Lubbock Pediatrician, “a Giant Role Model,” Receives TMA’s Highest Honor


Mega Doctor News

SAN ANTONIO — Among his many accomplishments, Surendra K. Varma, MD, likely prevented countless babies from intellectual and developmental disabilities. They are complications of congenital hypothyroidism, a treatable thyroid condition — for which Texas began to screen newborns in the 1970s.

For this act and decades of child health care Dr. Varma has provided, while also shaping medical students into future physicians, the Texas Medical Association (TMA) today honored the Lubbock physician with its 2018 TMA Distinguished Service Award. TMA’s House of Delegates policymaking body presented its highest honor to Dr. Varma at TexMed, the association’s annual conference.

“It is a unique honor,” he said. “I am privileged to be in such an elite group [of TMA Distinguished Service Award honorees].”

“Dr. Varma is an extraordinary physician, educator, academic, and community and public servant,” said Davor Vugrin, MD, immediate past-president of the Lubbock County Medical Society, which nominated the physician. “He is a giant role model for all of us — especially for the younger generations of physicians — and as such he is well-deserving of this recognition and high honor.”

Dr. Varma is a board-certified pediatrician and pediatric endocrinologist who has been active in TMA and the Lubbock County Medical Society for nearly 40 years. In addition to caring for pediatric patients, he teaches medical students: He is executive associate dean of graduate medical education and resident affairs at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in Lubbock (TTUHSC). He also is the Ted Hartman Endowed Chair in Medical Education and vice chair of pediatrics at the TTUHSC School of Medicine. He directed the school’s Pediatric Residency Program for more than 30 years.

“When I started my professional career, my goal was to provide the best care to my patients, and to be a very effective teacher … goals I set without anticipating any awards or accolades,” said Dr. Varma.

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Dr. Varma is a native of Lucknow, India, where he earned his medical degree from and completed an internship and fellowship at King George’s Medical University. As he prepared to travel to America to further his medical education, his father offered advice.

“ ‘Going abroad, always remember that you are like an ambassador of your country,’ ” he recalled his father saying. “ ‘If you do well, people may recognize how good Indians are. If one is not giving their best and has a poor work ethic, people may say that all Indians do not have a good work ethic; this might close the door for other fellow countrymen,’ ” he said.

“Hopefully I have not closed any door for anyone.”

Given his 43-page curriculum vitae of professional accomplishments and accolades, surely Dr. Varma’s father would be proud.

In the United States, he completed additional fellowships at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital, and did his pediatric residency at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Prior to joining Texas Tech he was a junior faculty member at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard Medical School. He then joined the faculty at the TTUHSC School of Medicine, where he established the medical school’s Pediatric Endocrine-Metabolic Division in 1974.

“In pursuit of excellence, he built an incredible track record of accomplishments and achievements,” said Dr. Vugrin.  

His focus always returns to the patient, which he emphasizes to his medical students.

“Patients first, I tell them. Provide the best possible patient care,” Dr. Varma said. He also encourages students to immerse themselves in organized medicine — organizations like TMA — and in advocacy on patients’ behalf.

He did so in 1977 by working with a local senator to push forth the Texas law to mandate newborn hypothyroid screening.

“That was the most gratifying thing for me in academic medicine, the most gratifying accomplishment of my career,” he said of the law’s passage. “Since then we have been able to start very early treatment and prevent mental retardation in at least 100 babies per year.”

As broadly as the law has affected thousands of children and their families, the personal focus on each individual patient motivates him.

“The most gratifying thing as a physician is when parents and patients express their appreciation,” he said.

Dr. Varma’s wife of 51 years is Kamlesh Varma, MD. “Whatever I have accomplished is due to unselfish support of my wife,” he said, describing her as “an appropriate critic.”

“I dedicate this recognition to her, as she has taken a back seat to my career.”

They have two children, Ritu Varma Dixon, MD, of Reno, Nev., and Rishi Varma, JD, of Houston and Palo Alto, Calif. Dr. Varma’s sisters are Asha Lal of Fairbanks, Ala., and Indra Srivastava of Dallas; his brother is Upendra Varma of Lucknow, India; and his brother-in-law is Harish Sahai of New Delhi, India.

Dr. Varma has been a TMA leader in numerous capacities, including as member of the TMA Council on Medical Education, the Council on Scientific Affairs, the Council on Health Promotion, the Subcommittee on Child and Adolescent Health, the Committee on Access to Care, the Committee on Academic Physicians, and the editorial board of Texas Medicine magazine. He also chaired the TMA Section on Pediatrics and served as a delegate to TMA’s House of Delegates.

Dr. Varma was president of the Lubbock County Medical Society; Texas Pediatric Society; and American Diabetes Association, Texas affiliate. He has served on the Texas Medical Board since 2012.

Nationally, Dr. Varma was a member of the governing council of the American Medical Association Section on Medical Schools, and was Academic Physicians Section liaison to the AMA Council on Medical Education. He has served as vice chair of the Residency Review Committee on Pediatrics. He also has served as Endocrine Section chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and on the board of TMF Health Quality Institute, in addition to participating in numerous medical specialty societies.

Dr. Varma’s awards and honors include the Texas Pediatric Society’s Charles W. Daeschner, Jr., MD, Lifetime Achievement Award — the society’s highest honor— and the TMA Platinum Award for Excellence in Academic Medicine in 2014, as well as TMA’s 1999 C. Frank Webber, MD, Award for his commitment to mentoring medical students. He also received the TTUHSC School of Medicine President’s Outstanding Professor Award, and Texas Tech gave him the Grover E. Murray Professorship, the highest award the university can bestow on a faculty member. Dr. Varma also received the Hippocratic Award from Lubbock County Medical Society and several other high honors including an honorary doctorate of science from King George’s Medical University and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Global Association of Physicians of Indian Origin.

His work has been published in more than 150 medical publications and abstracts, and he has delivered close to 200 medical presentations around the world.

In addition to those achievements and honors, he served America’s military as well. “To express my gratitude to this great country, I joined the U.S. Army Reserve as lieutenant colonel,” he said. “I was activated in first Gulf War and was proud to serve our adopted country.”

Among his many accomplishments, Surendra K. Varma, M.D., prevented countless babies from developing intellectual and developmental disabilities. These are complications of congenital hypothyroidism, a treatable thyroid condition. Varma worked with a local senator to push forth the Texas law to mandate newborn hypothyroid screening – for which Texas began to screen newborns in the 1970s.