Dr. Vikas Ghai and Dr. Neeraj Agnihotri

A Guiding Force
Story 100

It looks like destiny -- or was it by design? Dr. Vikas Ghai and Dr. Neeraj Agnihotri's childhood friendship traveled with them across the ocean, and they have been a guiding force for each other through life's turns and challenges.

They were neighbors by chance, then friends by choice and now colleagues by design.

Dr. Vikas Ghai, 45, and Dr. Neeraj Agnihotri, 42, grew up just two houses away from each other in India. Today, they work side by side at the Adventist Health AIS Cancer Center.

Their destinies seem intertwined, and they wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Dr. Ghai has always been a guiding force in my life,” says Agnihotri, who recalls looking up to the slightly older Ghai as a youth in Punjab.

The two met when they were young boys. Days were spent playing cricket and hanging around on bikes with their siblings in the neighborhood. At first, Agnihotri was closer to Ghai’s brother because they played tennis together. But Ghai couldn’t help but be impressed by Agnihotri’s intellect and perceptiveness, and as the years went by, they formed a friendship based on mutual respect and admiration.

Childhood photo of Dr. Ghai and Dr. Agnihotri
Dr. Vikas Ghai (center left) and Dr. Neeraj Agnihotri (center right) with Agnihotri’s older sister and Ghai’s younger brother as children in India.

“He was so smart and bright. He was one of the top students in the whole state of Punjab,” says Ghai.

Their parents also moved in the same professional and social circles. Agnihotri’s father was an Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) physician and his mother taught economics, while Ghai’s father was a physics teacher at the boys’ school. Agnihotri credits his friend’s father as a huge mentor in his life.

“His father was the best teacher. If you didn’t do well on a test, he would lift your mood up and offer words of encouragement. Their door was always open,” says Agnihotri. 

Both boys wanted to be physicians from an early age. 

“My parents wanted a doctor in the family,” says Ghai, chuckling.

His grandmother’s death from breast cancer when he was 8 and the lasting impression it left on him made hematology and oncology a natural choice. 

“She was so devoted to her family and taking care of the kids and her other responsibilities,” says Ghai, who now devotes his life to the treatment and recovery of cancer patients.

After attending medical school in India, he completed his internship and residency at the University of Toledo, Ohio, and received a hematology and oncology fellowship from the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. 

All the while, he remained in close touch with Agnihotri.

Dr. Vikas Ghai and Dr. Neeraj Agnihotri

“I still have emails from 2003, 2004, when I was asking him about life in America,” says Agnihotri, who graduated from Dayanand Medical College with the honor of “Best All-Around Medical Student” and completed his residency and fellowship programs in oncology and hematology at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York. 

“When I received notice of my success on the medical school entrance exam, their house was the first one I went to after I told my parents,” says Agnihotri of the Ghai family.

Ghai was part of the medical team to see the Adventist Health AIS Cancer Center open in 2013.

“It’s my baby,” says Ghai, who has watched the center grow to include four oncologists, two breast surgeons, two radiation oncologists and five nurse practitioners. 

Things came full circle in January 2022, when, after talking about it for some time, Agnihotri joined the AIS Cancer Center team.

“He’s professional, kind and compassionate. I knew he would be a wonderful asset for the AIS Cancer Center,” says Ghai, sitting in his office recently with Agnihotri. The addition of Agnihotri also means Ghai can take a little more time off to spend with his wife, Sonia, an OB-GYN, son, Ishaan, 14, and daughter Manya, 9.

"Personally, I hope our friendship will continue to be as strong as it always has.”

For Agnihotri, the father of Punye, 10, and Param, 6, with wife Vrinda, also a physician, the arrangement has many benefits. 

“If there is a patient with a complicated case, I can ask for guidance,” says Agnihotri, who anticipates that the friends’ futures will be as connected as their past. “Professionally, I hope we continue to grow the AIS Cancer Center together. Personally, I hope our friendship will continue to be as strong as it always has.”

Ghai already has a plan for that.

“We could be neighbors again. There’s an empty lot next to us,” he says, laughing.