I grew up in a small town in north central India. My home life was full of tender love and care from my parents, who also stressed the importance of education. To their way of thinking, it was the ticket out of mediocrity.
I first became aware of spina bifida when I was 11. One evening, I returned from playing soccer and asked my mother why one of my best friends, Ravi, wasn’t at the game. He was my biggest fan, always on the sidelines cheering me on. In a very sad voice, my mother told me that Ravi had died the day before. He had spina bifida and had developed an infection that proved fatal.
Although I had no clue what that abnormality was at that time, right then and there, I decided I had to do something to help kids like Ravi.
My eldest brother, who went on to become a psychiatrist, was my mentor and, like him, I developed a love for science at a young age. I always wanted to know the why of things. I once asked him why we were unable to help kids like Ravi. He said that conditions like the one Ravi had were not treatable because students in medical school were not taught how to treat them. Earlier, I had considered becoming a physician. After hearing that, I began to reconsider that choice.
I studied biology, physics, chemistry and math in college, and ultimately earned a doctorate in Neurochemistry. I came to Chicago to attend Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, doing my post-doctoral research in the Department of Pharmacology and Biological Chemistry. That is when I first heard about David G. McLone, MD, a world renowned neurosurgeon who founded the spina bifida program at Children’s more than 30 years ago. I told him I wanted to focus my research on spina bifida, and he encouraged my interests.
I recall an early visit with Dr. McLone in his clinic. He was surrounded by patients with spina bifida and I could feel his compassion for them. He told me, “Shekhar, there will be times when you may get discouraged in your work and feel like quitting, but remember, you may have the ability to run away from your problems, but these children cannot.”
What rewards me is the work itself, not the reward that might come from it. The greatest inspiration, though, is seeing the ever-innocent eyes of the kids we’re hoping to cure — kids who are longing for love, compassion, respect and, most importantly, hope.
C. Shekhar Mayanil, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the Developmental Biology Program at Children’s Memorial Research Center as well as Director of the Developmental Neurobiology Research Program in Children’s Division of PediatricNeurosurgery. He was invested in May 2011 as the Eleanor Clarke Research Scholar in Developmental Neurobiology.
Story originally published in December 2011.