Jin Hee Ra, MD, joins the UNC Department of Surgery as an Associate Professor, Division of General and Acute Care Surgery as well as the Director of the SICU and the Vice Chair of Quality and Safety. She shares what inspired her to become a doctor, specifically a general surgeon, her passion for finding ways to improve patient outcomes and her interest in scuba diving that takes her across the world.
Dr. Ra graduated in 1996 with a degree in biology and political science from Emory University. She continued on to earn her medical degree in 2002 from the University of Louisville School of Medicine and completed her training at the University of Pennsylvania specializing in surgical critical care. Dr. Ra comes to us from University of Florida, Jacksonville where she was an Associate Professor of Surgery, Medical Director of the Surgical Intensive Care Unit (SICU), Director of the Surgical Critical Care Fellowship, and Associate Chair of Quality. She has been honored with multiple exemplary teacher awards and recognized for her integral role in the care of severe multisystem injured trauma patients.
What inspired you to become a doctor?
I became a doctor through a combination of loving science and taking care of patients. When I was a kid, I had a little injury clinic for my friends. Our parents would be at work, and often we were told not to be outside. We, of course, played outside and like all kids got scrapes and bruises. My friends would come to my house because I had a first aid cabinet. I would fix them all up so that when our parents got home they couldn’t see the injuries and we wouldn’t get into trouble.
At the same time, I loved learning life sciences in school. A memory that stands out was when a teacher brought in some pond water that had lots of microorganisms in it. She told us to get a dropper and put a drop of water on the glass slide and look at it throughout microscopes. I could have spent all day looking at that slide. When the creatures died because the heat of the lamp killed them, I went back and got another drop of water and kept doing it over and over even though it was well past the time to do it.
When I got older I realized that there was a profession that combined my love of biological sciences and caring for people.
How did you decide to pursue your current specialty?
I chose general surgery and trauma care because it’s challenging. There is never a day that is the same as the day before, there is always something more to learn. Each day, you didn’t know what to expect; you don’t know how your day is going to end up. You may have one patient; you may have 50 patients. You may have a gunshot wound victim; you may have someone who just fell off a ladder or both. There are a variety of patients that come through your door, and no two are exactly alike. It required me always to be prepared, and I enjoyed that level of energy and excitement required for the job.
Why did you become a faculty member?
I became a faculty member because I enjoy the university setting, the opportunity to teach students, residents, and fellows. I also like that in an academic setting, I am also student in certain scenarios; I’m always constantly pushing myself to learn from others. That’s why I’ve kept my career in an academic medical center, because of the learning environment where you are not only a teacher but also a student at the same time.
Tell me about your other roles in the Department.
I’m the Vice Chair of Quality and Safety for the department. My role is to make sure that we are following the best possible standards of care for our patients. If there are no standards, then we create them to follow so that care is improved. We monitor what has worked and what hasn’t worked and then make sure that everyone is educated as to the things that we should be doing to continue to improve patient outcomes. I am also the SICU medical director which requires my leadership to improve the quality of care delivered to the critically ill patient through education, teamwork and collaboration.
So how did you find your way into that area of research and quality?
As a surgeon, we’re always looking to improve our outcomes. That is already naturally built into the profession. When I became a Surgery Intensive Care Unit (SICU) Medical Director back in 2013 at UF Jacksonville, it became more of a passion for me to look at our outcomes and finding ways to improve them. We had several challenges in my last institution in the SICU, so we collectively picked one quality improvement project and worked on getting that issue resolved and find sustained improvement. With that success, we then went on to the next project and so on. The process involves constant learning, learning from pitfalls, but in the end, we achieved much better care for patients and the institution. I enjoyed the challenge especially knowing the fact that it had direct impact on the patients.
What brought you to the Department of Surgery at UNC?
UNC has a great reputation as a strong academic medical center. So when a position was open for a SICU medical director as well as someone who could lead surgical quality efforts, it was an easy decision. It was the right job at the right time in the right place.
Where are you originally from?
I was born in South Korea. My parents immigrated when I was about 2, and I grew up in Kentucky. I went to college at Emory University, my medical education at the University of Louisville before completing my residency and fellowship at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Most recently, I was a faculty member at the University of Florida in Jacksonville.
What is one thing you wish your patients or coworkers knew about you before they meet you?
I want my patients to know that I have their best interests at heart. I will be honest with them about what I believe the best options are for their care. I would treat them the way that I would want to be treated, the same way I would treat my own family.
What do you want to accomplish at UNC Surgery?
I am thrilled with the opportunity to improve quality care and outreach for the university. UNC has a large reach in the North Carolina community and to be able to affect the care and the quality of care in such an area would be amazing.
What legacy would you like to leave behind when you’re ready to retire?
I think we’ve made much progress with medicine, but I think one of the things that we still struggle with is communication, despite the many platforms we have. I want to try to find a way to simplify the system so that communication is easier and simpler. For example, the electronic medical record is much better than it was on paper charting, but it’s still far away from where we need it to be. Communication affects the quality of care because if the communication is poor and you don’t have a good system in place, then it impacts care on all fronts. I’m hoping to help improve the system, whatever that may look like, to make it more user-friendly and prevent errors.
With a system that’s difficult to maneuver, providers are not going to be able to deliver the appropriate care. If we can create a system to work towards the goal of improving the quality of care we deliver, make it user-friendly with safety measure in place to prevent errors, it would be great for the patients and all the care providers involved.
So what are some hobbies that you like to do; what are things that people don’t know about you?
I enjoy watersports like scuba diving, snorkeling, and beachcombing. Whether it’s a stream, a lake or the ocean, I’m all about bodies of water. I have a house in Georgia, with a river running behind it that I love spending time in the backyard. There is a good amount of wildlife there, we have turtles, frogs of all different sizes, fish and lots of birds; we get to see nature at its best.
Where is the most amazing place that you’ve ever visited and where is on your bucket list to go?
Great Barrier Reef in Australia is on my bucket list. I haven’t been yet because it’s so far away, but I’d like to get there sooner than later as there is significant bleaching of the corals. Typically when I visit places, I usually don’t have a feel to go back there, but Belize is the only country thus far, where I’d like to go back again. The marine life there is amazing.
If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?
If I had a superpower, it would be to reduce the stress and anxiety of the patients that we care for. I would take that a step further actually and say it wouldn’t be just for our patients but the people we work with. We all have issues that we deal with daily and then on top of that; we have to take care of complex patients, which can add stress to both sides to one’s life. If I could help relieve those stressors for everyone so they can be at their best, then it would be a great superpower to have.
If you were stranded on a deserted island, what three things would you have and why?
If I were stranded, I would want a fire starter device. I watch a lot of survival shows like “Naked and Afraid” and it is definitely a smarter way to make fire. I’d also bring a bucket or a pot for boiling water, and a good book because you’ll be pretty bored out there.
If you could sit down with any one person for a meal, alive or dead, who would it be?
It’s funny, I don’t watch any of her shows nor have I read any of her magazines or books but I would want to sit down and have a conversation with Oprah. I find her very fascinating from what I have heard about her. I would like to get into her head and figure out what makes her click, what keeps her going. She has a passion and drive, something that she wants to finish completing in her lifetime. I’m curious to know what that is.