Dr. Chitra Dinakar: A thought leader in the field of food allergy, is remembered as a valued leader, colleague and mentor

Dr. Chitra Dinakar: A thought leader in the field of food allergy, is remembered as a valued leader, colleague and mentor

The allergy and immunology world has lost a treasured colleague on March 27th with the passing of Chitra Dinakar, MD, FACAAI. Chitra Dinakar, who was a physician at Children’s Mercy Hospital, Kansas City and later, Stanford University passed away on Mar 27th. A sparkling bundle of energy and intellect with an unwavering true north, her award winning contributions to allergy and immunology had a tremendous influence on innumerable patients, mentees and colleagues. She was a champion sprinter and a talented dancer. Her light continues to shine bright in her sons Akshay and Bhavish, and her husband, siblings and parents take immense pride in her spectacular life. Chitra’s Visitation and Funeral Services were held on March 31st in her hometown, Saratoga, California.

“Chitra succumbed to her illness today. Thank you so much for championing her. She really appreciated your support for her,” wrote Dinakar, Chitra’s husband in a message sent to Dr. Joseph Chalil, publisher of THEUNN.COM. On behalf of the entire Team at THEUNN and our esteemed readers, we want to express our sincere condolences and prayerful wishes to Chitra’s family.

Dr. Dinakar was a Clinical Professor of Medicine at Stanford University in California, and Clinical Chief of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology at Stanford Health Care. Prior appointments included Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and Director of the Food Allergy Center at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City.

She had many professional achievements and appointments as a testament to her dedication to the fields of allergy/immunology and pediatrics. Dr. Dinakar served on the Board of Regents of the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology and received the College’s Distinguished Fellow Award in 2016 and the Woman in Allergy Award in 2015. In 2019, she received the Jerome Glaser Distinguished Service Award from the Allergy/Immunology Section of the American Academy of Pediatrics. She was on the Board of Directors, American Board of Allergy and Immunology and served as a Board Member and on the Joint Task Force on Allergy/Immunology Practice Parameters.

“I have increasingly been seeing children with food allergies in my clinic and in my social circles, with many of them having severe, life-threatening allergies to multiple foods,” said Dr. Chitra Dinakar, the Gies Endowed Faculty Scholar and Clinical Professor in Food Allergy, during an exclusive interview with this writer in January 2017.

Dr. Dinakar was deeply concerned that “a significant percentage of them were of Asian Indian origin, and whose parents and grandparents had no history or knowledge of food allergies. Moreover, some of them had allergies to foods that were not commonly reported in the USA population (e.g. urud dal), and hence were finding it challenging to get appropriately diagnosed and treated.”

These concerns and studies prompted Dr. Dinakar, who had completed her fellowship in Allergy/Immunology at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, Ohio, and has been at Children’s Mercy since then to review the scarce literature published on this topic and her search revealed the possibility that Asians have higher odds of food allergy compared with white children, but significantly lower odds of formal diagnosis.

“I also discovered that there is a significant knowledge gap regarding food allergy trends in the Asian Indian population in the US,” Dr. Dinakar said. According to her, Asian Indians have an ethnically unique diet and may have ‘unusual’ or ‘different’ food allergies  than the “Top 8” (milk, egg, wheat, soy, peanut, tree nuts, fish, shellfish). Additionally, there are no standardized tests to diagnose these unique food allergies or recommendations regarding cross-reactive patterns and foods that are a must-avoid. To her surprise, the allergist also found that Asian Indians as a demographic population is typically left out of most large-scale studies since they do not meet the standard research inclusion criteria for “minority ” or “medically underserved” groups. “I therefore believe it is critically important to recognize, diagnose, and treat these unique allergies in this understudied population to optimize nutrition and growth.”

Loving children came naturally to this physician of Indian origin. The opportunity to help care for the health and well-being of the future citizens of India, comprising over one thirds of its population, was compelling and irresistible, inspired her to take up this noble Medical profession. On graduating as the valedictorian from high-school, she was fortunate to be selected to join one of the premier medical institutions in India, Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research (JIPMER). Admission at JIPMER is through a nationally competitive entrance examination, and all admitted students receive a generous tuition scholarship from the government of India, which made the decision easy for her.

Dr. Dinakar has been passionately interested in studying food allergy trends among Asian Indians for several years. She began with a pilot survey launched in Kansas City that showed there was a variety of food allergies reported in Asian Indians. She then extended her study to capture a larger cohort throughout the USA in the form of a multi-center collaboration with Dr. Ruchi Gupta, an accomplished pediatrician and food allergy/asthma researcher, from Northwestern University.  IRB approval was obtained at the two collaborating institutions, Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City and Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

Dr. Dinakar noted that, some of other food allergies noted were to chickpea flour, capsicum (variant of green pepper), and to Indian lentils.  Despite the small sample size, a large variety of food allergens that are typically not seen in the general population was reported, including foods such as avocado, banana, beef, bulgur wheat, coconut, corn, eggplant, food dye, garlic, ginger, green peas, jalapeño peppers, kiwi, melon, rice and tomato. Additionally, one in ten parents self-reported that they had a food allergy.

