by John Austin // Spring 2013
Kamlesh Patel (B.S. ’00, M.D.) knows the power of a smile. At the Children’s Hospital in St. Louis, many of the children he sees have not had a lot to smile about. Along with their medical condition, he says, these children suffer from the social and emotional problems that can come from being “different.” Patel specializes in the treatment and repair of cleft palate, lip and craniofacial disorders.
“There are no words to describe the satisfaction I feel when I see a child look in the mirror for the first time after surgery and discover his new smile,” says Patel, who in addition to his surgical practice is an assistant professor in the Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. His skill and outreach has made a difference in many kids’ lives in St. Louis and beyond. He traveled to Colombia last fall where he treated rural children without access to regular health care.
Patel also trains international surgeons, such as a colleague from Bangalore, India, who will return to his home country and offer the same level of care. In his personal life, he’s a husband, a father of two young children and a self-proclaimed soccer fanatic—Leeds United is his favorite team. Patel credits the work ethic his parents instilled in him as the key to being able to balance the demands of his work and home life.
He was born in the United Kingdom, where his parents owned a small convenience store in Leeds. “My parents worked long hours, and my sister and I worked after school and on weekends,” Patel says. “It helped me understand that nothing comes easy, and the value of honest hard work.” When he was 18, Patel’s family made the decision to sell the store and move to the United States where his parents believed there would be more opportunities for their children. It was when his family moved to Missouri that his path began to unfold.
He enrolled in the UMKC School of Biological Sciences where the school selected him as its first Saper Vedere Research Scholar. This honor was designed for students wanting to immerse themselves in a year-round program, including laboratory research experience and a variety of intellectual and social activities. The scholarship came with a tuition package, a stipend to work in the laboratory over the summer and an intense one-on-one mentorship.
“I was not thinking about medical school,” he says. “I thought I would get my Ph.D., and enjoy a life of research.” But while working closely with his faculty mentors—Lawrence Dreyfus and Bibie Chronwall—he realized he could become a medical doctor and still do research. After completing his undergraduate work at UMKC, Patel was accepted to medical school at the University of Arizona. He says by sheer luck he ended up being assigned to a plastic surgery rotation as a third-year medical student, and it took very little time for him to realize this specialty fit him perfectly.
Patel graduated from medical school, completed an integrated general surgery and plastic surgery residency at University of California-Davis, followed by a craniofacial fellowship at Children’s Hospital in Boston. Finally, he landed in St. Louis, where he continues to establish himself as one of the country’s premier young scientists, educators and clinicians.