Randal Zhou, MD, joins the UNC Department of Surgery as an Assistant Professor in the Division of Gastrointestinal Surgery. He sat down to discuss what inspired him to become a surgeon, his goals while at UNC Surgery, and why he would want to pick the brain of one of UNC’s most successful alumnus, Michael Jordan.

Dr. Zhou graduated from the University of Illinois with a Bachelor of Science in Integrative Biology and a minor in Chemistry in 2010. He received his medical degree from Rush Medical College in 2014.  He remained at Rush for his general surgery residency training, which he completed in 2019. He then matriculated to Yale-New Haven Hospital for a fellowship in Minimally Invasive and Bariatric Surgery.

Dr. Zhou joins our department in the Division of GI Surgery as a bariatrics and hernia surgeon, with particular experience in robotic surgery. Dr. Zhou comes to UNC with practice in clinical outcomes research. He has presented his work at national and regional conferences and has published in specialty journals. He will be working closely with Drs. Farrell and Perez, along with all the faculty in the GI Division.

What inspired you to become a doctor?

I grew up in a family where my dad was a doctor, a primary care physician. When I was younger, I watched him treat patients. I saw the gratification from both sides, one being the patient’s appreciation for my dad and the work he did, and the other was the satisfaction my father received from making a difference. It had a significant impact on me. As I grew up, I started exploring my interests in science, human anatomy, biology, and human physiology.

In college, I explored advanced science classes; I volunteered in hospitals and clinics. When I was able to put my knowledge into practice is when I knew that medicine was the right path for me.  The experience of sitting with patients, consoling them, and being able to be part of the healthcare treatment team is essential to me. I chose to be a doctor because, at the end of the day, there is nothing else I could imagine doing; it’s a fulfilling and rewarding career.

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

In medical school, I was very interested in all the Gastrointestinal (GI) pathophysiology and diseases. The anatomy was very graspable, and I took an affinity to it, able to learn and understand the treatment process very quickly. Many GI diseases require multi-modality treatment therapy, including procedures, medications, and surgeries.

Early on in medical school, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in which I worked with GI diseases but didn’t know which path I was going to take: Gastroenterology, or GI surgery. Late in medical school, I decided on surgery because I liked seeing a problem and being able to make an immediate impact on the patient through surgical intervention. I enjoy working with my hands, and when treating GI diseases, we use state of the art equipment and techniques that require precision and deft hand coordination.

Why did you choose academic surgery?

I trained in an academic center through medical school, residency, and fellowship. I was able to witness first hand a lot of excellent teaching and mentorship. Very talented people, who are very patient and knowledgeable, trained me. I wouldn’t be where I am today, the surgeon that I am, without their investment in me. I feel very strongly that I need to do the same, give back and train other doctors on their journey to achieve their goals.

During my residency and fellowship, I mentored residents and medical students. I felt tremendous gratification from the experience, to see their growth, and to have taken part in which they develop to be as a person and as a doctor. I want to be in an academic institution to be able to give back like that and to train the next generation of doctors and surgeons. Also, I am highly interested in research, being able to stay at the forefront of medicine. An academic center like UNC Health has resources that I know will help me attain such goals.

Is there any specific research that you are currently doing or that you hope to do while at UNC?

I’ve been involved in some quality improvement research. I am actively involved in the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery (ASMBS) and the International Bariatric Collaboration Society. We look at our experiences in the past, create quality improvement measures to standardize patient care and surgeries. I want to continue to do that while at UNC and further develop collaborations with the society.

In addition, I am very interested in revisional bariatric surgery. Patients sometimes require multiple surgeries, and I am interested in exploring the reasons why to study them at a more detailed level. I hope that through collaboration with various institutions, including my former educational centers, we can work together to find answers that can best help patients.

What are you hoping your contributions will be to the gastrointestinal field?

In regard to robotics, I had extensive training through my fellowship, and I am very excited to bring that knowledge and experience to UNC Surgery. I want to continue the development of our robotics program here, exploring different routes that the robot is used to help patients and to minimize pain, get them back on their feet quicker. I want to help make UNC Surgery known in the area as an excellent place for bariatric and other minimally invasive GI surgeries.

