A. Bobby Chhabra, MD ’95, Res 01
Bobby Chhabra, MD ’95, Res ’01, is the Lillian T. Pratt Distinguished Professor and Chair of Orthopaedic Surgery, the David A. Harrison Distinguished Educator and Professor of Plastic Surgery at the University of Virginia. He is the division head of hand and upper extremity surgery and is the hand and upper extremity consultant for the University of Virginia Department of Athletics. Chhabra’s areas of expertise include hand, wrist, and elbow trauma and arthritis with a particular interest in athletic injuries and congenital hand surgery. He maintains a busy clinical practice and along with his administrative and teaching activities, has run a federally-supported basic science laboratory investigating flexor tendon healing using growth factor, stem cell and tissue engineering principles.
Some people figure out early in life what they want to do when they grow up – people like A. Bobby Chhabra, MD ’95. The son of a pediatrician, Chhabra knew he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a physician, possibly going into practice with him.
His path took him from his home in Alexandria, Va., to Johns Hopkins University where he pursued an undergraduate degree in biology. While there, he volunteered at a local hospital and developed an even greater interest in medicine. When it came time to apply for medical school, the University of Virginia School of Medicine stood out.
“UVA is hard to beat for an in-state resident in terms of college and graduate school. And of course, Charlottesville is a beautiful city and there are a lot of outdoor activities to keep your mind and body in shape,” Chhabra says. “But why I really chose UVA was that I felt the environment for learning was truly top notch. I was impressed by the facilities and by the curriculum at that time and by the exposure you had as a medical student to clinical care as well as the research opportunities. And I was even more impressed by the dedication of faculty to teaching. That was a big factor in my decision to come to UVA.”
As a medical student at UVA, Chhabra was exposed to a variety of career paths and initially considered specializing in cardiac surgery, before another specialty caught his interest. “I became fascinated with orthopaedics. One of my mentors was a hand surgeon, and I became really enamored with anatomy, particularly musculoskeletal anatomy. A combination of factors led me to apply for a residency here in orthopaedics,” he says.
After completing his residency training in orthopaedic surgery in 2001, Chhabra had the opportunity to do a fellowship in hand and upper extremity, microvascular and congenital hand surgery at the Hand Center of San Antonio and the Texas Scottish Rite Hospital. It wasn’t long, however, before an opportunity at UVA lured him back.
For an orthopaedic surgeon like Chhabra, UVA’s status as a tertiary/quaternary care center as well as a trauma center made it a good fit, giving him the opportunity to build his own practice and do upper extremity trauma care. It was also a place where he has had the benefit of great mentors. One of those mentors was Frank C. McCue, III, MD ’56, who served as team physician for UVA Athletics for more than 40 years.
“I was fortunate because Dr. McCue asked me to take over his hand and upper extremity practice and help take care of UVA Athletics,” recalls Chhabra. “Sports is a big part of what I do. I was very fortunate to be able to come back here and help take care of our athletes as part of my job and to be mentored by Dr. McCue.” (Watch a video how Chhabra and a team of physicians, surgeons, and trainers keep UVA student-athletes competing at the highest levels here.)
In addition to UVA’s athletes, Chhabra cares for high school and even professional athletes who want to get back in the game quickly. He says that treatment options and rehab protocols require a balance between return to play and safety. “It is a different mindset and almost a different field than routine hand and upper extremity surgery,” he says. “That’s their occupation, and they have so much vested in their athletic careers. As a physician taking care of athletes, you always have to keep their long-term health and safety as the primary decision maker, but you also need to look at options that may allow them to rehab faster and potentially recover faster and return to what they love doing.”
In Chhabra’s career, there is also a balance – between his busy clinical practice and his role as a professor, mentor and researcher. Although he didn’t initially set out to be an educator, he says that it quickly became one of his passions.
“As an alum, getting to treat UVA student-athletes is a dream come true. But teaching is the main reason I returned here – to give back to our students because I learned so much from my mentors here and continue to learn from my mentors here,” Chhabra says. “To be able to pass down knowledge and experiences to residents, fellows and medical students is truly one of the most gratifying things I do.”
His dedication to learning has extended to his involvement with developing the School’s NexGen curriculum several years ago and being a member of the design committee for the Claude Moore Medical Education Building. Chhabra’s commitment has been recognized with a variety of awards, including the David A. Harrison Distinguished Educator Award, the highest teaching honor bestowed by the School of Medicine. And while he is appreciative of the awards, he says the true reward for him is seeing students learn and inspiring them, hopefully convincing some of them to pursue a career in hand surgery to help patients like Connor Woodle, who was born with a congenital hand disorder. In 2014, Chhabra’s work made international headlines as the story of how he was able to create thumbs for the young boy through a complex procedure called digit pollicization was shared around the world.
To help draw more people into the field, Chhabra started an Orthopaedic Hand Fellowship program at UVA to attract a wide range of learners. The UVA Hand Center, which he co-founded, also offers a program for high school students who are interested in medicine. “It’s challenging to be able to teach these smart, talented high school students, and it keeps you on your toes because as a teacher you can never get too comfortable teaching in one style,” he explains. “You have to learn to teach the next generation because they learn differently from how I learned. You have to connect with them. That, to me, is so much fun.”
Recently, Chhabra took on a new challenge when he traveled to China and met with orthopaedic surgeons and hospital staff there. The trip was part of the Sino-American Educational Exchange program and a partnership he co-created with Quanjun Cui, MD, Res ’05, a joint replacement surgeon in UVA Orthopaedics who attended medical school in China. In the past, Chhabra and his Orthopaedic faculty have worked with Chinese orthopaedic surgeons who have come to UVA for training and research through the exchange. “This year, I went with four of my colleagues from UVA Orthopaedics to four different cities and hospitals over seven days. We met with residents and faculty there, giving advice on difficult problems and discussing the differences between the American and Chinese health care systems,” he says. “We also gave lectures at the Central China International Orthopaedic Conference. The exchange with the surgeons there, and the nursing staff, was very educational to my team and I hope very helpful to them as well.”
Back home in Charlottesville, Chhabra stays quite busy with family life – his wife, Sandhya Chhabra, MD, Res ’01, Fel ’05, have two teenage children. He also serves as the UVA Health System representative on the Medical Alumni Association’s Board of Directors and was recently elected as president of University Physicians Group. “I’ve probably served on every committee at the School of Medicine, the Medical Center and the University Physicians Group since I’ve been here,” he says. “I’m a very proud UVA graduate and I want to give back in any way I can.”
It’s that appreciation for the doors that UVA has opened for him – from his medical degree in 1995 to his clinical practice and research today – that keeps Chhabra in Charlottesville. “UVA is a special place because of the opportunities it provides all of us who come here, not only as students but also as faculty. I love caring for young kids born with hand problems and because of the support I’ve received, I’ve been able to build a practice here and get referrals from all over the state. I love the interaction here between the faculty and the learners. We’re a family at this medical center. It’s a really special place where your potential is unlimited if you take advantage of all the resources and opportunities we have here.”