In the operating room, trust is critical. Trust that the other surgeons and nurses will do their jobs and do them well. Trust that they have your back. For Amandeep Bhalla, there can be no greater sense of trust than when he looks across the operating table at his father, Sarbpaul.
For the past six years, the father-son surgical team has performed over 1,500 orthopedic surgeries at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center. Though Sarbpaul, 73, is slowing down on the number of surgeries he does per week, the pair still regularly perform five or six together, which makes up the majority of Amandeep’s cases.
“I think it’s pretty special—a kind of almost surreal experience,” Amandeep, 39, said about working in the OR with his dad. “[We] have complete trust in one another and a lot of that is kind of unspoken and grounding.”
The Bhallas specialize in spinal surgeries and in March performed their 100th procedure using the ExcelsiusGPS assisted spinal surgery robotic arm, which allows surgeons to virtually navigate the spine in 3D for increased precision. Long Beach Memorial was the first facility in Los Angeles County to purchase the machine almost two years ago, which makes the Bhallas the area’s leading experts in the tech.
When the duo performed its first surgery using the machine, it was cutting-edge, Amandeep said. Other facilities have begun purchasing the piece of equipment but their surgeons must be trained to use it. And that is where the Bhallas come in.
As the machine gains traction and popularity, other hospitals in the region look to Amandeep—and to a lesser extent Sarbpaul—to train their surgeons.
The machine is not used for all spinal surgeries, Amandeep said, but it can be extremely advantageous for patients with trickier anatomy, including larger patients or those with a significantly slipped vertebrae.
The Bhallas are ahead of the curve thanks to MemorialCare’s willingness to pursue and take chances on new technologies, Amandeep said. But it was a long road spanning two continents that put the two surgeons in the same Long Beach OR.
Born in India, Sarbpaul began his surgical career in 1972. Looking to expand his education, he moved to the United States in 1976, becoming a surgical intern at a Denver hospital. Sarbpaul finished his orthopedic residency in 1989 and had a fellowship in Houston before moving to California, where his son would be born.
Amandeep grew up in Southern California but completed his undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania as an anthropology and biology major. It took some time for him to choose a path but ultimately decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and enrolled in the UCLA School of Medicine.
“Within the different specialties, I loved surgery because you can see the results right away and you get to work with your hands,” Amandeep said.
“I liked the anatomy of the spine because it was the most challenging,” he added. “I knew I would never have a dull week in practice—every week would be dynamic, different and challenging.”
Amandeep did his residency at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center before moving to Boston for a one-year spine fellowship at Harvard.
Sarbpaul said it’s exciting watching his son in the OR and he feels honored to work alongside him. Despite having more experience, Sarbpaul takes a backseat to his son during procedures.
Amandeep, however, said one of his greatest resources at the operating table is his father’s decades of experience, which he said is priceless. With his dad’s wealth of knowledge joined with newer techniques and technologies such as the robotic arm, Amandeep said the pair create a “wonderful combination of two different backgrounds, skill sets and experiences that are synergistic … to the benefit of patients.”
Sarbpaul said he will continue his craft as long as his head, heart and hands are aligned and capable, but he acknowledged retirement is likely not far off. When it comes, he said he will be comforted to know that his son will continue a legacy of good, compassionate patient care.
Working with his dad has pushed him to become the best surgeon he can possibly be, Amandeep said. And his presence will be missed in the OR in the future.
“Knowing that you’ve got someone across the operating table from you … who’s in your corner, you definitely stand taller,” Amandeep said. “I think we’ve had a wonderful run together.”