Jared Gallaher, MD, MPH returns to UNC as the new Assistant Professor in the Division of General and Acute Care Surgery. He sat down to discuss what inspired him to become a surgeon, why he chose to come back to UNC, and the failure that helped shape the rest of his life.
Dr. Gallaher received his undergraduate degree from Wheaton College in 2004 and completed his medical degree from Wake Forest University in 2011. Dr. Gallaher conducted his general residency training at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and his research fellowship through our Malawi Surgical Initiative. Concurrent to his research fellowship, he also earned a master’s degree from the Gillings School of Global Public Health in 2016. Most recently, Dr. Gallaher completed his surgical critical care fellowship at Oregon Health Science University in Portland, OR.
What inspired you to become a doctor?
I was always struck by the interplay of being both a scientist and a physician. It’s a great marriage between the scientific side of me, the analytical thinker, problem solver; and the personal side, the human building meaningful relationships with families and patients.
I didn’t go into medical school expecting to want to do surgery. When I started spending time with surgeons on the surgical services, the opportunity to help patients in an immediate, impactful way was very striking to me. Growing up I never thought of myself as someone who would work with their hands, but I quickly found that it was something I was good at and that I enjoyed. I get a lot of satisfaction out of helping people who come to the hospital with what is often a life-threatening problem.
How did you decide to pursue your current specialty?
Within General and Acute Care Surgery, I deal with a variety of conditions including trauma and emergency surgery as well as planned procedures such as hernia repair and gallbladder removal. I like the range of conditions, no day is the same, and you never know exactly what’s going to walk through the door, which is exciting. I enjoy the detective aspect of determining what is ailing a patient, trying to put the pieces of a puzzle together to help a patient recover.
I also really enjoy the emergency aspect of trauma surgery. When you are in the emergency room, you never know what is in store for you. On any given day, a patient comes into our ED who has been in an accident or is dying in front of you. I can triage those people, help address their major issues, and hopefully use my skills and knowledge to save their life.
What brought you back to the Department of Surgery at UNC?
I’ve been in and out of the UNC system since 2005. I graduated from college in 2004 with no clear idea of what I wanted to do. A year after college, I decided I wanted to go to medical school, so I had to take all of the prerequisites, which I did at UNC. During that time I worked at the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center as a research assistant and then as a clerk in the emergency department at UNC Medical Center.
I’ve always really admired this institution, the University as a whole. I think it’s a special place. I’ve always thought this hospital has a real commitment to the state of North Carolina and the people in the community. When people can’t afford care, they are not sure what to do or where to go, they come here to UNC Medical Center. I think the mission of this hospital is very admirable and it’s a great culture and environment to work in.
After medical school, I came to UNC Surgery for residency. Towards the end of my residency, I knew that I wanted to come back to this Department to teach and was given the opportunity following the completion of my fellowship. The role as Assistant Professor in the Department affords me a lot of the opportunities that I’ve always envisioned for my career. I like the clinical aspect of my work and my colleagues. I also like the research opportunities that it gives me both in the school public health, which is something I have an interest in, predominantly the global health program.
How did you find yourself transitioning from Theology to Medicine?
The short version is that I wanted to do medicine most of my childhood. It was something that I always wanted as far back as I can remember—it was my main focus throughout high school. I got into college and realized that the world was much bigger, more diverse, and different than I knew. I had grown up in rural Kentucky. I got into college, and suddenly there was so much to learn and see; I was grappling with becoming an adult, exploring my faith and understanding my identity, and role in the world.
In college, I chose to embrace the liberal arts education, thus my major in Theology. I threw myself into new experiences including being a part of a program called HNGR (Human Needs and Global Resources), which focused on cross-cultural learning, economic development and caring for the poor. I lived with a Cambodian family for six months, and that experience changed my life; it adjusted my perspective on what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. College was a great time of exploring who I wanted to be and learning about the world. When I graduated, I had to figure out what I was going to do with my life, what my purpose was going to be. The answer was in my past, and it led me into my future: I circled back to medicine after having not thought about it for several years.
What are some of the goals you’d like to achieve during your time at UNC surgery?
While at UNC Surgery, I want to be a good clinician, a good surgeon and take excellent care of people. My relationships with my colleagues, students, and patients are important to me. As a surgeon I want to make sure I am providing the highest level of care I can, helping them overcome major hardships they are facing due to trauma or illness.
