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Kiran Agarwal-Harding

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

Kiran Agarwal-Harding’s first experience witnessing surgery was when he was 17. He went to India to observe a neurosurgeon who had recently saved his mother’s life after she suffered a stroke. However, feeling overheated and overwhelmed, he passed out.

“It was like a tower collapsing in the middle of this operating room,” said Agarwal-Harding, who was 6-foot-7-inches at the time. But he went back the next day to watch an even more intensive case — surgeons were “removing a big tumor from somebody’s brain” — and he was hooked. “I was like, OK, I can do this,” he said.

Now, Agarwal-Harding stands, without fainting, as the founder of the Harvard Global Orthopaedics Collaborative. He and his colleagues travel around the world to help countries improve their basic systems of musculoskeletal care by training more surgeons, supporting local doctors, and persuading government officials to make investments.

Agarwal-Harding knew orthopedic surgery was his calling after he traveled to Haiti in 2012, two years after the country’s deadliest earthquake, and saw people were still waiting to get treated for things like basic broken bones. He eventually made his way to Malawi, a large, poor country in southeastern Africa that he said has just 14 orthopedic surgeons for its more than 19 million residents.

The lack of staff is not the only hurdle. Many hospitals don’t have bone and joint implants or imaging technology. Some facilities don’t have running water or electricity. That means patients sit around for months at a time because they can’t access care for broken hands, legs, and ankles. “Entire families and communities are devastated by these injuries,” Agarwal-Harding said.

The goal, he said, is “to make a tangible difference in improving orthopedic trauma care for the poor.” And, like after his first OR experience, he’s never been more sure of his footing.

— Bob Herman