Vijay Narayansingh

Prof. Vijay Naraynsingh is perhaps best defined by his unquenchable thirst for knowledge. It is this passion for learning – about everything – that has influenced him at every step of his life and driven him to the high achievements and expertise for which he is widely recognized, both locally and abroad. Amongst these accomplishments are his status as a pioneering surgeon, his international name as a researcher, and his reputation as a dedicated teacher.

He was born in Tunapuna, the same community that his great-great-grandfather settled in upon his arrival from India. There, the young Vijay and his three siblings were raised by their shopkeeper parents, Siew and Ramdai, and  the supportive network of their extended family, who influenced many aspects of his life, including his choice of profession. Today, Prof. Naraynsingh still extols the virtues of traditional family structure and laments the modern movement away from those values.

The young Vijay attended the preschool of “Teacher Tiny” who, he reports, was something of a local legend in Tunapuna. It was there that he first began to distinguish himself as a star student, and, as a result, his grandfather marked him out as a future doctor. In primary school, he was ready to sit the Common Entrance Examination by age eight, but was not allowed to do so before age 11. In 1960, at 10 years old, he sat the college entrance examination for Hillview College and accepted a place there, where he stayed until he completed his O’ Levels.  As Hillview did not offer science subjects at A’ Levels, he transferred to Queen’s Royal College to study chemistry, botany and zoology.

Although Prof. Naraynsingh clearly owes some of his exceptional performance to natural ability, his enthusiasm for learning undoubtedly aided him in his schoolwork, as it led him to be an avid reader and, very likely, the most regular patron of the Tunapuna library. There, he eagerly devoured as many books as time allowed, often reading a book a day. While many of the works he perused were related to his school subjects, his inquisitive mind led him to explore books as varied as Agatha Christie novels, chess manuals and even Emily Post’s book on etiquette! But he was not just a ‘bookworm’. Taking after his father, an active sportsman who played both football and cricket for East St. George, Vijay represented Hillview College at these two sports as well, and went on to play championship level cricket at university.

It was during his secondary school years that Naraynsingh discovered his affinity for teaching. As he describes it, “I loved teaching. In fact, I spent my Saturdays tutoring younger students after class– just because I enjoyed it.” When he was accepted to study medicine at The University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona in 1967, he came close to turning it down in order to become a teacher. It was his father who persuaded him to accept the offer by observing that he could always teach medicine after he had finished. And indeed, Naraynsingh got the opportunity to do so even before graduating, when the university engaged him to teach undergraduates, part-time while completing his medical degree.

When he returned to Trinidad and Tobago for his internship, he started with a rotation in surgery studying under Dr. G.O.D. Busby, a leading local surgeon. Dr. Busby turned out to be “both an outstanding teacher and a tremendous friend” and recognised at once Naraynsingh’s gift for surgery. In 1974, Naraynsingh received what was only the second distinction in surgery that the university had awarded since its opening in 1948. Yet, even then, he was not inclined to pursue surgery because he was not certain it would offer him many opportunities for research. However, when he began specialising at the Royal College of Surgeons in London, he was exposed to the many areas for research in the field. It was not until 1982, however, when he went to study vascular surgery at Albany Medical College in New York, USA, that he honed his skills as an academic writer, under the tutelage of the distinguished vascular surgeon, Trinidad-born Prof. Allastair “Al” Karmody.  Nararynsingh presented papers at conferences in both the UK and the US, under Karmody’s guidance.

Since those days, he has published over 200 articles in distinguished peer-reviewed journals, authored two book chapters, published over 100 abstracts, and delivered over 125 presentations to scientific gatherings around the world.

While Prof. Naraynsingh has established his name internationally as a researcher, he is more widely renowned in Trinidad and Tobago as a surgeon. He is a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, the International College of Angiology, the International College of Surgeons, the American College of Surgeons, and Past President of The Caribbean College of Surgeons. He was also granted Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons of England where he served as an examiner.

