The Art of Healing

One physician’s approach to technology and medicine can change the way we look at patient care.

by Nikki McCoy

Photo of KK Pandya at Makers Square in Fort Lauderdale.

KK Pandya, a regular attendee of Burning Man, is a founder of Burners Without Borders. He is a doctor of osteopathic medicine, a juggler, a maker, and a photographer. Pandya is pictured at one of his favorite creative hangouts, Makers Square in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Photo by Bob Eighmie. BWB logo licensed under Fair Use via Wikipedia.

The notoriously eccentric art festival, Burning Man, in Black Rock City, Nev. is an attractive place for people to think—and live—outside the box. Movie stars, scholars, hippies, and artists (more than 35,000 of them) commune every year for a weeklong trip in the desert.

In 2005, Kaylesh “KK” Pandya ’05 was one of those festival participants—volunteering as part of emergency services. But that year, things were different. As art, invention, and love filled the desert, Hurricane Katrina began to furiously rip up the Gulf Coast.

As word of the catastrophe spread through Burning Man, a core group of innovators, including Pandya, moved their talents and resources to the devastated small towns along the Gulf Coast.

And so, Burners Without Borders (BWB), an outreach group in the spirit of Doctors Without Borders, was born. Together the group contributed more than $1 million in demolition and rebuilding services. A documentary, Burn on the Bayou, tracked BWB’s mission, highlighting progress and emotion along the way.

Burners without Borders logo

From his “tech tent” Pandya was able to develop and deploy a community-accessible, solar-powered, weatherproof Wi-Fi-to-3G cellular access point in rural Pearlington, Miss., providing displaced residents and BWB volunteers access to important Internet connectivity.

Those seven weeks changed Pandya’s life. Following Katrina, he immediately enrolled in a rigorous wilderness emergency medicine program to strengthen his skills in low-resource environments, and he now continually seeks more opportunities to help.

Healing Meets Technology

A graduate of Nova Southeastern University College of Osteopathic Medicine (NSU), Pandya is a doctor of osteopathic medicine and also has a master’s degree in medical informatics. He brings an interesting twist to patient care—his focus is on improving medical care through technology, while retaining the human touch.

With this motivation, Pandya has cultivated a love of 3-D printing research. His first project, which he continues to improve on, is transforming medical imaging (including CT scans and MRIs) into 3-D objects, a femur bone or lung for example, using 3-D modeling and printing technology.

“One of my frustrations with technology and medicine is that it dehumanizes all involved,” he explained. “It gets frustrating when I want to have an honest relationship with a patient and I’m stuck either sitting at a computer or pointing at a screen. I make a point to turn off my computer and actually have a human conversation with my patient. Having a physical object to help us talk about the illness or the injury, the ability to physically show someone, there’s intrinsic value in that. There’s dignity for all involved.”

Today, Pandya said, the technology is a “game-changer,” with patients often leading the conversation with their doctors on the benefits of 3-D medical models.

Creativity in Medicine

Pandya’s innovation in the lab is just as powerful as his outreach work. Over the past decade, as various crises peppered the planet, Pandya’s medical and technical expertise has sent him around the U.S., and as far as Peru and Ecuador. These efforts, along with his experience with BWB, allow Pandya to bring a sense of calm and creativity to his medical work. “It affects how I practice in my day-to-day setting,” he said, “I feel more comfortable in either low-resource or chaotic hospital environments while providing high quality care.”

Photo of emergency service volunteers at the 2006 Burning Man festival.

Pandya captured this photo of fellow emergency services volunteers just inside the burn perimeter, minutes before the Temple of Hope was burned at the 2006 Burning Man festival. At the 2007 Burning Man festival, Pandya applied to medical school.

Pandya’s intuitive healing methods are underscored by his love of technology, and the intersection of these interests is where he shines.

As early as high school, he knew technology was his element. Pandya built a holographic lab in his best friend’s basement, and interned at the University of Michigan Visible Human Project, researching Java-based 3-D visualization and holographic imaging, as well as in-vivo 3-D retinography to detect macular degeneration and retinal malformation.

Pandya summed up his childhood interests as “LEGO®s, a set of screwdrivers, and The A-Team,” (which, he confided with laughter, are the same interests he has today).

After high school Pandya enrolled at a large state university, where he said he didn’t feel happy or connected. Visiting friends in Olympia, Pandya happened upon Evergreen. “Evergreen felt right,” he recalled. “I just got a good feeling from the people I met and what I saw there.It wasn’t really what I had in mind, but it was exactly what I needed.”

Pandya studied 3-D technology and biomedical advancement, working with faculty Paula Schofield and Clyde Barlow, earning a combined B.A./B.S. with emphases in chemistry and computer science. He also spent time as a student worker in the IT department. Besides the social benefits of being the go-to tech guy on campus, Pandya said he relished his time at Evergreen because it was academically and intellectually demanding.

“I really enjoyed that pre-med science at Evergreen had an interdisciplinary approach. I liked that I was able to connect genetics, biochemistry, and organic chemistry. It gave me the opportunity to really understand structure and function from the micro to the macro.”

Pandya’s approach to life—selfless, innovative, and sensible—blends nicely with his approach to improving patient care, and his efforts are appreciated. In 2012, he was awarded the Leonard Tow Humanism in Medicine Award, presented by the Arnold P. Gold Foundation, for demonstrating outstanding compassion in the delivery of care; respect for patients, their families, and healthcare colleagues; and clinical excellence.

Today, Pandya continues to embrace those values as he completes his residency back at NSU in Fort Lauderdale. For now, Burning Man is not on Pandya’s calendar, but the fire is still there—his first day on campus, he set up a 3-D printer in the student lab.

“I’m excited to finish my residency, I’m excited to practice medicine, but I’m really passionate about how I can help make technology and medicine better,” he said.