Dr. Dattatreyudu Nori : Legendary Cancer Specialist and A Man Of Many Worlds

” So we are all connected in the great circle of life,”  I recollect the words from the film Lion King in the midst of my talk with  Dr. Dattatreyudu Nori, world renowned oncologist and munificent humanitarian .  Its  1st January 2019 and we are at  Shirdi Sai Temple, Iselin, New Jersey one of the two temples  he has  built . To profile Dr. Nori is to attempt capturing the brilliance and warmth of the sun inside a glass bottle.  The youngest of eleven  siblings he lost his father when barely five years old . But God’s grace and his mother’s blessings powered  his journey from an unknown village of Andhra Pradesh to the leading cancer hospitals of New York  .

Dr. Nori was conferred with the “Padma Shri” from Government of India and “The Ellis Island Medal of Honor” the highest civilian award in the US for exemplifying the loftiest standard of ethics in his professional and personal life . Former President  Barack Obama  congratulated Dr. Nori  in person for making lasting contributions to the US and the world . His pioneering research to improve outcomes in various cancers resulted in his selection as one of the top Doctors in the US and top Doctors for Women’s Cancers.

Currently Professor and  executive Chairman ( earlier chairman of department of radiation oncology) at The New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical College and Director of cancer center at NYP / Weill Cornell Medical Queens for over two and a half decades  . Dr. Nori continues to be active as clinician, teacher, researcher, administrator and continues to guide the two large radiation oncology departments and the cancer center .

Dr. Nori possesses a calm personality with a shock of black hair atop a high domed forehead, wearing thin rimmed glasses framing black eyes that are knowing with the wounds and balms he has seen . Like the radiation machines his gaze looks through people and  situations that hinge at the doorway of life and death . But above all he is in communion with the indefinable , the mysterious that lends him a deep assurance. His patients  comprise from the highest echelons of society like presidents of countries , Hollywood and Bollywood celebrities , influential senators to commoners like us.   In a gentle voice   he tells me what is meant by a successful life, how what we do impacts the world in  innumerable ways and how being spiritual has made him a better doctor. An ardent devotee of Shirdi Sai Baba he believes in the oneness of all religions, treats people without any discrimination and believes  humanity to be the biggest faith. Over the last two decades in the US,  he has promoted Indian values and culture through his two Shirdi Sai Baba temples.

Early Years

Dr Nori grew up in Vallur a small village in  Andhra Pradesh, India . His father , Satyanarayana Nori a deeply spiritual and principled person was a school teacher. His mother has been the biggest influence in his life . She filled the pitcher of Dr. Nori’s  young heart with streams of unconditional love such that it overflowed to one day encompass the world in the spirit of service to all.  On losing his father , the big family had meager resources . His mother sold off her limited worldly possessions including her pair of gold bangles to educate and feed her children .

An unlettered woman herself what she did teach him through her way of life  were bigger lessons of humanity : to share and care and to keep the balance of spirit even amongst vicissitudes.  A legacy that he intends to pass on to his grandchildren along with love and affection as he believes  “that’s what will make them good citizens and human beings.”

Recently an entire chapter on Dr. Nori was included in school books of Andhra Pradesh. Now a writer of three books on oncology and over three hundred scientific papers, during his growing years Dr. Nori did not  have the means to purchase his school books or arrange for his medical college fees.

The eleven siblings always watched out for each other and that’s how Dr. Nori is today too, getting involved with his patient’s family and all that they do.  However his deprived growing years did not make him bitter rather to this day his wise and humble heart cannot see anyone suffer from a lack of health or wealth.

Taking His Place In The Circle Of Life

While pursuing his MD from Osmania University in Hyderabad, India Dr. Nori presented his research papers  to a group of  visiting senior doctors from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York  . An impressed head of department presented Dr. Nori with his business card and in 1976  on completion of his MD Dr. Nori flew out to USA with only $10 in his pocket to join  a hospital at  Brooklyn. He was called to Sloan Kettering Cancer Center Manhattan and was asked to immediately join. The rest is history. Laughingly he recollects getting into a cab from Brooklyn to Manhattan with scant belongings and a carton of milk, possessing money only for the cab ride . An irritated cab driver insisted he leave the carton assuring him of  milk supply in Manhattan to which Dr. Nori promptly replied ” of course there is milk in Manhattan but who said I have the money to buy it?”.