Dr. Dinakar has served in leadership capacities at national Allergy/Immunology organizations. She is a member of the Board of Directors of the American Board of Allergy and Immunology (ABAI) and recently got elected to the Board of Directors of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI). She was on the Board of Regents of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI). She also serves on the Executive Committee of the Section of Allergy/Immunology in the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP-SOAI) and is an elected member of the prestigious American Pediatric Societies (APS). She is a former President of the Greater Kansas City Allergy Society and a former Board member of the Shawnee Mission Education Foundation. She is a board member of the Food Equality Initiative and the Food Allergy Support Group of Greater Kansas City.

Dr. Dinakar, who has been awarded with numerous awards was the recipient of the “Distinguished Fellow Award, American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology in 2016.

She was thrilled to receive “The Woman in Allergy Award” by the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI). The annual award “honors an individual who has advanced the role of women in medicine or made a significant contribution to the specialty”. In the words of the 2016 ACAAI President Dr. James Sublett, “Dr. Dinakar is one of those “go-to individuals” who is always willing, when asked, to step up and take a leadership role. Whether it’s leading the development of a Practice Parameter, or chairing a College committee, we know the job will be done well and on time.”

Some of the awards Dr. Dinakar was bestowed with included, “Excellence in Service” (for Distinguished Editorial Service), Missouri State Medical Association (2016), “Woman in Allergy Award” by the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (2015), “Acellus Teacher of the Year” award by the International Academy of Science (2015), the “Award of Excellence” by the American Association of Allergists & Immunologists of Indian Origin (AAAII, 2009), “Golden Apple Mercy Mentor Award” by Children’s Mercy Hospital, and an honorary “Kentucky Colonel” awarded by the Governor of Kentucky.  She is listed on the Consumer Research Council’s ‘Guide to America’s Top Pediatricians’; Best Doctors in America; Kansas City Magazine’s ‘SuperDocs’ and ‘435 Magazine’ Best Doctors.

“It is energizing to me to know that colleagues I admire and respect believe in my passions,” said Dr. Dinkar with a sense of pride and accomplishment. “At the same time, it is humbling to realize that this honor was possible only because of the unstinting mentorship and encouragement of path-breaking leaders and supportive colleagues. I have found that almost every person I encounter has a story to tell, and their personal battles and victories inspire and motivate me. To me, therefore, the awards are a reflection of the collective “goodness” of the amazing people I have been fortunate to interact with in my life.”

Having had the benefit of experiencing healthcare delivery in two nations, both In India and the US, at near-opposite ends of the spectrum, Dr. Dinakar was well aware of the breakthroughs and limitations in healthcare globally. “I am passionate about minimizing health care disparities and moving healthcare quality forward in every which way I can, one baby step at a time. Having been blessed with receiving top-notch training in both India and the USA, I am passionate about advancing cutting-edge research knowledge in both these countries, and using the expertise and understanding gained to improve global health.” She hopes that her new assignment at Stanford University “will enable me to accomplish my goals.”

Being a pediatrician, and a mother of two young college boys, Dr. Dinakar was an unabashed and ardent believer in the power and ability of the future global citizens to take mankind forward. Dr. Dinakar also believed that many young Indian Americans are doubly blessed with having the benefit of both “Nature and Nurture.” In other words, the majority of them have inherited priceless genes and drive that brought their incredibly hard-working and motivated parents/grandparents to cross continents in a desire to ensure a robust future for their progeny. According to Dr. Dinakar, “while there are unique generational, cultural, language, social and economic challenges in growing up as the children of immigrants in the USA, the opportunities presented to them are limitless. After all, this is “the land where dreams come true!”

Addressing the young Indian Americans, Dr. Dinakar says, “You are extraordinarily gifted and loved beyond measure. Feel empowered to unlock your phenomenal potential and translate your dreams into reality.”

Dr. Dinakar finds time and passion to be actively involved in every aspect of her family life. “I believe that my family is a microcosm of the world around me, and how I interact with my family defines and shapes how I interact with the world. I believe that each one of the members of my family tree (vertically and horizontally) is exceptional and extraordinary, and am deeply grateful for the countless ways in which they have enriched and fostered my growth, either directly or by example.”

“I am a kinetic person and enjoy putting my fast muscle fibers and mitochondria to work,” describes Dr. Dinakar of herself. A classically trained Bharathnatyam dancer, she learned ballroom dancing after coming to the USA. She revels in all kinds of dance movements, including Bollywood. A competitive track athlete in school/college, she says, “nostalgic memories motivate me to represent my hospital in the annual Kansas City-wide Corporate Challenge events, where I typically medal in the 100m and 400m sprints, and Long Jump events.” She was the captain of the basketball team in medical school and “I play 2 on 2 basketball with my boys in the driveway, when the weather permits. My boys are talented musicians and I enjoy listening to them. I also love reading good books and watching movies, though I wish there were 36 hours in a day!”

College leaders remember Dr. Dinakar as a dedicated expert who contributed her knowledge to continuing medical education and public information; a mentor and support to younger members who were making their way along the leadership path; and, most importantly, a kind and dear friend. She will be deeply missed by many. For information on memorial services, please see Dr. Dinakar’s obituary.

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