Leadership is about making decisions. Dr. Darshana Manji Dadhania ’93 knows a lot about decision-making, as is evident in her many leadership roles at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center (NYP/WCMC) in Manhattan.
As COVID-19 gripped New York City in March 2020, hospitals across the United States discontinued elective procedures, including kidney transplants. As the surgical shutdown ensued, Dr. Dadhania, who serves as the medical director for the Kidney and Pancreas Transplant Program at NYP/WCMC, evaluated the impact of the pandemic on her patients’ welfare. She and her colleagues realized that patients on dialysis who were waiting for a kidney transplant were more likely to have severe COVID-19 illness and complications compared to those who already had a kidney transplant and healthy kidney function.
“Healthy kidney function was an important parameter in assessing a patient’s case. When the kidneys weren’t functioning well at the onset of COVID-19, we found the patient did not do well and often did not survive,” says Dr. Dadhania. The team had to make an important decision: what carried greater risk during this viral pandemic, performing surgeries and using immunosuppressant drugs, or keeping patients on dialysis?
“There wasn’t a clear answer, so our team slowly began performing kidney transplants, with all necessary precautions,” explains Dr. Dadhania. “As we resumed surgeries, our multidisciplinary team consisting of nurses, physicians and renal fellows, quickly developed plans to maintain a COVID-free unit and clinic for our transplanted patients and protect them from the virus. The process involved developing collaborations with the Weill Cornell Medicine Fever Clinic and telemedicine visits to evaluate and treat transplant patients with COVID-19 illness. It was a difficult decision for all involved — physicians, nurses and administrators — but one that likely saved lives.”
As of June 2021, there has not been a single kidney transplant patient who has contracted COVID-19 from a pre- or post-surgery visit at NYP/WCMC. All of their efforts were further rewarded when Dr. Dadhania and the team summarized their data and learned that their kidney transplant patients with COVID-19 illness had one of the lowest mortality rates during the peak of the pandemic.
“It’s been very tough and stressful to practice medicine in the midst of a pandemic,” Dr. Dadhania says, “but the reason I went into medicine was to help others.”
Finding a voice — and a calling
Dr. Dadhania’s career path began at Stevens in 1990, where she enrolled in the university’s accelerated pre-medicine program in partnership with the New Jersey Medical School at Rutgers University (NJMS). She remembers being “a pretty shy child,” but the activities she participated in as an undergraduate helped her to find her voice. Chief among those experiences was to establish a chapter of Alpha Epsilon Delta, a national pre-professional honor society for students committed to healthcare careers. Nuran Kumbaraci, an assistant professor of chemistry and chemical biology, encouraged her to start the chapter at Stevens.
“This was an important early step in my training,” says Dr. Dadhania. “The small, supportive environment at Stevens allowed me to start an organization that, I think, in a larger environment, I might not have had the opportunity or courage to pursue.”
Taking her newfound confidence with her to New Jersey Medical School in Newark, New Jersey, Dr. Dadhania became president of the student-run clinic. “It was an environment with diverse patient populations, diverse pathology, and where every helping hand counted,” recalls Dr. Dadhania. “Even a medical student could contribute in a meaningful way to a patient’s hospital journey.”
Dr. Dadhania’s early experiences at NYP/WCMC further crystallized her future plans. She interacted with expert clinicians, whose priority was to deliver excellent patient care, as well as with leaders who had the ability to inspire and motivate junior members. During this phase of her career, she met with the Weill Department of Medicine’s Chief of Nephrology, Dr. Manikkam Suthanthiran, who left a lasting impression on her. “I never intended on pursuing a career in academic medicine because I did not like the concept of performing research to publish and obtain grants. However, I found that the translational research being performed in the Suthanthiran Laboratory had the potential to solve clinical puzzles and improve patient care.” To date, Dr. Dadhania has published 86 papers in the top-tier medical journals.
After completing her internal medicine residency training at NYP/WCMC, Dr. Dadhania pursued an academic career in transplantation medicine and is currently an associate professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical Center.
“I just say ‘yes’”
Keeping an eye on the future and saying “yes” to opportunities, especially those that involve new collaborations, has been Dr. Dadhania’s approach to success.
Today, she holds a number of high-level leadership positions at NYP/WCMC which include medical director of the Kidney and Pancreas Transplant Program, one of the largest kidney transplant programs on the East Coast, and director of the Genomics Division of the Immunogenetics and Transplantation Center, a histocompatibility laboratory that serves six transplant programs. Dr. Dadhania has trained in histocompatibility, the science of determining a fit between a donor organ and transplant patient to ensure that the organ will not be rejected. Licensed by New York State since 2017, she provides consulting services to NewYork-Presbyterian and several other hospitals in New York City. In addition, she is also the principal investigator of two research grants sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. Her honors include the New Key Opinion Leader for The Transplantation Society, Elected Fellow of the American Society of Transplantation (AST) and Editorial Board member of two international peer reviewed journals.
“I get excited very easily, so when things are proposed to me, I just say ‘yes.’ I haven’t learned how to say ‘no’ yet,” she says.
Case in point: When a colleague nominated Dr. Dadhania for a leadership position of the Kidney Pancreas Community of Practice (KPCOP) within the American Society of Transplantation in 2015, she enthusiastically accepted. This was a type of challenge that she had not engaged in before. To her surprise, her enthusiasm for cross-collaborations with the goal of improving patient care made her a natural leader. “I knew the medical community had the potential to help other junior faculty collaborate across the United States and to make meaningful contributions to the transplant literature.” Under Dr. Dadhania’s leadership, the community developed new workgroups focused on issues that affected patient care, engaged younger members in leadership, and fostered junior-senior faculty collaborations across institutions nationwide. She also successfully led productive multicenter workgroups on failing kidney allograft, frailty and cardiovascular disease in kidney transplant patients, which resulted in a number of pivotal publications. Dr. Dadhania served as the chair of the KPCOP from 2017 to 2019 and has participated in many consensus conferences focused on medical care of transplant recipients.
Collaborate and speak up
Early in her career, Dr. Dadhania says she didn’t really notice that there were few women at the highest levels of her chosen profession. She focused narrowly on excelling in her individual role and how the work she performed could impact patient care. “You work hard, and you don’t worry about getting recognized for it because your work should speak for itself,” she recalls.
“Patient care is definitely rewarded by positive patient feedback. However, other forms of recognition may not be straightforward. As you move up in your career ladder, you do realize that the number of women in leadership positions is small compared to the number of men.”
Based on her peer-reviewed research publications and her contributions with the Kidney Pancreas Community of Practice, Dr. Dadhania has become a nationally recognized leader in the field of transplantation. Her volunteer committee work with the AST has offered her the opportunity to meet and collaborate with many accomplished women at academic institutions across the country.
When asked what advice she’d give to others wishing to follow in her footsteps, Dr. Dadhania offers her thoughts: Build collaborations, share your input, and don’t be afraid to speak up. “When it comes to patient care, I have no problem speaking up, but I will say that advocating for myself doesn’t come easily sometimes,” she says. “It’s important to build your strength by collaborating with everyone. I would suggest that you seek out those people, whether they be men or women, who are supportive. And this would include junior or senior level colleagues as well as individuals in leadership positions.
“Above all, I do love my profession. It offers me access to continuous education, opportunities to learn new skills and to grow professionally and personally. What’s worked best for me is to demonstrate to others that there is a win-win in any situation or collaboration,” says Dr. Dadhania. “And you do have to speak up.”