Baltimore whiz kid, 17, earns his medical degree

May 18, 1995|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,Sun Staff Writer

Balamurali Ambati's genius is taking him places few teen-agers can go.

The 17-year-old whiz kid is about to graduate from Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and, while assisting a surgical team, has already watched his first patient die of gunshot wounds in an emergency room.

And this fall the former Baltimorean will begin his medical residency at Harvard Medical School.

Bala was 10 years old when he decided he wanted to become the youngest practicing physician in the United States. A year later he graduated from City College high school in Baltimore and was speeding toward his goal.

"Medical school was fun, and it was hard. I feel very happy. I set a goal, and I achieved it. And I've done it with distinction," he said yesterday in a telephone interview from New York, noting that he scored above 99 percent on his National Medical Boards.

Bala was 9 when tests showed he was a genius in mathematics and science at the Study for Mathematically Precocious Youth at Johns Hopkins University.

After graduating from City College in 1989, he went to New York University, where he graduated two years later.

Tomorrow he will graduate from Mount Sinai.

Yesterday, as he celebrated his pending graduation as one of the youngest people to finish medical school, he was fielding calls for interviews from as far away as Australia, Colombia and India, his native country.

CNN, NBC, CBS, the New York Times, People magazine and the British Broadcasting Corp. in London were calling.

No one knows for sure whether he is the youngest person to graduate from medical school because the Association of American Medical Colleges doesn't keep a record of graduates' ages, said the group's spokeswoman, Patty Shea.

He said yesterday that he has had no trouble working with fellow medical students, even though he is eight years younger than the average medical student.

"I've always been accelerated, and I've gotten used to being with older people. I have friends of all ages," he said.

Bala said the most difficult moments of medical school, however, were watching patients die.

"The first time, it was gunshot wounds," he said.

He was assisting surgeons of a trauma team at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens in his third year of medical school.

A man was brought in by ambulance with "three or four gunshots in the abdomen and chest. He had major internal organ damage. He died three hours into the operation. It was hard. I learned. I grew up a lot," he said.

He said he hopes to specialize in ophthalmology. "I'm fascinated with eye development."

In his spare time, Bala and his 24-year-old brother, Dr. Jayakrishna Ambati, have updated their 1988 book on AIDS and have written a new one soon to be published about the environment.

He also plays chess, basketball and pingpong.

Bala's zeal to finish medical school concerns his old mentor, Dr. Julian Stanley, professor of psychology and director of the Johns Hopkins study on precocious youth.

Dr. Stanley yesterday recalled Bala as a child who was "tremendously motivated to be the youngest medical doctor in the country. He was saying it at about age 10. He was determined to be the youngest in the U.S."

But Dr. Stanley said he is worried that Bala's social and personal skills have not kept up with his accumulation of knowledge. "I was very much against it because it's not like a race. The real thing is how well you get along in the long run and use your training. It's not a good idea to speed up that much.

"How are you going to get patients? How are patients going to react to a 17-year-old?" said Dr. Stanley, who has been testing and counseling geniuses at Hopkins since 1971.

Although he said he does not know specifically how well Bala's personal life is currently going, his experience with other geniuses showed that when "youngsters finish college early, at 12, it didn't work out too well."

Dr. Stanley said he's met thousands of brilliant children in his career, but Bala stands out.

"In terms of precocity, he's certainly one of the most precocious ones we've had. In terms of getting degrees early, he's the most remarkable one I know of," Dr. Stanley said.

He may be remarkable, he may be precocious, but there's one thing he's still had to wait for.

Bala is just learning how to drive.

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