I also want to bring this enthusiasm for minimally invasive and robotic surgery to UNC School of Medicine to help inspire the next generation of medical students and residents. I want to help them find the field early, potentially start a program, or formalize a program to get them enrolled so they can jump in when they come to the operating room on their surgical residency rotations. This would allow them to immediately participate and join in the experience, helping them get excited about the field of bariatrics the way I am.

Why UNC? Why the department of surgery UNC? What drew you to our department and the division?

I did my research during my job search. I knew that the position with UNC Surgery was a great fit for me, a place where I can practice my craft, develop, and grow as a surgeon and also contribute as an academic surgeon. I spoke with several people with ties to UNC, whether current faculty or those that attended medical school and residency, and they all have great things to say about the institution and the area.

During my interview process, the pieces all fell into place; I connected with everyone I spoke with and felt they were all down-to-earth individuals. I am looking forward to working with them and collaborating with them.

Did you always want to be a doctor? Was there something else you wanted to be when you were growing up as a kid?

As a young child, I played many sports, and one of my dreams growing up was to be a professional basketball or volleyball star. The idea of being a doctor was always in the back of my mind because of my dad, but a career in athletics was something I fell asleep dreaming about sometimes.

As I got older, I also entertained the idea of becoming a professor. While I was in college, I took an anatomy and physiology class, and the teacher was so engaging; it made me consider the possibility of teaching as a potential career. The professor was very knowledgeable, and the experience piqued my interest, the idea of being able to lead a class and teach. In the end, I chose a profession that actually allows me to be both a surgeon and a teacher, so it was a win-win situation all around.

What do you wish you had known before starting your medical studies?

I wish I knew that things would eventually all fall into place. When starting my medical studies, I was a little anxious at first, trying to decide what to do in regard to a specialty. I probably lost way too much sleep because of it, but in the end, everything worked out. I should have taken a breath and explored my interests at my own pace. There is a ton of support available throughout medical school, with professors and staff, so my advice to others is to slow down, know you are supported, and you’ll figure it out.

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

The advice I would give to my younger self would be to be patient. I would continuously try to rush things, to rush through things to make sure they happened in a timely manner. Most of the time, things worked out regardless of the anxiety level or the extra effort that I put in. Sometimes at the cost of losing time with family or friends and being impatient and causing some conflict.

What is one thing you wish your patients or co-workers knew about you before they met you?

I want patients to know they will be comfortable with me, they can tell me anything, and I am here to listen. My job is to discuss their disease and how we plan to treat their disease together. I’m going to be compassionate, and listen to them, help them find the best treatment possible. I hope patients know that they don’t have to be nervous even though they hear that I’m a surgeon, I’m still a human being after all, and we can work together as a team. I’m here to serve them, and we’re a team together to find the best cure for what ails them.

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

I would love to sit and talk with Michael Jordan. Not only because he is a successful alumnus of UNC but because of his memorable experiences as an athlete, businessman, and greatest of all time. I grew up a Chicago Bulls fan, and he was always a role model. He is a great inspiration to me, not only as an athlete but as an individual, someone who excelled at their chosen profession and the level of dedication he had to his work.

I would love to hear how he became the best there ever was and ever will be. What kind of mentality did he have to have during his training for basketball? I think anything I learned I could apply to my life, to surgery, and to my career. He made a lot of choices and sacrifices, and I’d be interested to hear his thoughts about where that led him.

What might someone be surprised to know about you?

I think people would be surprised to know that I like rap music and Hip-Hop. I love my music, and it’s part of what gets me going during the day. I love turning up the music and losing myself in it. I especially love listening to it when I go for a run; it distracts me from life and stress.

How would you describe yourself in one word?

Compassionate.

If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?

I would love the superpower of having superspeed. There is so much I would like to accomplish. If I had the speed of light, I would be able to complete them, such as providing care to patients, performing surgeries, and also having down-time. Additionally, that superpower will allow me to quickly see and be available to my loved ones.