Dr. Vani Vijayakumar chose nuclear medicine as a career because it allows her, among other things, to diagnose cancer patients and then treat them.
Dr. Vani Vijayakumar chose nuclear medicine as a career because it allows her, among other things, to diagnose cancer patients and then treat them.
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People of the U: Vani Vijayakumar

Published on Thursday, February 25, 2021

By: Gary Pettus, gpettus@umc.edu

Editor's Note: Front and Center is part of an ongoing series featuring UMMC's faculty, staff and students. See more Front and Center features.

The foundation of Dr. Vani Vijayakumar’s compassion for her patients rests on a broken bone.

It happened more than 15 years ago in Galveston, Texas, when another driver ran a red light, smashing the physician’s car and her hip.

For a while, “I didn’t know anything,” said the professor of radiology at UMMC, who prefers to be referred to by her first name only.

Counting her hospital stay and a stretch of physical therapy, it took her six months to recover, six months of pain and effort so she could get back to work.

“After I went through that, I knew what it’s like for patients who go through suffering,” Vani said. “Any personal tragedy will make you more sympathetic. I listen to patients better now. I try to work hard to get them what they need.”

Certainly, she did exactly that when she recently secured for the Medical Center a new FDA-approved treatment for adult patients with advanced cancer of cells that are similar to both nerve cells and those producing hormones.

These neuroendocrine tumors (NETs) afflict the digestive tract; when standard therapy fails to stop the cancer from worsening, patients have few choices for more treatment. 

That number went up in January 2018, with government approval of lutetium Lu 177 dotatate, or Lutathera, which uses radiation exposure to target tumors of the pancreas or gastrointestinal tract.

“It’s an important breakthrough,” Vani said.  

It is the first radioactive drug approved to treat this type of cancer, which, at UMMC placed it under the purview of Vijayakumar, board-certified in nuclear medicine.

Bringing it here took at least several months and up to a year or more, at least in part because of training and licensing requirements for a new procedure involving radioactive materials. Vani has met those requirements.

In Mississippi, the Medical Center acquired it first, Vani said. Recently, the first patient here finished his treatment, and the second is scheduled to begin therapy by mid-month.

“It can prolong a patient’s life,” she said. “I’m very happy to get it.”

Mary Beth Borrello, a nuclear medicine technologist who has worked with Vijayakumar for more than four years, said this Lutathera coup was not surprising, considering Vani’s commitment.

“Our first patient was a huge success, and the family told us he is now able to fish every day, even though, as of November, he was unable to do any physical activity,” Borrello said.

“Dr. Vani found this treatment herself, so she doesn’t just stop at her job description – she goes above and beyond it.  She talks with [her colleagues] at other hospitals all the time. She’s not afraid to ask “What’s the best way to do this?’ so we can do it the best way here.

“She so wants to improve patient care.”

It’s an ambition she shares with her husband, Dr. Srinivasan “Dr. Vijay” Vijayakumar, chair of radiation/oncology at UMMC, whom she met in medical school decades ago while they still lived in their native country of India.

Each year – until last year’s COVID outbreak -- they visit relatives in India, where she spends time shopping with her sister and reacquainting herself with the cinematic joys of Bollywood.

Even so, the couple also makes sure not to lose touch with their heritage in the States, where they have lived for 40 years, having settled in Ridgeland. On Facebook, Vani posts photos of herself wearing saris. She dons traditional Indian dress for festivals, where enjoys dancing.

“My friends are surprised when I do that,” she said. “They say, ‘You are that age, and doing all this?’ In India, after 50 year, 60 years, people don’t do anything. I have a lot of energy.”

She and Dr. Vijay also unleash their energy on behalf the Mississippi chapter of the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin, which, she says, has about 100 members.

“We have an annual gala, do charity work and, when it comes to professional development and education, try to help doctors get what they need,” she said.

Although the Vijayakumars grew up speaking different Indian tongues (there are more than 20 to choose from), they have at least two languages in common: English and medicine.

As for the latter, Vani, one of five siblings, discovered her desire to become a doctor at an early age, when “my father decided I would be one.” She made good grades in school, she said, and figured he might be right.

She chose nuclear medicine, she said, because of “theranostics”: a combination of the terms “therapeutics” and “diagnostics.” Practitioners use one radioactive drug to identify, or diagnose, a tumor, and a second drug to treat it.

“I wanted to do both aspects,” she said. “Many specialties don’t have that.”

But many specialties, particularly at an academic medical center, offer the opportunity to teach – at which she also shines, said Dr. Michael Anders, a radiology resident from Monroe, Louisiana.

“Dr. Vani is very dedicated to educating residents,” Anders said. “She’s always involved in helping residents organize exhibits and papers they submit to national conferences. And her lectures are always very good.”

She, like her husband, has been at UMMC more than 14 years – most of that time working with Jalyssa Patton, a nuclear medicine technologist, who says Vani treats her colleagues and staff much the same way she treats her patients.

“Dr. Vani tries to be there for everybody and make sure we have what we need,” Patton said. “She’s always here, always very hands-on. She does care.”

As it turns out, her father was right. “I love my profession,” Vani said. “I love teaching. I love taking care of all my patients. All are the same as me.”

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