By Paul Fairchild
INTEGRIS Baptist’s Dr. Ghazi Rayan knows history as well as orthopedics. Describing his native Lebanon, he excitedly points out its heritage as the Mediterranean anchor of the Phoenician Empire. Alexandria, Egypt, isn’t just the home of his alma mater, Alexandria University, he cheerfully notes. It takes its name from its illustrious founder, Alexander the Great. So it comes as no surprise that Rayan, an accomplished surgeon, teacher and researcher, sees his own work through a historical lens. His work in Oklahoma is poised to leave a global legacy.
“Through his teaching, Rayan’s become one of the most important contributors [at Baptist]. That’s true generally, but also specifically with his topic of interest, hand surgery. He’s one of the nation’s best,” says longtime colleague and cardiologist Sandy Sanbar.
Rayan’s long journey to Oklahoma City and INTEGRIS Baptist started half a world away. Born underneath the sun-drenched skies of Beirut, Lebanon, he spent his childhood there before attending college in Egypt. He has fond memories of his first home, a beautiful seaport on the eastern Mediterranean. His parents, a businessman and a homemaker, gave him eight brothers and sisters to enjoy. Family life and school kept him busy, but even as a child he was curiously eyeballing his future.
“I was 10 years old when I decided to be a surgeon. Not just a physician … a surgeon. A friend of our family, a surgeon who trained in Germany, told stories about helping people. I said to myself, ‘this is what I want to do. I want to help people, possibly even save lives,’” he recalls.
He never drifted from that desire, and when it came time for college, he packed up and shipped out to Alexandria, Egypt, another coastal paradise on the Mediterranean. Alexandria University offered an excellent college education, but was also home to the best medical school in the Middle East. It was here that he first heard of the land that would later become his new home: Oklahoma.
“Oklahoma was a familiar name for me in the early days of my internship in Egypt. I heard of a knee injury that was documented by Dr. Don O’Donoghue, an Oklahoma surgeon who later became the father of sports medicine. Doing my due diligence, I discovered that Oklahoma City was a well-kept secret. It’s a great place for raising children and has outstanding opportunities for advancing the professional careers of young people like myself at that time,” he says.
While in medical school, he fell in love with orthopedics, doing two orthopedic rotations in local hospitals. The surgeries captivated him, and the differences that orthopedic surgeons made in their patients’ lives kept him in a state of constant amazement. Rayan loved – and still loves – challenges of any sort, but orthopedics promised constant challenges of the intellectual kind. As he grew more familiar with the field, Rayan felt that he stood at the gates of a thinker’s playground.
As with all life decisions, there were other things for Rayan to consider. Wanting to walk through the gates of his new playground, he searched for a place where he could pursue his fascination and curiosity. It was clear that maintaining an orthopedic practice alone wouldn’t satisfy him intellectually. He also wanted access to the best postgraduate education, facilities and equipment. Lebanon offered no options, and the country’s civil war, a brutal and disruptive ordeal that would last until the early 1990s, was heating up. In a successful bid to marry his passion with career needs, he again relocated, this time to Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University, home of the oldest – and one of the most prestigious – residency programs in the U.S.
While there, he put a finer point on his interest in orthopedics, and in 1980s landed a highly competitive and coveted fellowship at the Raymond Curtis Hand Center. He improved his surgical skills and indefatigably chased his research interests. He worked side by side with the best of the best in the field, and his academic genealogy impresses. His own mentor trained with Sterling Bunnell, the doctor responsible for putting hand surgery on the medical map after World War II.
The human hand contains 27 bones and countless muscles and nerves. The hand is an amazing anatomical machine, optimized in structure and configuration for the performance of the most delicate tasks, and it’s no surprise that surgery on the hand requires a certain delicacy. Specifically, it requires microsurgery, performed under a microscope with infinitesimally small instruments. As a director of INTEGRIS Baptist’s Hand Microsurgery Center and later a chairman of Baptist Medical Center’s hand surgery division, Rayan championed the adoption of cutting-edge microsurgical techniques – and the introduction of all the fun toys they required. His own microsurgical skills came in handy when he collaborated with other Oklahoma doctors to perform the state’s first live liver donor transplant.
After completing his postgraduate work, it was obvious to Rayan that textbooks and lectures only go so far in the creation of an excellent hand surgeon. Becoming a superior hand surgeon demanded the opportunity to practice side by side with superior teachers. He’s quick to mention the debt he owes to the doctors who showed him the ropes, and developed a personal mission to pay that debt forward and give future medical students opportunities similar to the ones he had enjoyed.
Rayan felt like he’d hit the lottery in 1981, when a spot for a professor of orthopedics opened up at the University of Oklahoma. At last he’d found his ticket to Oklahoma. The school was a good fit for him, and as a professor he eagerly engaged his students, always wanting to provide them with the same types of learning opportunities he had received years earlier. He still provides those opportunities, working with O.U.’s College of Medicine in a variety of capacities. His research moved along at a steady clip, and he regularly published articles in high-end medical journals. To date, he has contributed almost 200 articles to the best orthopedic and sports medicine journals.
In 1987, Rayan joined the staff of INTEGRIS Baptist Medical Center, where he still practices, and consults in the emergency room, along with continuing to teach at O.U. He sees roughly 18 patients each day, and speculates that over the course of his career he has seen over 20,000 patients. He’s looking forward to seeing 20,000 more, but research is still near and dear to his heart. Baptist Medical Center gave him the opportunity to practice, teach and research. With enthusiastic help from the hospital, he established Oklahoma’s first hand surgery fellowship in 1992.
“After approximately eight years of being on the full-time faculty at O.U., I decided to move to INTEGRIS Baptist Medical Center. Now, INTEGRIS was, and still is today, considered to be an outstanding facility that embraced talented physicians. The leadership there and the potential for expanding research and education were irresistible for me. And they offered all of the support I needed to establish a hand surgery fellowship program while I also continued my medical research,” he says.
With so many achievements to choose from, Rayan hesitates a bit before naming the one he’s most proud of. He should! He was a principal in Oklahoma’s first live liver transplant; as a professor and founder of a fellowship program, he has left his mark on a generation of orthopedic surgeons; the surgeries he has performed have improved the lives of thousands. He insists, however, that he’s most proud of the establishment of Baptist Medical’s Oklahoma Hand Surgery Fellowship. At any given time, Baptist Medical hosts two orthopedic surgeons – often from points as far away as Oman and China – interested in the arts of healing the hands. Rayan has trained 32 doctors through the program.
“The program has an impact not just on people in Oklahoma City, but around the world. Mentors live through their apprentices. The students we teach are our intellectual progeny. Each one is a seed of knowledge, and when it grows, it benefits many. It’s the difference between giving somebody a fish and teaching them how to fish,” he notes.
And that, Rayan knows, will one day be his legacy.