Lifestories: Kataria an early advocate for autistic kids

November 14, 2011 

Thanks to the work of Dr. Sudesh Kataria, children who struggled with academics, taking direction or both have gone on to be doctors, lawyers and engineers.

Kataria was on the forefront of establishing a subspecialty in medicine called development behavior pediatrics - an area of study that focuses on how conditions such as autism and attention deficit disorder are diagnosed and treated.

Kataria died last month; she was 70. It was unexpected - a rare and aggressive form of interstitial lung disease was diagnosed in September, and she succumbed weeks later, surrounded by loved ones. Her daughter later found holiday gifts already purchased and clothes for her grandchildren meant for next year.

Being a patient did not make her any less a doctor.

"Even from the hospital, she was talking about Medicaid," said her daughter Anjali Kataria, a health care reform expert living in Maryland.

Early in her career, Sudesh Kataria's interest was met with skepticism by her colleagues. Her husband, Dr. Yash Kataria, a pulmonologist, said she was told it was a "voodoo" science and not worth establishing a career around.

"I remember her having to convince people there was this developmental pediatrics area," her daughter said.

She had the chance to study with world-renowned cardiologists, "but that didn't inspire her," Yash Kataria said.

She persisted, studying children with then-undiagnosed learning disabilities and a host of other amorphous medical conditions that would not necessarily respond to prescriptions, but often required a lot more than just patience from parents.

Her daughter remembers there was always a box of tissues for the parents that would break down in her office, thinking they had failed. Her mother spoke of parents who would just sob and sob.

Kataria would offer encouragement and hope by pointing to world leaders who also struggle with developmental disabilities.

She told her parents, "You can be what you want to be - the only thing you need to get is some help," her husband recalled. "No human being is totally perfect."

Formidable job

The Katarias moved to Greenville in 1978 and were part of the founding faculty at the Brody School of Medicine at Eastern Carolina University.

She would work there for 30 years, affecting children locally, as well as throughout the Southeast.

Families drove from surrounding states for her expertise - she was often their only hope.

"It was a pretty formidable job," said Dr. Ave Lachiewicz, a former colleague and professor of pediatrics and behavioral sciences at Duke University. "That's not a group of kids that are particularly well-served in general."

Kataria fought for increased resources in schools at the state level via her appointment by Gov. Jim Martin in 1992 to the State Interagency Coordinating Council for Handicapped Children. She also held office in the North Carolina Pediatric Society.

Dinner on Sunday

And even with her strong focus on work, she still found time to raise two children, Anjali and a son, Neil Kumar Kataria, of Virginia.

The family frequented the shore, ate home-cooked meals on Sundays and watched "60 Minutes" together.

"That was a big thing for her - to have a home dinner on Sunday night," her daughter said.

It was a far more idyllic childhood than she experienced in India, surviving the Indian War and living as a refugee with few resources, one of seven children. As a woman, she had to secretly apply to medical school. She did not talk about these things until recent years, her husband said, and her experiences in childhood perhaps made her all the more empathetic to the struggles of others.

Prior to her death, her son's wife gave birth to her fourth grandchild, a boy. She was able to hold him during her final days.

"The last words she said were: 'We should all celebrate. We have a new life in the family,' " Anjali Kataria said.

eshestak@mac.com

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