By Alexander Germanis
Last fall, Orthopedic Sports Enhancement Center (OSEC) in Bloomington added a unique personality and uniquely skilled physician to their staff. Dr. Nitin Kukkar is trained in the latest minimally invasive spine surgery techniques, and now brings these skills to the people of Bloomington/Normal and Central Illinois.
A humble beginning
This town is his last stop on a long journey that began in a humble town in Northwestern India. The western world’s idea of India is typically not one that matches the image of Central Illinois, but this doctor paints a very different picture of his home. “I grew up on a farm — we had about 100 acres — with cattle, camels, horses, and sheep,” he recalls. “We grew crops, plus my father worked in a sugar factory and my mom was an English teacher. My hometown is not too unlike Bloomington: a good combination of city life with a small-town feel with no heavy traffic, and access to everything you need within minutes.”
The decision to pursue medicine came largely due to an injury his father sustained. Involved in a near-fatal jeep accident in 1985, his father’s quality of life decreased due to knee injuries, causing him to become bedridden. Unfortunately, his condition worsened because there were no skilled orthopedic surgeons in town. After years of suffering, his father left their small town for specialized advanced treatment. With specialized care, his father began to recover and overcame his prolonged injuries. Dr. Kukkar was grateful, but, perhaps more importantly, he realized the value of accessibility to qualified physicians in all towns, big or small, and the impact it has on the overall health of the individual and the community.
Dr. Kukkar completed his medical schooling and exclusive residency in the heavily populated area of Delhi, where he practiced general orthopedics and trauma. The experience would prove to be of great value, although Dr. Kukkar was looking to expand his horizons. He goes on to say, “I wanted more than what Delhi could offer. Even though the country’s capital had all the amenities you could imagine, I wanted to excel further in the field of orthopedics and continue learning more complex diseases and methods of treatment.” So, leaving Delhi behind, Dr. Kukkar embarked on a long medical journey that would eventually take him halfway around the world.
Dr. Kukkar applied for a few fellowships, getting one at Columbia University in New York and later, one at Harvard University near Boston. While at Harvard, Dr. Kukkar started to concentrate more in spinal disorders. It was the work he was doing on the spine that really fulfilled and satisfied his growing interests.
With intentions to specialize on the spine, Dr. Kukkar sought more training and was accepted to the spine fellowship program in Springfield, Illinois. Although he had spent years living and working in major metropolitan areas, it was in Central Illinois where the doctor started to finally realize where he belonged.
Working under spine surgeons Drs. Freitag and Gabriel in Springfield, Dr. Kukkar not only experienced the best years of his training, he found specializing in the spine was the purpose for which he had been seeking.
It’s all about the people
Despite finding his niche while training in Springfield, it was the people with whom Dr. Kukkar worked that truly made the difference to him.
“Dr. Freitag and Dr. Gabriel were so nice, and the small town concept gelled with me,” he says. “I thought, this is a good place because of how the people are, and where you work; the people are the most important thing you need to focus on.”
When the practice in Springfield began to expand to Quincy, Dr. Kukkar once again dug up his roots and re-planted himself there. Once there Dr. Kukkar began focusing on minimally invasive spinal surgery. Doing traditional surgery in a less invasive way was the driving force that allowed him to persist in refining his surgical skills and technique. Not only did he have a strong patient following, but it also attracted the attention of OSEC’s Dr. Seidl and Dr. Dustman. OSEC was looking to add a spine surgeon with his level of expertise to their own growing practice in Bloomington.
“After several meetings with Drs. Seidel and Dustman, I appreciated their sincerity and compassion not only towards their profession, but also toward their patients and community,” Dr. Kukkar says. “At that point I realized Bloomington had everything I was looking for professionally, personally, and socially: a small town feel with everything from universities to amazing opportunities for young children to grow and develop. Having a three-year-old son and a six-month-old daughter, I look forward to watching them grow up in this community, make life-long friendships, and call this place home.”
Dr. Kukkar insists, just as in Springfield, the people he works with are the best reason to call a place home. “It’s all about the people,” he says. “I love Dr. Seidl for his genuine heart and character, he is always willing to help at any time.”
Bloomington, it would turn out, was the end of his long journey — one that, in a sense, came full circle. From a farm in a small city in a corner of India to a small city surrounded by farms in Central Illinois, Dr. Kukkar had finally come home.
The leading edge is here
Although the impetus to become an orthopedic surgeon came from his father’s injury, finding his niche in spine surgery came years later for Dr. Kukkar as a result of his experiences in fellowship training under Dr. Freitag and from his personal experience with spine trauma.
“I used to do mountaineering trips,” he shares. “In 2000, a couple weeks before my final board exams, I was doing this trip and there was a lot of rain and mud and our jeep got stuck. Trying to be Superman, I tried to get the jeep out of the mud by lifting it, which turned out to be a big mistake, and led to a disc herniation. My leg went numb, I couldn’t walk, and my foot was paralyzed. It took me six months to recover.”
“Because of that disc herniation, I absolutely understand what pain feels like. I feel strongly for people who undergo back pain, because I underwent it myself.” With this understanding, Dr. Kukkar works hard to assess and diagnose his patients’ pain and discomfort, and he continues to train in advanced procedures to reduce pain, reduce surgical trauma, and speed up recovery.
He is one of a slowly growing minority in his field, and according to Dr. Kukkar, 85 percent of all spinal surgery in the U.S. is still done traditionally, involving more tissue disruption. The minimally invasive methods performed by Dr. Kukkar are gaining traction but do require extensive training, which he feels is more than worth it because of the benefit to the patient. Luckily for the Bloomington community,
Dr. Kukkar brings with him the most modern and advanced techniques for treating the spine.
“Many of the spinal disorders I see done traditionally can be addressed through a portal or endoscopic approach,” he says. “For many procedures, we make less than a centimeter incision, and with the aid of a camera and small instruments, can clean up the discs and shrink or remove tissue around the nerves. All of these procedures and techniques are measures to reduce the level of pain the patient feels.”
“I do some minor endoscopic procedures with the patient awake,” Dr. Kukkar adds. “It sounds very silly — that patients are awake during spine surgery — but I’ve done them in this town and have had great results with them.” The incision area is made pain-free and the scope is inserted in a way to avoid cutting the muscles, which speeds recovery.
“Through the endoscope we can see the painful areas of the spine and use modalities like an underwater Bovie or lasers to bring relief to the patients. They go home within an hour,” he continues. “And all of these newer procedures are unique to this area. There are no other spine surgeons who do these minimally invasive spine procedures in Bloomington or Central Illinois.”
From his farmland upbringing in India to the corn and soy fields of Central Illinois, Dr. Kukkar‘s professional philosophy has always been to enjoy his work.
“If you want to get better at your work, you need to enjoy it. And if you want to enjoy it, you have to be good at it,” he shares. “Every single morning, I wake up and I tell myself, ‘Learn something new, do some good, and strive to become better.’”
You may contact Dr. Kukkar at the Orthopedic & Sports Enhancement Center, 309-663-9300 or online at www.OrthopedicSEC.com. Their office is located at 2406 E. Empire St., Bloomington. The practice offers the most advanced treatments that minimize pain and speed recovery for people of all ages.
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