Asok Ray, MD, has led a life well lived in multiple senses of the term—and believes he has been very fortunate, even as he faced many struggles throughout his life.
He has provided outstanding patient care and medical education, as an orthopedic surgeon and clinical professor of orthopaedics at the College of Medicine for nearly a half-century, while affiliated with other medical centers in the U.S., including MacNeal Hospital in suburban Berwyn, now affiliated with Loyola Medicine. A very family- and community-oriented man, Dr. Ray and his late wife, Purnima, raised a daughter, Mallika, and he is now extremely busy with his foundation, as well as his extended family, which also includes his son-in-law, Travis, and twin 3-year-old grandchildren.
A Life of Giving
Dr. Ray has been a philanthropist for four decades, starting with his support of Mother Teresa’s causes in his native Kolkata, India, and continuing his work with the establishment of the Indima Foundation—named for his late parents, Indira and Manik Lal Ray—to provide support of underprivileged youth throughout the world.
Through the threedecade- old Indima Foundation, Dr. Ray provides funding for cataract surgery for rural Indians otherwise unable to afford it, partnering with the Blind Foundation for India and the Rama Krishna Institution. “They are so poor,” he says. “They don’t have the pocket money to come to the city and get their eyes operated on.” His funding has sent doctors and nurses into the countryside, and “there are 200 people standing in line, and they are operating. This is what I do.”
Dr. Ray and his daughter, who co-manages the foundation, have contributed to Mother Teresa’s efforts to support underprivileged and sick children throughout India, the U.S. and South America, including the establishment of the Indira-Manik Children’s Hospital, a self-standing, modern cancer hospital in Kolkata.
Dr. Ray first became acquainted with Mother Teresa as a youngster who grew up in the same neighborhood as (and sometimes played in) her compound. As a young man, he started donating money to her causes from the time he first earned a paycheck. He met Mother Teresa multiple times to present a check and ask for her blessings, and she expressed her appreciation through typed notes that she handed him.
“Thank you for your love and concern for God’s poor though your gift,” she wrote him in November 1996. “[W]e depend solely on Divine Providence that comes through the spontaneous sharing of the rich and the poor alike.”
He has gone to Latin American countries like Mexico, Costa Rica, Colombia and Panama for the past 20 years, to examine and support pediatric patients—efforts that earned him a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Indian American Medical Association, presented by Democratic Rep. Danny K. Davis and Republican Rep. Peter Roskam, among others, in 2018. Closer to home, Dr. Ray has donated $1 million to the Helping Hand Center in suburban Chicago, which works to improve the lives of children and adults with developmental disabilities.
At UI COM—where he’s a lifetime member of the William W. Root Society—15 years ago, Dr. Ray created a visiting professorship in orthopedics, and more recently, he has bestowed his generosity with a donation of $500,000 toward the Asok K. Ray, MD, FRCS (Edin) and Purmina Ray Professorship in Pediatrics; and by creating a fully endowed chair in pediatric surgery, with a $2 million funding commitment.
Dr. Ray says that his dedication to medical philanthropy broadly, and improving the lives of children in particular, is woven into his very DNA. “It was in my genes,” he says. “I felt that as a good human being, you take care of the people and community, especially the children. You take care of not only sick and starving children, but the community as well. … I was born compassionate, not to become a big shot.
“I’ve seen the tragedy firsthand,” adds Dr. Ray, a onetime senior resident at what was then called Children’s Memorial Hospital—now Ann & Robert H. Lurie—as well as chief resident of Cook County Hospital. “If they have cancer, if they’re born with cerebral palsy, or spina bifida, or birth defects … they’re helpless, and it is through no fault of their own.”
Distinguished Medical Career
Dr. Ray received his medical degree from the University of Calcutta, undertook initial surgical training in India, and then further training in orthopaedic and general surgery in the United Kingdom, where he received a prestigious fellowship from the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh, Scotland, and earned a degree in anesthesia from the Royal College of Surgeons in London. Dr. Ray went on to an orthopedic residency at Northwestern University and a fellowship in orthopaedic surgery at Weiss Hospital.
When he first came to the U.S., Dr. Ray had a few hurdles to surmount. A supervising doctor once challenged him as to how a man of his modest physical stature—at a time when people of South Asian descent were less well regarded than today—could operate on a “300-pound linebacker.”
