Physician’s Career Melds Medicine and Movies

Physician’s Career Melds Medicine and Movies

Robert Wood Johnson Medical School alumnus Pavan Grover turned to screenwriting after his brother’s death

Pavan Grover says his screenwriting and film work has made him a more empathetic physician.
Photo: Courtesy of Pavan Grover

"With acting, writing or any intense creative activity, you have to be totally in the moment. Acting has sharpened my focus not just on my patients’ words but also on their presentation. Art deepens empathy. It helps me find the best way to explain the problem and how we’ll tackle it."
– Pavan Grover

Pavan Grover, a 1989 alumnus of Rutgers' Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, has two passions: medicine and movies. An unlikely pairing, perhaps, but he succeeds in melding them so that each enhances his enjoyment of the other. “Both are part of who I am,” says Grover, an anesthesiologist and interventional spine specialist. “My artistic side allows me to step outside myself, but medicine will always come first.”

Grover was 6 when his family moved to New Jersey from New Delhi. He immersed himself in making home videos; he even starred as Batman with his younger brother, Sandeep, as Robin. Later, after the family moved to Houston, he returned to New Jersey and earned his undergraduate degree in the premed program at Rutgers University. He subsequently graduated from Robert Wood Johnson Medical School with honors in surgery and family medicine. The brothers were reunited when Pavan Grover returned to Houston for his residency in anesthesiology at the University of Texas Medical School.

In his third year of residency, everything changed. Responding to a “code blue,” he found that the patient in cardiac arrest was Sandeep. Nothing could be done; his brother died in his arms. “It was heartbreaking,” he says. “I will never get over breaking the news to my parents, but I believe the experience helped me as a physician to know intimately what patients and families experience.”

Grover turned to screenwriting as both a distraction and for solace, creating a screenplay, Lazarus Rising, on a mystical subject – the story of a doctor exploring the possibility of life after death.

To develop experience in film production, he wrote a thriller, Unspeakable, which was later produced with Dennis Hopper costarring and Grover playing a central role as a psychopath on death row. More work on films followed, including as an executive producer on an adaption of novelist Dean Koontz’s best-selling series, Odd Thomas, and an actor in Mr. Hell.  

He finds that film has made him a more empathetic physician. “With acting, writing or any intense creative activity, you have to be totally in the moment,” Grover says. “Acting has sharpened my focus not just on my patients’ words but also on their presentation. Art deepens empathy. It helps me find the best way to explain the problem and how we’ll tackle it.”

Meanwhile, in 1993, following his residency, Grover completed an interventional pain fellowship in Sydney, Australia, with the late Michael Cousins, widely considered to be the father of interventional pain management. Working closely with Cousins, he mastered the technique of healing pain with what Cousins called regional neural blockades.

In Grover’s Houston-based solo practice, Inovospine, he applies Cousins’ regional nerve-blocking techniques to “diagnostic mapping,” his own approach to accurately diagnosing the source of a patient’s pain. He models the team-based approach in his clinical practice on the respectful environment that he experienced and valued at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. “Everyone counts: the physician is no more important than the nurse or the person who shows the patient into the exam room,” he says.

An ardent advocate for patient rights and education, Grover has served for more than 20 years as a medical commentator on networks including CNN, NBC, CBS, PBS and Fox, addressing a wide range of topics. In 1994, he appeared on Larry King Live to debate the use of assisted suicide; he intervened in the case of a patient with chronic, excruciating pain, caused by cancer, who had been consulting with Jack Kevorkian, to end the pain through assisted suicide. Grover offered an alternative that the patient agreed to try. In an advanced procedure, he implanted an anesthesia pump directly into the patient’s spine, and that succeeded in providing the patient with an additional two and a half years of life, pain-free.

In 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Grover volunteered with a medical triage team at the Houston Astrodome, caring for evacuees from New Orleans. Less than a year later, following a devastating earthquake in Pakistan, he temporarily closed his office and set out alone to help. The photographs he sent back to CNN prompted the network to assign a team that would produce a special report on the disaster. Because of his work in Pakistan, Grover received the Humanitarian of the Year Award from the Pakistan Chamber of Commerce of Houston in 2006.

“The people I’ve helped have brought me much more than I brought them,” he says. “I was born in India, so I know about karma; I know that it comes back to you in many ways.”   

A version of this article originally appeared in the spring/summer issue of Robert Wood Johnson Medicine.