Stephen Heisler, DPM, MHSA, joins the UNC-Chapel Hill Department of Surgery as Assitant Professor, Division of Vascular Surgery. Dr. Heisler discusses how he wanted to go from being a caring friend to a caring provider, building trust with his patients, and wanting to pick the brain of Bill Nye the Science Guy because who wouldn’t?
What brought you to the Department of Surgery at UNC?
I came to UNC Surgery because of the opportunity to work alongside expert podiatrists as we build a world-renowned limb salvage center. This is one of the few academic podiatry positions available in the U.S. that allows me to encompass all of my interests including limb salvaging, wound care, and reconstructive surgery. I am also excited about the chance to pursue clinical research and conduct trials that I started the groundwork for in my residency.
Why do you do what you do?
I’m a doctor because taking care of people and caring for them is at the core of who I am. I’ve always cared about others and felt that I wanted to bring that to the next level, go from being a caring friend to being a caring provider. Once you begin the journey into medicine your friends start coming to you with 10,000 questions, and they have other friends with more questions, and I love that. You establish a rapport, a relationship and it’s nice that people want to come to you because they trust you, they know you genuinely want to help them heal. I’m appreciative that I’ve found what I love to do and I wake up every morning and get to do it.
How did you decide to pursue your current specialty?
While exploring specialty options, I shadowed podiatrists and learned that the field was so much more encompassing then I had ever realized. It’s more like a specialty within a specialty. As a podiatric surgeon, you are considered the expert from the knee down because you can treat almost everything within that area, whether that’s the skin, the bones, deformities, or other issues related to biomechanics. When I saw the potential to treat so many different ailments, it got me excited about the specialty. I became fascinated as I dove deeper into podiatric medicine and surgery, the cause and effects of injuries, treatments and its impact on the lives of patients. For example, the foot contains 26 bones and supports the entire weight of the body for running, jumping, sprinting, and just everyday life. When a patient has an issue with their foot, it’s like a snowball effect, not just limiting their mobility but begins to disrupt other parts of the body. I get to break down the biomechanical minutia of what is affecting them and how; then I can create a treatment plan for them. Seeing patients regain the ability to take a walk or play with their kids or get back to the everyday rhythm of living their life is empowering to me and why I chose my profession.
Do you have any pre-surgery ritual?
Before the surgery, I try to imagine different scenarios that could happen during the procedure and come up with a variety of contingency plans. We have significantly advanced imaging plus we can see what’s going on outside of the patient, but when you get inside to do the surgery, things change. If plan A doesn’t work well, then I make sure I have additional plans to ensure a successful outcome for the operation.
What are your plans for future contributions to your specialty?
Contributions I would like to make, just coming out of residency, would be in the form of addressing patient pathology that hasn’t been addressed before or hasn’t been addressed innovatively. I am an out-of-the-box thinker. I think approaching pathologies in different and new innovative ways is what I want to contribute. While approaching patients with current standards of caress, there are some aspects of standards of care that can be improved to deliver better patient outcomes.
If you could pick the brain of someone alive or dead, who would it be?
I would pick the brain of Bill Nye the Science Guy because of the way he continues to educate and teach it in a world that is questioning things more than ever. There is a lot of wrong, negative information out there that people are latching on to and science is getting warped in some ways. I would love to pick his brain on how he continues to promote and teach what he loves in the face of contrary information and how he can still be a positive and inspiring force in science.
What profession did you want to be when you were a kid?
As a kid, I always wanted to work with my hands. I always followed around the people who would come into our home to fix things, anyone who was taking things apart and putting them back together. I originally wanted to be an electrician or plumber. When I was younger, I hurt my back and needed physical therapy. During that experience, it opened my eyes to a whole world of medicine, how things relate and how movement can affect function in the sense that improper movement can cause pain and injury. That is when I started to think about pursuing a career in medicine.
What is one thing you wish your patients or coworkers knew about you before they meet you?
I want them to know that I genuinely care about them and their ailment.
If you give your younger self one piece of advice what would it be?
What might someone be surprised to know about you?
I work out and have an athletic figure, but I am the biggest nerd. I barely watch sports, but I geek out about all things science fiction.
What do you do when you aren’t working?
In my free time I am trying to learn something I don’t know already or become inspired by something I haven’t heard of before.
How would you describe yourself in one word?
What Superhero are you?
I would say I most resemble Batman. And it relates back to who I am as a person and as a physician because he is addressing the needs that people can’t address themselves. He is someone the people of Gotham trust that will be there for them.