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Adeyemi Ogunleye, MD, joins the UNC Department of Surgery as an Assistant Professor, in the Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. He sat down to discuss what inspired him to become a surgeon, his aspirations and goals while at UNC Surgery, and the advice he would share with his younger self.

Yemi Ogunleye, MDDr. Ogunleye received his medical degree at the University of Ibadan in Ibadan, Nigeria in 2006.  In 2009, he completed his Master of Science in Epidemiology from Harvard University. He went on to complete his general surgery residency at Columbia University from 2010-2015, a plastic surgery residency at Medical University of South Carolina from 2015-2018, and most recently a fellowship in microvascular surgery and complex oncologic reconstruction at Standard from 2018-2019.  At UNC, Dr. Ogunleye will specialize in general plastic surgery with a focus on microvascular surgery including complex oncologic reconstruction, lymphedema surgery, and breast reconstruction with an active interest in global surgery.   

What inspired you to become a doctor/surgeon?

I had several role models who were physicians growing up, individuals with so much passion and dedication to their job. I decided to become a doctor because, in high school, I found that it was rewarding to look after people at a time when they were most vulnerable. The fact that you could be of assistance to people when they truly needed help was something that attracted me to want to do the same thing.

In normal circumstances, as human beings, we get up, go to work, and do what we need to do. When disease appears, we all become vulnerable, because you get jolted out of your routine, and now you have to seek care from somebody else. You are vulnerable because you’re asking strangers for help, people you’ve never met and don’t have a relationship with. It’s not just as simple as sending an email; you’re going in to submit yourself to be disrobed, examined, probed, and have procedures completed by strangers. I think that’s a very vulnerable state.

I enjoy getting up every day because I get the opportunity to get in there and help a patient during this state. Using the skills that I have practiced and perfected to design some sort of reconstruction that has not only form but also has function allows my patients to go back to doing what they used to do before they got sick.

Why did you choose to come over to the United States for your residency?

I moved to the United States initially to go to grad school. I applied to the top epidemiology programs in the world, and I was fortunate enough to get accepted to Harvard University in Boston to complete my cancer epidemiology degree. I was interested in treating cancer patients, which is one of the things I’ll be doing at UNC, a passion of mine since medical school. I’m interested not only in caring for cancer patients but also in becoming an academic who helps to identify why those patients get sick and provide them the best treatment possible.

After graduate school, I worked for the University as a researcher, running a large clinical trial for a year. When the trial was complete, I had to stop and ask myself if I wanted to continue as a researcher or whether I wanted to provide clinical care for cancer patients. I decided to go ahead and continue my training by moving on to residency. For most people who become physicians, that isn’t a traditional route, normally you do your residency first and then research later, but it’s the path that worked for me and has been important in shaping my career.

How did you decide to pursue your current specialty? Has it met your expectations?

I chose surgery because I like to use my hands. I’m a person who likes to solve problems, see immediate results in the work that I’m doing, so surgery spoke to me in that way. I like being able to identify a problem, take immediate action, and see a patient get better within hours or days.

On top of that, plastic surgery was something that I ended up falling into. Initially, I thought I was going to be a surgical oncologist, treating cancer patients. During my surgical residency, I developed an interest in plastic and reconstructive surgery. I came to realize that after a cancer patient has gone through surgery such as a mastectomy, it was very rewarding to be able to reconstruct their breast and give them back something they felt they had lost during their illness. The specialty also speaks to my skill set in terms of changing form and structure, along with building things.

I feel reconstructive surgery, which is mostly what I do, is a vocation that was at the nexus of my interest in changing form and function while also allowing me to deliver excellent care to my cancer patients.

What brought you to the Department of Surgery at UNC?

The Department of Surgery at UNC has a rich history of surgical firsts and medical advancements. It’s also one of the top departments and institutions in the country for doing cutting-edge research. My interest in the department was based on that history. I’m looking forward to performing complex reconstruction and cancer reconstruction in the North Carolina area.

I’ve also developed an interest in biodesign innovation, ways in which we can make the care that we provide to patients better by innovating the methods and instruments we use. One of the things I’ll be doing here at UNC is identifying little changes in methods and devices that can make our work better and hopefully tap into the resources available in the Research Triangle to help bring those ideas to fruition.

Do you plan to focus on Research while you’re here?