“Surgery is not about physical, brute strength. You operate with your brain,” he responded. “Surgery is an art, based on science.” That rejoinder intrigued the supervising doctor, and “when he saw who I am and what I can do, he became the biggest supporter of me,” Ray says. “He said, ‘I will do anything to keep you in our country and teach you. You have a pair of golden hands.’ ”
Dr. Ray continued to impress those with whom he worked as a fellow. “Wordof- mouth made me,” he says. “The reason [he succeeded] is not because of my looks. It’s not because of my background. It was because of hard work. Everybody sent their patients to me.” Colleagues thought, “He is a wizard. He can take any case. We can trust and depend on him.”
After initially thinking he would return to India, Dr. Ray decided to stay in America—but first he needed to obtain citizenship and a U.S. license to practice medicine. That led to what he considers the most memorable day of his career: when he received his first job offer, from what was then St. Luke’s Hospital (now part of Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s). He did not end up working there because he was drafted into the Vietnam War. But “God was with me” and he was never sent overseas.
After returning to Chicago, Dr. Ray ended up working at Cook County Hospital—which had combined rounds with the College of Medicine, St. Luke’s and Northwestern—where he felt warmly welcomed as part of a medical population that was diverse even in the early 1970s.
He also set up a private practice at MacNeal, where he organized and served for 15 years as the first chair of the orthopedic department. He was also appointed associate professor of orthopaedic surgery at UI COM around the same time.
Gratitude for His Generosity
Dr. Ray named the newly established professorship in pediatrics at the College of Medicine after both himself and his wife to honor her stalwart support of his career and philanthropy over the years, no matter how many hours it kept him away from home. “She went along with me. She never questioned me,” he says. “I would not come home until I saw my last patient, until I returned the last phone call. All the time, she supported me. I would not have become who I am without her.”
UI COM leaders whose departments and divisions will be the beneficiaries of Ray’s support are grateful for his generosity.
“Dr. Ray, being so generous, has shown over the years a remarkable commitment to the betterment of the surgical care of children, not only at UIC but around the world,” says Thom Lobe, MD, director of global medicine and chief of the division of pediatric surgery at the University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System (UI Health). “Our intention is to make sure that the world knows what a remarkable man he has been, and how his career has helped make the surgical care of children around the world better.”
Benjamin Van Voorhees, MD, MPH, head of the department of pediatrics and physician in chief at the Children’s Hospital University of Illinois, noted that the endowed professorship will focus on genetically determined disease research and care management, with a particular emphasis on programs related to the genetics of congenital bone disease.
“We are so very grateful for the establishment of the Asok K. Ray MD FRCS (Edin) and Purnima Ray Professorship in Pediatrics, which will substantially strengthen our human genetics program,” Van Voorhees says. “We also greatly appreciate the interest and support of the Ray family for the department’s mental health research program.”
Enrico Benedetti, MD, head of surgery at UI Health, said the establishment of the endowed chair will help further the COM’s mission of educating pediatric surgeons in developing countries by bringing them to Chicago to train in robotics. “Rather than doing a tour in their county for five days, which doesn’t leave a lasting effect, we want to train their surgeons to do their jobs for the future,” he says.
UI COM Executive Dean Mark Rosenblatt, MD, PhD, MBA, MHA, says that Ray’s gift allows the College to pursue the goals of providing effective, compassionate and accessible children’s healthcare “by supporting programming and facilities for faculty and students to innovate in the lab, classroom and beyond. Thus, the University of Illinois College of Medicine continues to develop future leaders who will be prepared with the training and confidence needed to meet the challenges our communities face.”
Dr. Ray’s Legacy
Dr. Ray plans to pass down his legacy of philanthropy in the community to his daughter, grandchildren and future generations. “I don’t want to be Michael Jordan. I don’t want to be Scottie Pippen,” he says. “I don’t want to be famous. I just wanted to be remembered as a little guy who came to this country, worked hard, achieved success, and paid his debt to society.”
“We’re very fortunate to see throughout the years how hard my dad has worked and how dedicated he has been,” says Mallika Ray, who co-manages not only the Indima Foundation but also its partnership with the Helping Hand Center. “From the beginning until now, to see all the projects and all the accomplishments that have happened with the foundation—I feel so grateful. And I am looking forward in the future to doing the same as my father has, and also passing this down to our children, as well.”