In 1976 he received his first salary of $400 and gifted his mother a pair of gold bangles.

The American Cancer society honored him with their highest prestigious award “Tribute to Life” for his accomplishments in cancer research.  The desire to serve humanity and save lives is what keeps him focused in his grueling schedule  and the rigors of medical profession . He believes money is a buy product of excelling in one’s profession. Like the sun that warms all with its expanse  Dr. Nori  has so far trained  over 300 oncologists from India, U.S. and other countries many of whom have become leaders and helped save lives of thousands all over the world.  .

In the words of Dr. Shuvendu Sen, Director of Medical Student Education  and a columnist
” Yet what gives permanence to Dr. Nori’s legacy is his quest for the prevention of this inexorable disease. “

All Connected In The Circle Of Life

 If you wonder  how Dr. Nori manages his numerous roles as  doctor , educator ,  director , family man, community server with such commitment and peace ,  he demystifies that in life there are manifold circles that form, inform and overlap each other . The first circle comprises of immediate family and it is our moral duty to fulfill our family’s needs , next is the help and guidance rendered to extended family , then is serving the community that leads to contribution towards the nation. His love and gratitude to Shirdi Sai Baba is the spine supporting all his concentric circles.  The connect with Sai Baba happened while pursuing medicine in India . He could unburden his heart to Baba and the peace that filled him made him surmount all challenges. An eternal optimist he categorizes setbacks as passing clouds .He narrates about his relation to Baba” I don’t breathe without him , I talk to him , connect to him and basically don’t take a no from him.” In every case he tells Baba that since you have given me the expertise then help me to use it to heal my patients.   

In the words of one of his patients Marie Czarnecki,  “I’m alive today  because of him. I know I speak for all his patients when I say I am deeply grateful for Dr. Nori’s genius and determination in developing medical advances, but I also speak for all of his patients when I say that I am profoundly grateful for his compassion and humanity as well.”  She has now been cancer free for the last thirty four years. And what happens when in extreme cases the patient has to exit the circle of life. Not exit Dr. Nori  whispers, only transition from life to death and in that transition stage he is with the patient all the way such that the fear of death dissolves in the face of compassion. This is one of his biggest concern that many doctors lacking in empathy and spirituality fail to give hope to the patient. He strongly believes that no one should die a hopeless death.

“Always find within you a nobler thought , a kinder word and a better action .” (in the diary of Dr. Nori’s father)

The Indian cancer Congress at their annual meeting in 2017 in Bangalore  honored Dr. Nori with their most prestigious “Living Legend in Oncology ” award. As unfinished business he wishes to set up a foundation for children who lost their mothers to cancer . He believes we are fortunate to attain human birth so this body and mind must be used to alleviate the sorrows of humanity. That success is not possessing millions in the bank for family with a haphazard value system , success is to live with a high moral compass and serve others which in turn leads to  the completion of life’s circle.  It is in the words of his father to find “deep within you a nobler thought, a kinder word and a better action”  that Dr. Nori has discovered a wonderful world at his doorstep.

 It’s dusk and the temple bells are ringing , the atmosphere is charged with evening chants and the frittering  wisps of sandalwood incense . My faith in the human race restored after being in the august company of Dr. Nori I take his leave. He slowly weaves his way through a throng of people paying respect to him, a nod here, a kind pat on someone’s shoulder, a humble folding of hands, an encouraging word  to a young man , he  finally stands in front of  the grand statue of  Sri Sai Baba. On his lips are the prayer filling the temple hall :

“You are my mother, my father, my brother, you are my friend. You are knowledge, You are the embodiment of love and tenderness. You are my everything, O Lord.!!”

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I believe good writing is about telling the truth. I pen issues on culture, human relationships, spirituality and travel, besides evolving life issues.