Jonathan Stem, 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 doctor, forming bonds with his patients, and the advice he gives to all of his trainees.
Dr. Jonathan Stem received his undergraduate degree from Princeton in 2008 and then attended the Special Sciences Program at the University of Pennsylvania. He completed his medical degree at Wake Forest University in 2014, subsequently training as a general surgery resident at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, PA. He recently completed a Colorectal Surgery Fellowship at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Dr. Stem has multiple resident research and teaching awards to his credit.
What brought you to the department of surgery at UNC?
UNC is a fantastic institution that has a robust research infrastructure but also an excellent clinical reputation. It is a place I felt I could be a clinically impactful surgeon while pursuing my research and educational interests. I can collaborate with physicians in different fields to work collectively towards bettering our treatment and approach to disease processes.
What inspired you to become a doctor?
Becoming a doctor was always in the back of my mind. My dad is a nephrologist, a kidney doctor. I grew up seeing what he did and idolizing him. Throughout my life, I saw how he cared about his patients, how he touched them and made significant positive impacts on their lives. I also admired the hard work that he put into it, the grit that he had.
When I got to be school-aged, I discovered my love of biology and specifically physiology. I realized quickly that medicine was a job where I could combine my love of science with my drive to serve others and work towards improving their lives.
Why become a surgeon?
Becoming a surgeon was the last thing on my radar when I started medical school. I wanted to be a pediatrician. As I progressed through my rotations, I found that I liked a little bit of everything, some medicine, some pediatrics, but nothing clicked. I hadn’t yet experienced the moment where I knew that the rotation was what I wanted to do every day.
That moment came when I was in the OR for the first time, and it completely captured my attention. I knew at that moment that being in the OR was something I wanted to pursue. When I finally got to my general surgery rotation, it blended everything that I had loved in medical school. It required an understanding of physiology and an ability to medically manage patients. Additionally, the operative piece allows you to immediately impact the disease processes that you study in textbooks.
How did you decide to pursue gastrointestinal surgery as your specialty?
Colorectal surgery was the first general surgery rotation that I had in medical school, and it completely shattered the perception I had of surgeons until that point. I worked with a fantastic surgeon and physician, an extremely caring individual. I saw in him an ability to not only be an excellent surgeon but someone who related to his patients at their bedside. He maintained long-term relationships with them built around an enormous amount of trust. From that day on, I was interested in colorectal surgery.
When I got into residency, I realized I loved the challenge of operating in the pelvis. It’s a tricky part of the body to perform surgery, one that not everyone enjoys. Additionally, we get to operate in every mode: open, laparoscopic, robotic, transanally; it has a ton of variety. It’s a mix of all different types of procedures and disease processes (both cancer and benign). No day is the same. Lastly, in colorectal surgery we get to build long standing relationships with our patients and follow them over time.
What profession did you want to be when you were a kid?
Like many young boys, I wanted to be a professional football player or baseball player. When I stopped growing in 6th grade, I realized that the college level was as far as the sports dream was going to go. I also had an interest in and a love for art. I considered combining art and science and becoming an architect at one time but found that medicine fit me best.
Why did you decide to go into academic medicine?
One of the biggest reasons I chose to enter academia is that I wanted to be involved with the educational side of medicine. I felt very fortunate, throughout my career, in training, whether it be medical school, general surgery residency in Philadelphia at Thomas Jefferson, or in my fellowship at Wisconsin, to have excellent people above me. These mentors took me under their wing, showed me the way and taught me. I’m very appreciative of that. I want to pay it forward, to do the same for the next generation of surgeons. In an academic position, enthusiastic young learners surround you. It’s important to me to give back.
The other reason is that in academic surgery you have an opportunity to be involved with research, trying to further the treatment and understanding of a disease process. Being in a place like UNC, many like-minded people are enthusiastic about progressing the field and a contagious spirit like that is essential to advancing medical science.
What advances in medicine would you like to see in the next five years in general or specifically within your specialty?
I would love to see advancements in our ability to screen a greater percentage of the population for colon and rectal cancer. It’s a disease that, if found early, we can treat, and people can do quite well. However, it’s still something that we don’t necessarily do a great job of screening for, especially in some areas of the world and populations.
In terms of cancer and IBD care, we can always better our understanding of who’s going to respond to which type of treatment. I hope that we move toward more patient-specific treatment plans tailored to each patient’s own biology in the future.
What are some goals you’d like to achieve during your time at UNC surgery?
My first goal is to provide excellent surgical care to the residents of North Carolina. Second I’d like to grow into a trusted surgeon who can be a role model for residents and med students alike. I’d also like to help advance the treatment of colorectal cancer patients and IBD patients.
Can you give me an example of when you had to overcome an obstacle on your road to becoming a surgeon?
When I first went to college, I played football. At the beginning of my college career, the first year or so, I struggled with time management and balancing the rigorous schedule of full-time athletics, going to class, labs, and completing all my pre-med requirements. That year was a real struggle, quite humbling in fact, but it was a huge learning experience for me. It taught me hard work and how to budget my time. It was a huge lesson for me. I learned to work in those circumstances and now do much better when my plate is full because I’m forced to be efficient and budget my time to ensure progress.
What motivates you to get out of bed in the morning?
Every day we get to interact with new people and new patients. Medicine is so unique in that you can interact with a person from any walk of life. You’re looking out for a family member and caring for someone’s loved one. That’s special. We form these bonds with people based on the foundation of trust that we need to earn from a patient quickly. That makes it easy and exciting to get out of bed every day. On top of that, surgery is a job that I love.
What is one thing you wish your patients or co-workers knew about you before they met you?
I hope everyone knows that I always want to do what’s in the best interest of my patients and that I will always be straightforward and honest with them.
If you could pick the brain of someone alive or dead, who would it be and why?
Coming from my sports background, I think one person I would love to pick the brain of would be John Wooden. He may not be the basketball legend most people would chose here at UNC, but I think he’s the absolute greatest at what he did. His nickname was “Wizard of Westwood,” winning ten National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) national championships in 12 years as head coach for the UCLA Bruins, including a record seven in a row.
He inspired people to be their best and was a man of faith and integrity. He got people to set extremely high expectations for themselves and then supersede those expectations. Anyone that does that, especially as well as he did, has a special gift. It would be great to sit down and ask them how he did it.
If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?
One piece of advice I would give myself and something that I share with young trainees today is to remember that you’re always learning. In any area of life, we feel like we’re constantly being evaluated. However, I think it’s more important to measure yourself to where you were the day prior or a year earlier. Always appreciate the journey. Take everything as a learning experience, and don’t look at any failure as final.
How would you describe yourself in one word?
If you can have one superpower, what would it be and why?
I would love to fly. I think it would feel free to be up in the air and zooming around. You’d also be doing something nobody else could do. I’d never have to sit in traffic and could travel anywhere.