April 20th, 2015

Remembering Kanu Chatterjee

Kanu ChatterjeeLegendary cardiologist and teacher Kanu Chatterjee passed away last month on March 4th at 81 years old. CardioExchange Editor-in-Chief, Harlan Krumholz, shares memories of his mentor.

I have been meaning to write a note about Kanu Chatterjee, but have had trouble finding words that match the man. Dr. Chatterjee (I never felt worthy to call him Kanu – even in later years), a soft-spoken man of great patience, kindness, and wisdom, influenced so many through the wonder of his bedside manner, the brilliance of his mind, and the remarkable incisiveness of his exquisite diagnostic skills. From very modest beginnings – he finished medical school in Calcutta while living in a refugee camp – he rose to become of our nation’s national treasures in medicine.

Rounds with him were a remarkable experience. Every day was a tour de force performance. I would have bought tickets. I would have paid for the experience. I always wanted more. In fact, I chose to do my Chief Residency year at Moffitt Hospital in San Francisco based on the agreement that I could round every day in the CCU with Dr. Chatterjee. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Dr. Chatterjee was a master instructor. He would teach at the bedside, in the hall, at the blackboard. We copied the way he approached patients, the way he patiently elicited a history – even the way he wrote. His characteristic drawings of the precordial impulse were artifacts to study and reproduce. When he heard a Dock’s murmur we all strained to listen – and when we failed to hear it, he helped us try again.

He had a wry smile and nothing perturbed him. A call in the middle of the night was always met with a welcoming tone and a reassuring comment. If he came into the hospital at night (he was CCU attending every week of the year except for the rare occasions that he was out of town – and even then he called in every night), he was always in good cheer.

Despite a towering intellect, he had a humility that provided a safe space for questions. He was the ultimate teacher and provided the inspiration for so many to enter cardiology and seek to be like him – which was a destination beyond our abilities, but a very worthwhile goal. When you cared for patients with him you felt you were on holy ground. By his actions every day he honored the profession, respected his patients, and taught us to be doctors. Ask Topol. Or Califf. Or Rumsfeld. Or Masoudi. Or Weiss. Or Pina. Or DeMarco. Or the many, many others whose lives were changed profoundly because they were taught by the Master. We all owe him a debt.

His passing saddens all of us who knew him. I still don’t really have the words to capture his presence and influence. Maybe it is not for words. For those of us who were fortunate to be under his wing, the best we can do is continue our quest to be as good as he was – to care for patients like he did – and to inspire those around us like he did.

4 Responses to “Remembering Kanu Chatterjee”

  1. Douglas P Zipes, MD says:

    Beautifully said, Harlan. I knew Kanu for most of my professional career and had the same feelings. He just inspired you to be the best doctor you could be, in the tradition of old. A wonderful human being.

  2. Eric Lee, MD says:

    Very nice tribute, very approachable humble man for true giant in cardiology. Rare to see a clinical scientist who was also a superb clinician, perhaps a dying breed. Always looked forward to any of his publications and lectures whenever accessible. When my Dad had a heart concern, I told my Dad to see Dr. Chatterjee for I knew he was going to get the best care.

  3. Jean-Pierre Usdin, MD says:

    How many times did I write the double TT and the Double EE? In the text and references of the thesis that I did in last ‘70 which will be without any doubt The Milestone in CABP procedures!!And will end my Internship permitting me to become a famous doctor!!
    Computer and other text-tools did not exist and no possibility to correct easily a wrong sentence
    Chatterjee K. and all… How many times I read his papers so clear and perfect?
    By chance I had the opportunity to see and talk with him while he was coming in Paris in the American Hospital of Paris where Mr K. Chatterjee in person provided a speech on coronary insufficiency in the beginning of ‘80
    My colleagues and I We came after for dinner in a famous French Brasserie “Chez Lipp” boulevard Saint Germain.
    This restaurant has the particularity to serve at two floors and if you are a remarkable one (belonging to Jet Set for example) the waiters install you at the ground floor where clients can remark you immediately while the enter. This is known as “Le Trombinoscope de chez Lipp” which can be translated approximatively «Lipp’s first-class mug”. We sat at the ground floor!!
    We talk about everything my colleagues and me we spent an unforgettable to short night. Mr Chatterjee as dr Krumholz says was so close to us speaking clearly of his most important impressive works!
    We all thought this night that we will be the next Nobel Prize winners. Sure!
    So excitant souvenir
    Thank you dr Chatterjee K.
    and many thanks dr Krumholz for your beautiful tribute

  4. Kathleen Blake, M.D. says:

    Imagine my good fortune to be a Wm and Dorothy Kerr fellow at UCSF for two months during my fourth year of medical school, under the tutelage of Bill Parmley and Kanu Chatterjee. Anything that interested me, I could pursue. Every day began in the CCU on rounds, a master class in cardiovascular physiology, given at the bedside. Kanu welcomed all requests to see patients together, any patient, any time. He stayed interested in my career over the years, even as I moved into the policy arena. I hope I am a better person and a better doctor from having known him.