Rai Helped Launch an Age of Innovation in Leukemia

Cheryl Alkon
Published: Sunday, Aug 05, 2018
Kanti R. Rai, MD

Kanti R. Rai, MD

Her name was Laurie, she was 3 years old, and her love of life touched his heart. ”She was a bright, sprightly girl, walking with a hop, skip, and a jump,” recalled Kanti R. Rai, MD. “I saw this young couple who had been told 3 hours earlier that their daughter might have leukemia, and they walked slumped over, steps behind her.”

The year was 1958, and at the time, acute childhood leukemia was a death sentence. Rai, then chief resident in pediatrics at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, New York, was about to meet his first patient with the illness. Along with his attending hematologist, Arthur Sawitsky, MD, he examined Laurie and later learned that she had the fatal disease.

“When I heard from my teacher that this child would be dead in 6 months, I thought this teacher of mine was a horrible, heartless bastard,” Rai said nearly 60 years later. “[In fact], he was none of that—he was very experienced and a kind human being, and he was telling me what the reality was.”

It was a terrible era for pediatric patients with cancer, and leukemia research was just beginning in Boston under the leadership of Sidney Farber, MD, Rai noted. At that time, 90% of children diagnosed with acute childhood leukemia died within 6 to 18 months.

The news devastated Rai, who bonded with Laurie during her subsequent readmissions until her death 7 months later. Noting his reaction, Sawitsky suggested Rai pursue a leukemia-themed fellowship after residency. “I thought that was very good,” Rai says, “because I wanted to do something and learn about leukemia.” And indeed he did.

He eventually developed the Rai staging system, which categorized the treatment and classification of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), helping to revolutionize how to best treat and help patients.

Today, Rai helps lead the CLL Research and Treatment Program at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, where he also is a professor at the Karches Center for Oncology Research, and he serves as a professor of medicine and molecular medicine at Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine, all part of Northwell Health in Great Neck, New York. He has spent more than 50 years treating patients, training young physicians, and conducting research, and he has published his findings in more than 200 original papers and book chapters.

Above all, Rai said, he can’t imagine doing anything other than what he has already done in medicine. “I have lived long enough, and I should be grateful for the opportunities I have had,” he said. “I am truly a blessed person. I love what I do—it gives me a sense of purpose: doing something which is socially helpful and good.

Family Ties

For Rai, born and raised in Jodhpur, India, in the 1930s and ’40s, the desire to help young children was ingrained at an early age. One of 8 children living in an area “where the standard of living was low,” Rai said, he was raised by his father, an officer in the local government, and his mother, a homemaker devoted to her family. Love was plentiful even if money was not.

“Jodhpur was a backward community, but in terms of values and standards, it was good,” he said. “My siblings and I had all the give-and-take that is the usual universal experience, and my parents took care of everything. College, higher education—that was their mission and pride.” His younger sister and his older sister’s daughter also became doctors. “I was not the exception.”

At about age 8, Rai spent a month one summer with his uncle, Vridhi Rai, a charismatic local doctor based in a village about 60 miles from Rai’s hometown. One warm morning, Rai awoke and saw, on the street outside, “a line of camels with their drivers, who had been sent for my uncle, because somebody in those families had been sick and needed the doctor to come to their house.” His uncle would head out early to see patients before attending his regular daily clinics.

At his request, Rai accompanied his uncle on those house calls, waiting outside with the camels and drivers. “Word would go out in the house that the doctor’s son was outside with the camel, and they would come and invite me inside the house,” he recalls. “They treated me like royalty and would give me goodies. I was treated well.”

The snacks aside, Rai was most impressed with his uncle’s approach and focus. “I watched him deal with the people, not with artificial kindness or compassion, but genuine empathy,” he said. “He took care of them without any regard for how poor or how well-to-do they were. I saw children with malnutrition, infection—young children suffering—and he would care for them.”


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