From a research standpoint, I want to continue to grow our program in Malawi. There’s a lot of untapped potential there. We have a vision for continuing to expand the program, including opportunities to partner with the Malawian government to help their Health Care system with ongoing training. I’m very excited about all that.
Another goal of mine is to play a role in building bridges between the Department of Surgery and the School of Public Health. We have a lot of medical students who are doing a Masters in Public Health, just as I did. I think for the Department of Surgery there’s a real opportunity for us to build a bridge for people who are interested in thinking about surgery from a public health perspective. I think that can have major implications for the state of North Carolina, but also for what we’re doing in Malawi.
What is one thing you wish your patients or co-workers knew about you before they met you?
I want people to know that I am approachable, friendly, that I value relationships above all. When people first meet me, they notice I’m very left brain; that I have an analytical mind so sometimes I can initially come off as stiff or boring. One of the most important parts of my job is enjoying time interacting with people. I think humor, teamwork, and camaraderie are really important in the daily life of a physician and I work to make sure I embody those things. The relationships I have with my coworkers and patients are ultimately the part of my job that is the most fun for me.
Can you give me an example of a failure you cherish and what you learned from it?
My first year of college stands out to me as a failure that ultimately turned out to be the best thing to happen, but it didn’t feel like it at the time. I went to the University of Kentucky my freshman year. My first semester was pretty easy, but my second semester was a disaster; my grades were bad for the first time in my life. I failed the final exam in a programming class, and it was a wake-up call. I had taken school so seriously for my whole life; it was the most important thing to me as a kid. I was embarrassed and ashamed about it at the time.
I was struggling as a freshman, unable to figure out the direction I wanted my life to take. I’d had this singular vision for what I thought my life was going to be and that wasn’t working. I ended up transferring to Wheaton College and resetting all of my educational expectations. That’s when I decided to study Theology and enrolled in the program that took me to Cambodia. I did all these things that I had never planned to do, things that shaped the rest of my life positively. I focused on the idea that I needed to learn more about the world and what my place is going to be in it. All those experiences ended up shaping who I think I am today and my interest in global health.
Do you have any pre-surgery rituals?
I grew up in the church. My dad’s a minister, and the idea of ritual was ingrained into my childhood. I remember the first time I scrubbed for an operation. I was in medical school, a second-year student doing a short rotation in Cambodia. Someone started teaching me how to scrub in, the process of washing my hands, sterilizing them before surgery. I was immediately struck by the ritual of it.
That was one of the first things that attracted me to surgery. I thought it was cathartic that surgeons had this required experience of intensive and systematic hand washing, which I took as a personal ritual. I think it’s sacred. When I operate, the hand-washing part is a time that allows me to take a few moments, center myself, and prepare for what’s to come.
If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?
To take myself less seriously. I spent a lot of energy and time stressing about the importance of every little grade and every little paper. I had success because of that, but it seems trivial now. For example in high school I was obsessed with being valedictorian, a singular focus of mine. I think about how much I stressed about that and how much personal identity I took in that in high school. I wish that I had a more balanced outlook on that kind of thing as a kid and as a teenager.
How would you describe yourself in one word?
If you could pick the brain of someone alive or dead, who would it be?
While controversial I would pick Albert Schweitzer. He has always been a hero of mine, but his work in Africa is controversial, and he had some personal struggles. I find him to be a fascinating person because he was so talented at a variety of different things. He was a physician, a theologian, philosopher, and musician. It would be interesting to get to know him and hear from him how he thought about the world.
What do you do when you aren’t working?
As a physician and a teacher, my time is very limited. Outside of work, I spend time with my family, but I try to carve out a small amount of time to run. I have young kids, 7 and 3-year-old boys and a third boy due soon. We combine family with our love of being outside and exercise. It isn’t uncommon to see us pushing our youngest in a jogging stroller while our oldest is riding his bicycle on a family run. I’ve also come to love photography, which happens to work perfectly with taking pictures of my kids all the time.
If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?
My superpower would be the ability to teleport. I would love to be able to go anywhere in the world whenever I want, immediately. I love to travel, but with young children it gets complicated. So teleportation would be a great solution because we could skip all the hassle of the airport and immediately show up at our destination, the stress of travel a distance memory.
For more information about about Dr. Gallaher, check out his faculty profile.