I was greatly saddened to hear of the death of Dr. Chenicheri Balakrishnan, plastic surgeon, friend and mentor to generations of residents in both the plastic and general surgery training programs at the Detroit Medical Center/Wayne State University.
Dr. Bala, as he preferred to be called, was the major figure in the program when I had the good fortune to train there several years ago. At that time he was the primary plastic surgeon for three hospitals; Detroit Receiving, the Veteran’s Affairs hospital and Sinai-Grace.
Working with him was special in many ways. Surgery training is very personal – no two individuals ever have quite the same training experience. Just as a human body is made up of trillions of different cells, surgical training consists of thousands of interactions, large and small, with other people as one progresses from neophyte beginner to fully-trained (but still inexperienced) surgeon.
During this process, I had the benefit of working with many excellent surgeons, but he was one of the most significant. Dr. Bala was a major part of my plastic surgery training, as he was for my classmates and those who came before and after our time with him.
“In plastic surgery, experience matters a lot.” He told me. “We sometimes have to come up with a new operation right there, because every time things are different.” He wasn’t kidding. And he delivered that experience.
He had a huge repertoire of operations he had mastered. He would find a way to make sure we got experience doing as many different sorts of flap techniques, grafts, and other methods of reconstruction as possible. He kept track of which residents had done which types of reconstructions. If you needed a certain type of case and were not currently on his service, he would coordinate with your service so you could participate and get the required experience. He was that sort of surgeon.
His team handled all kinds of injuries, burns, facial fractures, severe hand trauma, you name it. He had a wide practice variety and drew on substantial background training in India, England, Scotland and Ireland. Like many great surgeons trained in international programs, he had a no-nonsense approach to operating and elevated his resident-trainees to new levels, giving them as much challenge as he felt they could handle, and sometimes more.
His operating ability and speed were legendary. Suffice it to say, he could fix just about anything.
He would move his team through cases rapidly and without skipping important details. An elective daily schedule might run more than ten cases, with emergencies worked in as needed. Somehow he had everything running so smoothly between rooms that no matter how packed the schedule, the team would finish and be home before too late. He cherished his own family and wanted to get his residents home to theirs as well.
A typical Monday morning would see us reviewing digital images of trauma cases – many the second-place finishers in that weekend’s Detroit-area bar brawls – planning who would get what operation, and when. It seemed no matter how severely someone’s face was broken, he could get us through the repair in two hours or less, and with a minimal rate of complications.
It was the same thing with hand surgery. Despite some terrible injuries, everything would be washed, pinned, plated, sewed and splinted in what seemed like no time, and with good results. I would not truly appreciate the full range of his skill until later, when I would find myself greatly challenged to try to produce the same outcomes in my own early practice experience.
He loved teaching the general surgery residents rotating on his service, who would enjoy getting plenty of operating experience.
Though he did some cosmetic surgery, his main interest was in reconstructive plastic surgery and burns. Many thousands of patients benefited from his service to the institution during his career, and many more would have had he been able to be with us longer.
Dozens of plastic surgery and general surgery residents also benefited from their exposure to such a talented surgeon and gentle, friendly man. He published many scientific papers and book chapters, frequently collaborating with his residents, contributing to the fund of surgical knowledge. I am proud to have contributed with him, showcasing some truly interesting and memorable cases.
May whoever follows in his footsteps at that fine institution keep his spirit alive. I also wish the Detroit Medical Center will memorialize Dr. Bala in a manner worthy of his remarkable service to the facility and the community.
The Detroit Medical Center and its patients have lost a great surgeon. The residents who were fortunate enough to have trained with Dr. Bala have lost a wonderful mentor and friend.