I will be engaged in the tripartite mission of academic medicine, which is teaching, research, and clinical care. While I’m here, I plan to perform research. This involves looking at what methods work best within the reconstructive area and continuing to improve the care that we deliver to our patients. My research is mostly clinical and epidemiological, with some translational.

I want to continue to improve the quality of evidence for the procedures that we do, for the conditions that we treat. I would also like to personalize some of our treatments, for example, pinpointing which procedures work best for which patients. Historically, most of the other disciplines within medicine have had much stronger evidence for the procedures that they do including how patients are selected for which surgery. Surgery patients tend to be varied, and it’s never as easy as giving a patient a pill. It’s been a challenge for our particular field as surgeons to produce the kind of evidence that is similar to the evidence in other disciplines in medicine. I hope that within plastic surgery, I can be one of those researchers able to contribute to the advancement of producing that set of clinical evidence or translational evidence that is the catalyst for better treatments.

Is there a patient story that you carry with you?

I don’t have one patient story, in particular; I carry them all with me. One of the things that I find most stimulating about my job is that every patient is different. In reconstructive surgery every patient is a new challenge, it’s never exactly the same conditions that you’re dealing with, so you’re always making up different treatments or different reconstructive procedures to fix these problems as you go along. It’s a very fulfilling, interesting, and dynamic job that we do. If I had to pick one patient who made a very strong impression on me, it was a breast cancer patient. She lived for a little while without reconstruction and came back for breast surgery. She essentially went from somebody who had been in a difficult psychological place after she had a cancer treatment and I got to see her blossom into a totally different person, six months to a year after the surgery. It was very rewarding.

What is one thing you wish your patients or coworkers knew about you before they meet you?

I‘d like them to know that I am an open, friendly, don’t take myself too seriously kind of person. I’ve got a good sense of humor, and I’m approachable.

Can you give me an example of a time when you had to overcome an obstacle on your road to being a surgeon?

The greatest obstacle I’ve faced would have been making the transition from a research career path to pursuing a clinical practice because these paths are very different. Once you go to grad school and do research for a year, you’re used to working those hours. Then to switch gears, and train as a doctor through two residency programs and a fellowship that allowed me to be super-specialized in my field, was a big leap that included long, arduous hours, almost ten years in the making.

What do you learn from your day to day experience as a surgeon?

It’s said that the surgeon who has no complications is a surgeon who doesn’t operate. From every procedure that doesn’t go as well as you expect you learn what to do and what not to do the next time. We learn every day from our patients, and one of the key things that you gain from the research is it helps you identify with clarity which patients are more likely to be susceptible to successful outcomes.

If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?

I think the one thing I would say to my younger self is to be prepared for challenges that will come your way as you move along, especially in your career. However, I’d also say to that person, everything that you’ve done is important and will become useful. All these years after I did my grad school and medical school, I can still say that all of that knowledge and all of that training is useful every day. So definitely the biggest advice I’d give to my younger self is do what you’re doing and know that even stuff that doesn’t look like it’s useful now will be useful later.

What profession did you want to be when you were a kid?

Growing up, I wanted to design cars because I’m interested in form and function, molding and changing the structure and form of things. In high school, I came to realize that I liked biology a whole lot more than math or physics. My passion for creating and working with my hands translates directly to my work in reconstructive surgery in what I do now; only I don’t design cars, I design ways to fix malformations or cosmetic maladies.

If you could pick the brain of someone alive or dead, who would it be?

I would love the chance to sit down and speak with Nelson Mandela, (the South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, political leader, and philanthropist who served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999). He made several life choices that were very difficult. There’s insight in pretty much his whole life story, especially the decisions he made in the last 20 years of his life. I want to get an idea as to what his thought process was; coming out of jail, running his country, making sure that he continued the pattern of growth for his country. When someone puts you in jail for 27 years, it’s unusual that when you come out, you don’t have emotional baggage. I think that’s something that lots of leaders cannot do. Someone like myself, interested in leadership, it would be an amazing experience to speak with him.

So what is your interest in Global Surgery?

So my interest in Global Surgery is two-fold.  First, of course, is to provide care in some of these areas that don’t have specialists where people may not be able to access the same kind of reconstruction that we can offer here. The second thing is in line with my interest in biodesign Innovation, to focus on methods and devices that allow surgeons and doctors in those places to leapfrog the problems that they encounter there and at cheaper costs than their health system can afford to provide similar procedures.

For more information check out Dr. Ogunleye’s profile.