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New surgeons at home on Brooks-TLC staff

OBSERVER Photo by Braden Carmen Experienced surgeons Dr. Sunil Kukreja, left, and Dr. Ryan Shephard, right, have both recently joined the Brooks-TLC Hospital System staff.

With two recent hires, Brooks-TLC Hospital System is bringing big city surgery to the small town community of northern Chautauqua County.

Experienced surgeons Dr. Sunil Kukreja and Dr. Ryan Shephard have both recently joined the Brooks staff. Their offices are located at Lake Erie Medical Services on Central Avenue in Dunkirk, while they each perform both general orthopedic duties and major specialty surgeries at Brooks Memorial Hospital.

“One of our primary goals is that patients that have been going to Buffalo or Erie for their procedures, between me and (Shephard) in orthopedics, we can cover maybe 95% of them here,” Kukreja said.

Shephard concurred, “There isn’t a lot in basic orthopedic care that he and I don’t handle or can’t take care of. We’ve got the experience, the track record, the confidence to take on a lot of cases that classically had to get sent out of town. Hopefully that will help with the expansion of Brooks too, because it’s a valuable resource to the hospital to have a strong surgical department.”

Even more than as a benefit to the hospital — whether at its current facility or at a new facility in the future — Shephard believes he and Kukreja will be even more of a benefit to the community. From family members and friends visiting their loved ones in the hospital to accessibility in the case of an emergency, Shephard believes an emphasis on community care at Brooks will benefit the entire region, as members of the community who are in need of care can get their needs met close to home.

“My firm belief is the hospital is where you get fixed, home is where you get better,” Shephard said.

After growing up in Michigan and studying at a smaller school for his undergraduate studies, Shephard graduated from medical school at Michigan State University with a focus on Osteopathic Medicine. Michigan State University was the only university in his region with a program specific to osteopathy, which focuses on not only physical health, but also lifestyle and environmental factors that contribute to a patient’s wellbeing.

“The philosophy of healing from osteopathic medicine fit more with my feelings and how I wanted to treat medicine,” Shephard said.

Kukreja is an experienced spinal surgeon who also has a passion for sports medicine. He focuses on minimally invasive endoscopic procedures. Kukreja was most recently working in the New York City/New Jersey area before coming to Brooks, where he feels his services are appreciated more than they were in the nation’s largest metropolitan area.

“I think there is a void to fill,” Kukreja said.

Kukreja grew up in India, where he graduated from medical school and completed residency before moving to the United States. He then completed multiple fellowships, including a two-year fellowship in spinal surgery in Louisiana, then another spinal surgery fellowship at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, where he focused on complex spine surgeries. Kukreja then moved on to focus on pediatric spine and trauma at Massachusetts General Hospital at the Harvard Medical School.

Kukreja eventually had a fellowship at the University at Buffalo, which opened his eyes to western New York as a potential region to call home, before he wound up in the New York City area for the past six years.

“The people are really warm, welcoming, kind — not like the people you come across in the city. That’s the beauty of this place, for sure,” Kukreja said.

Both Kukreja and Shephard have made Fredonia their new home. Shephard arrived on the week of Christmas, while Kukreja followed a few weeks later. Kukreja’s family remains in the New York metropolitan area for the time being. Kukreja’s son is a sophomore in high school, so rather than uprooting his family in the middle of the school year, he has visited them on weekend trips when he is not on-call. Shephard’s family followed him with the move and his children now attend Fredonia Central Schools.

“It has been a very easy transition. My family has always been in smaller towns, we were never big city people,” Shephard said. “We’ve always been in small towns, small communities – places where you’ve got to connect with your neighbors, you have to connect in your community to succeed as a person, but also professionally.”

Shephard said that arriving to the community and settling right away allowed for his family to make connections through community projects, involvement with a local church, and extracurricular activities for his children through school.

“The community is definitely very inviting, and there is certainly a need for my service, but also needs in the community that I know my family can take care of too,” Shephard said. “… I didn’t move here feeling like an outsider. I moved here and immediately felt like I blended right in.”

After training in the Detroit metropolitan area, Shephard initially began to practice medicine in Michigan before moving to Kentucky. Shephard “wanted and needed to come back north” after spending four years in Kentucky, so he began to search for opportunities to find his new home. Both Shephard and Kukreja connected with Brooks Memorial Hospital through Kaleida Health.

“I’m a snow guy, I’m a cold guy. I need four seasons and water, and as beautiful as the mountains are in southern Kentucky, there is very limited access to water and almost no snow. My kids and I were skiing all the time when they were younger, but we had to take a break when we went south,” Shephard said. “Now, two of my kids are involved in Ski Club at school. Things like that are what I loved growing up, that I want to provide for them.”

Shephard grew up in a family of musicians and attended undergraduate school on a singing scholarship. The northern Chautauqua region, especially through Fredonia High School, the Fredonia Opera House, and the SUNY Fredonia School of Music, really resonated with him.

“When I saw this community and all of the performing arts opportunities … that was very attractive to me as a person, not just looking at it for what I can do professionally,” Shephard said. “… Those moments when I get to pretend I’m not a doctor, what are the things I want to be doing? I want to be on the water, I want to be skiing, I want to be involved in music and theatre. I didn’t have those opportunities where I came from and neither did my kids, and now they do. That was very magnetizing for me and my family to come here.”

Shephard enjoys being involved in community athletics, both as an athlete himself but also as a sponsor or a medical advisor. Shephard has connected with Fredonia High School through Athletic Director Greg Lauer regarding an increased presence at sporting events since his arrival.

“Just being around, being seen so that if something were to happen, they’ve got first-line medical care as they get to the ER or wherever they need to go next. I can see them on the sidelines and see them in the office,” Shephard said. “That’s what community medicine is supposed to be. You’re not just a doctor that pops in from out of town, this is home, these are your neighbors, these are your people.”

When Shephard visited Chautauqua County for the first time during the interview process, he stopped by local businesses to ask local residents about their community. Shephard said in his discussions, he felt a strong support from the community to sustain Brooks. He hopes to be part of the emphasis on modernized care in the region as the push for a new hospital progresses.

“The big push with Dr. Kukreja and I (joining Brooks) is bringing in new equipment, new technology, new techniques, new surgeries that either weren’t done or haven’t been done in a long time in this area,” said Shephard. “We can bring these new processes in an old building, but they are all things we can transition with us to a new facility.”

Among the new services the duo will provide to the region includes Kukreja’s specialty of spinal surgery and endoscopic treatments, as well as Shephard’s outpatient joint replacement program and specialized hand surgeries in addition to his osteopathic approach to medicine.

“(We are) looking at focusing on these areas and providing the care that this community needs,” Kukreja said.

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