Sunali Goyal Brings Cutting Edge Ophthalmic Surgery Techniques Learned at Harvard to Arkansas

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Harvard Medical School graduate Sunali Goyal MD, who grew up in northern India, wanted to be a doctor from as young an age as she can remember.

“I’m not sure if it was my decision,” said Goyal, who joined the Harvey & Bernice Jones Eye Institute at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) in 2015 and is also an assistant professor in the Department of Ophthalmology in the College of Medicine. “It was subconsciously set in me by my parents who wanted their daughter to be the first doctor in the family. I grew up with this idea – that I am carved out for the field of medicine. As a child, I was intrigued by physicians, reading about them in science fiction and watching them on TV.”

She was attracted to ophthalmology by the challenges of working on an organ that is quite small, but at the same time very complex.

“It is intriguing to learn and discover the complexities of the eyeball and to appreciate nature’s flawlessness in creating such a structure,” Goyal said. “Ophthalmology is a specialty that gives you the luxury to practice both medicine and surgery. The surgeries are challenging, but very satisfying. Microsurgery is complex and actually very artistic.”

Goyal has spent almost 15 years studying different tracks in medicine. She earned her Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery degree from Panjab University in India in 2000. She also completed an internship in 2001 and an ophthalmology residency in 2006 at Panjab University. She then went on to Harvard Medical School where she completed an internship in 2010. She finished her residency in ophthalmology at UAMS in 2014. Then she went back to do a fellowship in cornea and external diseases at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

Her interest in being a part of evolving techniques drew her to research.

“I was fortunate to be able to do a post doctorate at Harvard where I learned more about basis sciences and how things move from bench to clinics helping patients,” Goyal said. “I was involved in a lot of studies including many involving dry eye disease. Our lab for the first time discovered the process of lymphangiogenesis in dry eye. The unfolding of new pathophysiological phenomenon helps develop pharmacological therapy for patient care eventually.”

Goyal has authored more than 30 publications in peer-reviewed medical journals and has presented at various national and international ophthalmic conferences. Goyal also helped establish the first Pediatric Cornea Services in the state and helped streamline management of burn and Stevens-Johnsons patients from an eye perspective.

Christopher T. Westfall, MD, chairman of the UAMS Department of Ophthalmology and institute director, said Goyal’s experience in research is a compelling asset for their department. “Dr. Goyal is a gifted professor and ophthalmologist,” Westfall said.

Goyal is one of the few ophthalmologists in Arkansas to provide services for Boston Keratoprosthesis, the most widely used artificial cornea or keratoprosthesis in the world. The treatment option is for patients with corneal disease who are not candidates responsive to a corneal transplant.

“This technique was pioneered by a physician who is now 93 years old, who was one of my mentors at Harvard,” she said.

Goyal said it has been an honor to bring the things she learned at Harvard back to Arkansas. “My quest to be a part of the best medical system drew me here toward the U.S.,” Goyal said. “I was very fortunate I ended up in Boston, which is a mecca of education and advanced learning and training. There was just so much to learn and imbibe. Arkansas was part of my residency training. After I finished residency, I went to Harvard to do an advanced fellowship. I was drawn back to Arkansas because I felt I could provide advanced skills to our patients here. It has been a rewarding journey since then helping streamline treatment and management in a lot of categories.”

Goyal sees a lot of patients with medical problems that endanger their vision.

“Losing any part of the body is tragic, but eyesight is one of the sensory system that means so much to humans,” she said. “It allows you to develop relationships and helps in learning. Losing eyesight is appalling. It is gratifying to help patients with conditions as simple as cataract surgery or as complicated as corneal transplant or other more complex situations. It is very satisfying seeing the patients getting hope and the gift of sight. It is extremely rewarding to be part of that healing process. The gratefulness you acquire from those patients pushes you to keep going and learn more.”

Goyal’s clinical interests include refractive surgery, cornea and external diseases, limbal epithelial stem cell deficiency, endothelial dysfunction, Fuchs dystrophy, corneal infections, Stevens-Johnson, dry eye, corneal ulcers, and severe viral disease. Her primary research interests include managing corneal pain; using live imaging to explain molecular and cellular mechanisms in corneal immunology, neuro-immunology and inflammation; dry eye disease; and ocular surface reconstruction with stem cells.

Goyal is also experienced with the Descemet’s membrane endothelial keratoplasty procedure (DMEK), which is a partial thickness corneal transplant that replaces the innermost portion of the cornea, rather than the full thickness of the cornea, which is done in standard corneal transplants. The DMEK procedure is one of the latest techniques in endothelial transplant where diseased cells are removed and replaced with cells from donor cornea. This tends to result in better visual results in a shorter period of time. Goyal is the only surgeon doing this at UAMS.

Goyal’s husband, Punkaj Gupta, is a pediatric cardiac intensivist who works at Arkansas Children’s Hospital. They have two boys, Aarav, 8, and Krish, 6.

“As you would imagine being a working mom, I love spending all my leisure time with my family,” she said. 

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