Nirmalendu “Niru” Pandeya, D.O.’69, FAAOS, FAACS, FAAPRS, FAIS, FICS, overcame more barriers than most to achieve his goal of becoming a doctor. A native of India, he was denied admission to medical school for years because he was “not a regular American.” He was pursuing his Ph.D. in anatomy at the University of Nebraska College of Medicine when he was invited for an interview at the College of Osteopathic Medicine and Surgery (COMS), now DMU. His Nebraska adviser, Dr. John Latta, took the news hard.

“He was convinced that I had a bright future as an anatomist and, as a D.O., I was doomed as a quack and a cultist,” Dr. Pandeya wrote in DMU’s medical humanities journal, Abaton, in 2015. That fear wasn’t unfounded: At the time, in the mid-1960s, osteopathic physicians were considered by many, including the American Medical Association, to be inferior to allopathic physicians. In fact, California had eliminated the practice of osteopathic medicine, and D.O.s weren’t allowed to get a license to practice in Nebraska.

Still, Dr. Pandeya persevered. In the summer of 1965, he moved his family to Des Moines, got a job with the Iowa Highway Commission, inspecting newly constructed segments of Interstate 80, and worked nights and weekend as a lab technician at Mercy Hospital.

“I and two Asian students made the minority quota,” he recalls. “The upperclassmen had done a wonderful job in gathering class notes and old examinations, which came in very handy. In the anatomy notes, they even noted the jokes the old professor used to tell and the type of response we were supposed to give. There were jokes for which we had to just clap, jokes for which we had to holler and clap and then jokes that demanded standing ovations.”

Dr. Pandeya also well remembers two people at the college “who added joy and happiness to our miserable, dull and demanding days of student life” – Gussie LaMar, an elevator operator, and Juanita Buchanan, who worked in the College Clinic and continues to work at the University as a receptionist at the DMU Clinic.

“Among other nice things they did to most of us, they were daily barometers of the foul moods of our frustrated, cantankerous teachers. They warned us if one of the teachers was in a miserable frame of mind more than the usual. They also knew our grades before the teachers posted them!”

In 1970, the American Medical Association opened membership to osteopathic physicians. Dr. Pandeya completed a surgical residency at the now-defunct Des Moines General Hospital under the tutelage of legendary surgeons Howard Graney, D.O.’33, and Norman Rose, D.O.’63. However, he continued to face discrimination as a “foreigner.”

“I had to super-specialize to survive,” he says. “There was no D.O. plastic surgeon at that time on God’s green earth, and that kind of creative work fascinated me. Every time I mentioned my desire to be a plastic surgeon, my fellow D.O.s, my teachers and my friends looked as if I had lost my mind.”

Again he persevered. He went to Sweden to complete a two-year fellowship in plastic surgery at Karolinska Hospital and Umea University Hospital. He also did rotations at the Uppsala University Hospital and all government hospitals in Stockholm.

“I was willing to work extra hours, so I got tremendous variety and volume in all aspects of plastic and reconstructive surgery, including hand surgery,” he says. “I trained with great plastic surgeons who were widely published and had written books; there were surgical instruments and surgical procedures devised by them and named after them.”

Dr. Pandeya went on to a distinguished career as a chief flight surgeon in the U.S. Air Force and as brigadier general and state air surgeon in the Iowa Air National Guard. He also served as clinical professor of plastic surgery at DMU and at A.T. Still University. Now retired, he looks forward to reconnecting with classmates and current students at his 50-year reunion May 22-24 in Des Moines.

“To my classmates I’d say please do come to our reunion and see the new face of COMS – the changes, the new buildings and the new leadership at DMU,” he says. “Besides having fun, you and your family will see the place that helped us become what we are today. Des Moines is a new city, too – it’s changed for the better as has COMS. There’s no better way to experience it than to come see for yourself.”