Change of pace for legendary western Sydney cardiologist ahead of 50 years of service

Just shy of his semicentennial, long-serving cardiologist Associate Professor Nidhikant Patel has technically ‘retired’ from Western Sydney Local Health District (WSLHD) after 48.5 years of service to Auburn Hospital.

Patel, a self-proclaimed “sucker for punishment”, has hardly retired however, as he is still providing services to Auburn Hospital, continues to teach students training at the hospital and is working in his personal practice rooms across the road from said hospital; but this is of course a technicality.

When asked if he’ll continue to work in this capacity for the next 20 years, he laughed and responded with “at least”, which is no surprise given how embedded he is in the community, having received various Local Citizen of the Year awards for this contributions over the years. 

I will continue to work in cardiology until they put me in my box, which is waiting out the back – but hopefully that won’t be for a while yet,” chuckled Patel. 

Gujarat-born Patel’s passion for Australia interestingly came before his passion for medicine.

As the son of a “big-time businessman”, Patel was originally destined for the London School of Economics, but his mother and paternal grandmother encouraged him to instead choose medicine to “help all the poor people in India and build a little hospital”, said Dr Patel. 

The 19-year-old instead had his sights set across the Indian Ocean and in 1958 told his dad, “how about I instead go on a beautiful holiday to Australia?”.

“My mother was worried about the White Australia Policy that was still in place at the time, but I had the most wonderful trip around Australia; people treated me with nothing but great respect and were very helpful,” said Patel. 

Once back to reality, Patel’s mum “pushed” him into medical school and his dad encouraged him to “try it out for a few months”. Luckily for the hundreds of patients he has helped across western Sydney, these months turned into a lifetime.

In 1970, Patel, who was now a junior cardiologist, again set sail for the great southern land he fell in love with years before, and this time settled in Sydney with his wife, also a physician, and then baby daughter.

Patel continued his training in cardiology at Sydney’s Prince of Wales Hospital, and by 1974 was working as a specialist Visiting Medical Officer across St Joseph’s Hospital (connected to St Vincent’s), South Sydney Hospital, Concord Hospital and Auburn Hospital. By the mid-1980, he split his time between Concord and Auburn hospitals which continued until 2018.

Patel has led a number of research projects and written various MD thesis’ throughout his career with his standouts being chief investigator for various stenting trials in the 1980s, researching the correlations between diabetes and ischemic heart disease and contributing to local diagnosis’s of Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, which is now known as “broken-heart syndrome”.

“It was in the late 1970s that I treated my first case of Takotsubo,” told Patel.

“The patient presented with symptoms of an acute heart attack following a rather upsetting phone call with her sister. Her angiogram was completely normal and as I suspected, her symptoms were being caused by stress, which causes the heart to swell and narrow up the top.

“It wasn’t until some years later that Takotsubo was officially named and published by a team of Japanese physicians.”

When asked about the most challenging part of this job over the years, Patel speaks of the sadness of losing patients waiting for a heart transplant.

One patient story that continues to haunt me today is a boy I saw in the early 1980s with inherited severe heart failure who died whilst on the waiting list for a transplant,” said Patel.

“His brother also inherited the same condition; however, we were able to keep him going and he eventually secured a transplant heart. Sadly however, he died about 10 years after the transplant leaving behind a daughter and wife.

“The parents of these boys are still my patients to this day, and they share with me photos of their deceased son’s beautiful little girl – I have to hold back tears.”

Amongst these challenges, Patel says the last 50 years has been a very exciting time to work in the cardiology space with “the evolution of cardiology in every aspect of medicine immense”, with continued education “key” to these discoveries.

“When I first started, having cholesterol of 6.6 was considered normal, now it is considered a poisonous level,” said Patel.

“The discoveries between diet, exercise and heart health alone has been significant and makes such a big difference to the health of patients.

“I am passionate about learning and teaching and will continue to teach students in my rooms for as long as possible.”

Patel assured that he had many more stories to share, but we “will have to wait and read (his) book”, a book he will pen if he actually ever retires.

Happy ‘retirement’ to the community cornerstone who is Associate Professor Patel.