Dr. Madhulika Varma is chief of Colorectal Surgery at UCSF Medical Center. She specializes in laparoscopic colorectal surgery, using minimally invasive techniques to treat diseases of the colon, rectum and anus.
Why did you choose colorectal surgery as your specialty?
I was drawn to colorectal surgery because of the sheer variety of surgeries that we do. On any given day, I may do a surgery that takes 15 minutes or one that takes eight hours. Even though it’s one organ system, I operate on a multitude of patients with dozens of conditions, from cancer to inflammatory bowel disease. I enjoy the challenge.
As a resident at UCSF I also had some important mentors who were colorectal surgeons. I chose this field because I wanted to be like them — they demonstrated a great deal of care for their patients, they were down to earth, and they weren’t afraid to laugh at themselves sometimes. We colorectal surgeons always say, you can’t take yourself too seriously when you’re dealing with poop!
What brought you to UCSF?
It’s a world-class place. I did my residency here. I came from a medical school on the East Coast and was impressed by the racial and gender diversity at UCSF. I saw lots of successful women and people of color, which made me feel like I could make a life here.
What's your research focus?
My main interest is in quality of life outcomes related to colorectal surgery. Colon problems are inherently embarrassing. Patients tend to feel a lot of shame and keep their problems a secret, even from their primary care doctors. A lot of people suffer in silence. My goal is to help them regain a sense of control over their bodies.
For instance, many of my patients suffer from conditions that can change their bowel habits or cause fecal incontinence. We participate in clinical trials to test new treatments. There is a lot we can do to help these patients feel better.
How did Lata Mohan’s case dovetail with your research interests?
I specialize in laparoscopic colorectal surgery, which is less invasive than a traditional open approach and, therefore, results in a speedier recovery and fewer complications.
Lata came to see me after she’d been diagnosed with colon cancer of the sigmoid colon. I was able to remove the cancerous part of her colon laparoscopically and she was back on her feet very quickly. Luckily for Lata, her colon cancer was early stage, so the surgery was considered curative.
What keeps you at UCSF?
I enjoy the stimulating environment. My colleagues are very smart and foster an ongoing sense of investigation that I love. Because UCSF has the reputation it does, we get a lot of really interesting and complex cases. Many people come here after they’ve had failed surgeries elsewhere. It’s an honor and a challenge to help people who feel like they’ve been forgotten. Being at UCSF also allows me to work with patients from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Helping people who have nowhere else to go is very gratifying.
What do you like most about your job?
Taking care of patients. I love meeting people from all walks of life, being able to treat them and see them walk out the door a healthier person.
Interviewed July 2014 by Catherine Guthrie.