His areas of specialisation include general, plastic, vascular, paediatric and urology. He pioneered many operating procedures and surgical techniques, which have been documented in numerous international surgical journals. Among them are:  the lateral approach to the profunda femoris, rectus repair for abdominal hernias, simple repair, delayed repair and late delayed repair for fractured penis and swiss roll operation for giant breast lumps.  In addition, he has been credited as the first surgeon in the Caribbean to conduct, vascularised free tissue transfer, mycocutaneous flaps for breast reconstruction, laparoscopic cholecystectomy, retroperitoneal aortic surgery, minilaparotomy cholecystectomy and carotid endarterectomy for stroke.

Despite his demanding schedule as a researcher and practitioner, Prof. Naraynsingh has contributed significantly to the development of many of the region’s young surgeons. He credits his own mentors, Dr. Busby and Prof. Karmody, with providing the model of mentorship that he would emulate with his own students. Naraynsingh recounts the story of his first major presentation while studying at Albany:

“I remember how scared I was when I was going to the Mayo Clinic to present a paper on in-situ saphenous vein bypass in front of the men who had pioneered it. I came to Al and I remember that he told me, ‘I don’t care where you present it or who you present it to, but when you get up on that stage, you need to know more than anyone else in the audience. There’s no other way to do it.’ That weekend, I flew to the Mayo Clinic to present my paper and, as I got up on stage, I looked down and sitting in the front row of the audience was Al. He had flown all the way from New York to hear me present my paper.”

Prof. Karmody’s protective behaviour towards his “junior” is one that Naraynsingh tries to mirror with his own protégés.  He reports that when his juniors present papers, they are forced to rely on their own knowledge instead of deferring questions to him. He will, however, intervene if he feels they are being taken advantage of because “you don’t allow anyone to rough up your juniors.”

Alongside his distinguished career as a surgeon and researcher, Prof. Naraynsingh has also held several top administrative positions at UWI, St. Augustine since 1997. He has served as Senior Examiner as well as Acting Dean of the Faculty of Medical Sciences, and is currently Head of Department of Clinical Surgical Sciences and Professor of Surgery.  However, he by no means forgot his “first love”, teaching, and lecturing to both postgraduate students and final year medical students remains one of his greatest joys.  He is also so confident in these students, he says he would happily choose any as his surgeon if the need ever arose.

Although the physical decline that accompanies aging will eventually force him to retire from surgery, Prof. Naraynsingh says he will never truly retire from teaching. In recent years, he has gone beyond teaching medicine to hosting a “How to Study” workshop for students aged 14 to 23, and he is currently putting the content of the workshop into a book on studying and studentship. His guide focuses on more than memory techniques or time management and, instead, utilises a more holistic approach to learning. It addresses the importance of nourishing the whole student by nurturing their physical, mental and emotional well-being.

While Prof. Naraynsingh’s love of learning means that he “has never worked a day in his life”, he has been rewarded with more than just job satisfaction. He has earned many accolades for his work. Nationally, he was the recipient of the National Chaconia Gold Medal in 1991 for long and meritorious service to Trinidad and Tobago in the field of medicine, and in 2012, the Emmanuel Ciprian Amoroso Award for Medical Sciences, one of the NIHERST Awards for Excellence in Science and Technology. For community service, he has been recognised by local organisations as varied as the St. George County Council, the San Fernando City Council, the Lions and Rotary Clubs of St. Augustine, the Trinidad and Tobago Medical Association and the Hindu Community of Trinidad and Tobago. At the regional level, Prof. Narayansingh received the Caribbean Health Research Council Award (1999) and the UWI Vice Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Research (2011), and, in 2001, was made an honorary member of the Caribbean Urological Association for Outstanding Contribution to Urology.

For all his achievements and lifelong desire for more knowledge, Prof. Naraynsingh does not see success and happiness in life as springing from ”having it all”. The constant striving for more is, in his view, a road to perpetual dissatisfaction.  He instead embraces the philosophy contained in one of his favourite poems by Priscilla Leonard entitled, “Happiness”. The poem depicts happiness as a crystal sphere that has shattered into many pieces such as honour, wealth and love. It warns against the insistence on trying to obtain happiness in all aspects of life and, instead, recommends treasuring each “fragment” and being thankful for one’s share. Prof. Naraynsingh highly recommends the message of the poem to all who wish to find true contentment in their lives.