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Surgery’s Unsung Heroes: A Spotlight On Premier Chest Surgeon Nick Panagiotopoulos By Natasha Rehan

Nick Panagiotopoulos is a celebrated chest surgeon of the UK who is not only recognised for his commendable contributions to the medical field with his successful procedures but also for winning the hearts of his patients with his empathy and compassion. Driven by an unwavering commitment to excellence and armed with specialised robotic systems, he stands at the forefront of innovation in the world of chest surgery.

 With preciseness as his guiding principle and compassion as his driving force, Nick has transformed countless lives and redefined the possibilities of minimally invasive procedures.

In a heart-to-heart with the Leaders Magazine, Nick shares the story of his life, medical career, goals, passion, the evolving robotic technology and its impacts on the medical field.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

 I graduated from medical school back in 2005, and I’m trained and certified in Thoracic surgery, which is a fascinating subspecialty of cardiothoracic surgery that deals with surgery of the lung, surgery of the mediastinum, including the thymus gland along with procedures of the diaphragm, airway, and the ribcage.

The training is a long process, and I have been privileged to have it done in the prestigious hospitals of the UK. I had the opportunity to be trained by the top surgeons in the country, and I’m privileged that I have gained a lot of knowledge from my mentors. Since my qualification, I have been practising as a Consultant Thoracic Surgeon in Central London.

 Can you share the key moments in your life that led you to become a chest surgeon?

 I have to admit that when I was in medical school, I never showed a keen interest in surgery and surgical specialities as my initial aspiration was to become a paediatrician. In 2005, I was asked to assist in a procedure. I still remember the case where a patient had lung cancer and a part of the lung had to be removed. I was fascinated and amazed by the surgical skills of the surgeon who invited me to assist me with this surgery, and this was the moment I decided that this was what I wanted to do.

I have to say that holding the lungs of a patient in my hands and doing elegant procedures around sensitive structures like the heart was truly fascinating, and is something I will never forget. Since then, I wanted to be in the operating theatre every day and started to explore the options of following this as a career.

  •  What were some of the most significant challenges you faced in becoming a surgeon, and how did you overcome them?

 I was told when I started my training in cardiothoracic surgery that this was a marathon, not a spring. It didn’t take me long to realise how wise this statement was. The training is a very long and tiring process, requiring you to stay at the hospital for long hours.

 Another challenge is breaking bad news to patients especially when they are newly diagnosed with cancer. You have to help to the best you can and provide them with options – surgical or not – to improve their quality and prolong life.

Balancing a demanding career and personal life can be tough. How have you managed to find that balance between your work and personal life?

 That’s true as balancing work and personal life is surely challenging, and can be difficult sometimes to manage, but it’s the family whose support makes everything easier. My parents, my wife and my son have always been there to support me and have made my difficulties easier. It is very rewarding to know that after a demanding procedure or a tiring day, your family will be there to support, motivate, and greet you with open arms.

Could you recount one of the most memorable and heartwarming patient experiences that strengthened your passion for surgery?

 There are so many memorable moments, events, and surgeries that I felt privileged as I have received commendable appreciation from my patients. Dealing mainly with patients with lung cancer and having the ability to remove the cancer, improving their life quality and giving them time to get along with loved ones is something unique and magical. The appreciation that I get from my patients will follow me forever, and I will never forget that.

What sparked your interest in adopting robotic technology for thoracic surgery, and how has it changed your approach to work?

 Implementing Artificial Intelligence (AI) into surgery and the medical field in general has been a fascinating and evolving aspect of our modern society. We have managed to develop artificial intelligence, especially in robotic surgery and now we are pleased to say we utilise it to the maximum and perform most of our procedures using AI. AI and robotic systems have managed to make difficult procedures easier, giving significant advantages to the hands of surgeons, and reducing complications with faster recovery. The patients are utterly happy with the outcomes. And now, most of the patients want to have their procedures done using the robotic system.

Can you share a specific success story of using robotic technology in thoracic surgery?

 I have to say that the utilisation of the robotic system in thoracic surgery is fascinating and rewarding. Several procedures can give excellent results using robotic systems. But, one real benefit of these robotic systems is for patients with myasthenia gravis and thymoma, both are conditions of the thymus gland that lie behind the breast bone.

Traditionally, we removed the thymus gland by splitting the breast bone (sternum) which can give a big scar and extensive hospital stays. Now days with the robot we perform the procedure with just 3 to 4 tiny holes on the side of the chest, which means better cosmetic result, smaller hospital stay and faster recovery. The robotic assisted procedures are miraculously rewarding, and the patients are greatly satisfied with these robotic procedures.

How do you ensure continuous personal and professional growth in your field?

 Since medicine and technology are evolving drastically, we need to give our patients the latest and most updated treatments. To ensure this, we must attend regular national and international meetings and seminars, participate actively in those delivering presentations, publish papers and interact with all the medical technology industry and companies where they will demonstrate new instruments and updated treatment options. We get an opportunity to get familiar with their benefits and eventually apply them to the patient. It is a dynamic situation, we can never stop evolving, getting better and following new trends.

 How do you see the future of traditional and robotic thoracic surgery, and how do you plan to contribute to it?

 Robotic surgery is evolving day by day. New companies are now developing new robotic systems, and the training of surgeons is evolving on a daily basis. I think that from the surgical point of view, we need to be up to date with all the latest technology, participate in all the training sessions and provide constructive feedback to the companies that develop the robotic systems to make them more efficient and more productive to ensure a safer and even better outcome for the patient.

 At the end of the day, what matters is for the procedure to be successful and for the patient to have a fantastic journey throughout his hospitalisation.

Among your mentors or collaborators who significantly influenced your career, and how did they impact your journey?

 I have been privileged to say that throughout my career, I had the opportunity to meet some fantastic surgeons. I had the chance to learn a lot from them,become my mentors, and I will always be grateful for their contribution towards my professional development and my development as a person at the same time.

There are so many people that I would like to thank and be grateful to, and I will always remember them for their kind words and for the practical assistance they provided me to become a better surgeon. At the moment, and in the current hospital where I’m working, I’m privileged to be working with Professor Nadey Hakim. He has been a friend and a great mentor for me, and I’m grateful for this.

Who or what inspires you to keep pushing the boundaries of possibilities in thoracic surgery?

 I think what really inspires a surgeon to become better, push the boundaries, and learn new things is the need to provide better and modern care so that the patient will have the best outcome and the most comfortable journey throughout his hospital stay. I think that what really drives a surgeon to give his best is the need to provide unprecedented care to his patient.

How do you ensure your patients and their families feel comfortable and well-informed throughout their surgical journeys?

 I’m very much in favour of personalised treatment, tailored to the needs of each patient. I believe that the patient needs to be aware of every step of the treatment, to participate in the decision making, and there must be an honest relationship between the surgeon, patient and his family.

I think based on these factors, we can achieve the best outcome as the patient will feel that he’s part of this journey, he’s being appreciated and is a part of the decision-making.

What legacy or impact do you hope to leave on the world of surgery and healthcare?

 I think that like every surgeon, I want to be remembered as a caring person who did everything he could to help his patients. I want to be remembered for my kindness and the interest to involve them in the care providing the best outcome.

What advice would you offer to young and aspiring surgeons struggling in their careers?

 My advice is that three elements make a success story, and I try to follow these elements in my daily life as well. First is to be motivated and to be passionate about what you do for your job.

Second is to persist in achieving your goal, and third is to be humble. These are the keys for a success story.

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