JACKSON, Miss. — Over the past 40 years, Dr. Rathi Iyer has treated hundreds of children at Blair E. Batson Hospital and taught hundreds of students in the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s hematology/oncology program.
She recently spent her last day in pediatric hematology and oncology, doing what she does best: treating children with a team of nurses and doctors she calls her family.
Children are Iyer’s passion, and their battles with chronic illnesses such as hemophilia, sickle cell disease and various blood cancers show her their insurmountable strength.
“I have had the opportunity to meet so many people and be involved with families who have children with chronic health issues,” Iyer said.
Those same people showed their appreciation with a recent party accompanied by a large “We Love U” paper heart covered in signatures from well-wishers. A framed citation was presented by UMMC.
“I’ve been here 40 years; most people retire after 25 years,” Iyer said, who plans to spend time with her family in India. Despite “retirement,” she plans to continue research and education on blood disorders and cancers and treat sickle cell patients in third-world countries.
“I hate that she is retiring, but I truly don’t think she is going to stay away from something she loves dearly,” said Natasha James of Terry, whose daughter Tykiera James was treated by Iyer for sickle cell for years.
“She has been an advocate for sickle cell patients across Mississippi, and I know that she will continue to be a voice for helping break the sickle cycle.”
Pediatric sickle cell nurse coordinator Teresa Walker, who has worked with Iyer the past 13 years, said she was inspired by Iyer’s love and compassion. “Dr. Iyer’s knowledge and smiling hugs will be missed by all who have had the opportunity to have worked with or who have been taken care of by her.”
Iyer’s dedication to young sickle cell and cancer patients is rooted in a humble background in India, where her parents encouraged her to get an education and care for others. She traveled to America a year after finishing medical school at Ghandi Medical College at Osmania University in Hyderabad, India.
The ninth of 13 children, Iyer wanted to help her family back home and discover her purpose in the medical field. She wanted to be a surgeon, but it was harder for women to gain acceptance. Instead, she chose pediatric hematology and oncology.
By the early 1970s, Iyer acted on her passion through internships and fellowships at Worcester City Hospital in Massachusetts, Detroit Medical Center and Children’s Hospital in Detroit. In 1973, she moved to pediatrics in the Division of Hematology-Oncology at UMMC.
The sickle cell clinic at UMMC is the only one in Mississippi, and Blair E. Batson Hospital for Children has the only center for pediatric blood disorders and cancers in the state. Between 700 and 800 children visit the clinic each year.
The clinic is involved with several national studies on treatments to alleviate complications. A current scientific study by UMC and other clinics found that an adult drug named hydroxyurea was safe for babies. Also known as “BABY HUG,” it’s one of Iyer’s proudest accomplishments in research.
Hydroxyurea increases fetal hemoglobin, which reduces sickling in red blood cells. When the cells remain round and flexible, the patient has fewer pain episodes, or crises.
Outside the hospital and classroom setting, Iyer is involved with the Children’s Cancer Fund, Hemophilia Foundation and Mississippi Sickle Cell and Cure Sickle Cell foundations. She said she will stay on the Mississippi Sickle Cell Foundation’s board.
Foundation board member Zakiya Summers said treating children was much more than a job for Iyer.
“It was rather a motivation to live, a motivation to serve, a motivation to find a cure for hundreds of sickle cell patients suffering from the disease who just wanted to live,” Summers said.
Tracye Ballard, a hematology social worker in Batson’s Children’s Cancer Clinic, said Iyer encouraged workers to strive to be better.
“My career has been enhanced so much so that as I work on my doctorate in social work, my dissertation will focus on the psychosocial effects that sickle cell disease has on parents who have children with SCD,” Ballard said.
The patients — past and present — also say they will never forget her compassion, devotion and determination to help them stay healthy.
Shelia Jackson of Ridgeland said she will miss seeing Iyer at the clinic. Iyer treated her sons Connor and Tyler. “She has taken care of my boys, made bedside visits while they were in the hospital (even when she was not on duty), she finally convinced (me) to let the boys attend Sickle Stars Camp last year, and they had a blast.”
Iyer said if she could work forever, she would stay right at Batson. Everyone made an impact on her life, she said, including her mentors, UMMC’s Dr. Jeanette Pullen and Dr. Jean Lusher of Detroit. She would tell any young doctor what her mentors told her:
“The best advice I got from my mentors is to be compassionate,” she said. “Be a good listener and do the best you can for the people you work for, people you work with and people you take care of.”
And after 40 years, anyone can see that advice served Iyer well.
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