Profiles in ACS leadership: A few questions for John H. Stewart IV, MD, MBA, FACS

Editor’s note: The Bulletin of the American College of Surgeons is publishing a monthly series of articles profiling leaders of the College. The questions are intended to give readers a look at the person behind the surgical mask and to inspire other members of the College to consider taking on leadership positions within the organization and the institutions where they practice.

For this month’s profile in American College of Surgeons (ACS) leadership, we interviewed John H. Stewart IV, MD, MBA, FACS, Chair of the ACS Advisory Council Chairs. Dr. Stewart is physician executive for oncology services, University of Illinois Health; professor of surgery, University of Illinois College of Medicine; and deputy director, University of Illinois Cancer Center, Chicago.

Dr. Stewart

Subsequent to this interview, Dr. Stewart was appointed center director of the Louisiana State University (LSU) Health New Orleans/LCMC (Louisiana Children’s Medical Center) Health Cancer Center. He also will join the LSU Health New Orleans School of Medicine faculty as a professor of surgery.

Why did you decide to pursue a career in surgery?

I decided to pursue a career in surgery while in my third year of medical school. I went to Howard University School of Medicine, Washington, DC, and LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr., MD, FACS, one of the Past-Presidents of the ACS, was my chair. He was a fantastic mentor to all of the medical students at Howard. I was fascinated with the pathophysiology of surgical diseases, and I felt that surgery would provide me with ongoing opportunities to improve patients’ lives.

Who were some of your mentors, and what did you learn from each of these people that you try to apply every day?

I have been fortunate to have had several mentors who have had significant roles in the ACS, in addition to Dr. Leffall. Everyone who has worked with or studied under him quo

tes “equanimity under duress.” So, no matter how bad things are going, you have to remain calm, and you have to deliver results.

My first job as an assistant professor of surgery was at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, Winston-Salem, NC. J. Wayne Meredith, MD, FACS, MCCM, now President of the College, was chair of surgery, and he has remained a mentor to this day. Dr. Meredith has the uncanny ability to look at the most complex problems and distill them down to their simplest components. He has never steered me wrong—not to mention he has the best one-liners around.

I also have received mentorship from L.D. Britt, MD, MPH, DSc(Hon), FACS, FCCM, FRCSEng(Hon), FRCSEd(Hon), FWACS(Hon), FRCSI(Hon), FCS(SA)(Hon), another Past-President of the ACS. Dr. Britt has a very high-level overview of what is going on in American surgery. Dr. Britt is a person who has always been available to discuss different opportunities, and he also can look at a problem from multiple angles. I like to think of Dr. Britt as someone who knows how to play three-dimensional Sudoku.

ACS Regent Steven Stain, MD, FACS, has been a mentor for more than 20 years. Dr. Stain has taught me to understand both sides of a problem, whether it be a question about workforce development or a question around what is occurring in organized medicine. He also is readily available at a moment’s notice.

ACS Regent Kenneth Sharp, MD, FACS, also has been a mentor for the past 20 years. Dr. Sharp is a terrific educator, an outstanding mentor, and he always makes time to discuss situations that might arise in my career.

Describe your journey toward becoming Chair of the Advisory Council Chairs.

When I think about that question, I think about a picture that Dr. Sharp puts up in his talks. It’s a picture of a turtle on a pole. So, the obvious question is, “How did the turtle get there?” It’s not through any effort that the turtle made. It’s because someone put him there. Someone facilitated its movement, and I owe a lot of what I have done in the College to the mentors I mentioned earlier. These mentors have sponsored me in different settings to serve the House of Surgery through leadership in the College.

I served on the Advisory Council for General Surgery for two years before I was named the Vice-Chair. M. Tim Nelson, MD, FACS, was Chair of the Advisory Council when I served as the Vice-Chair, and I have learned a lot from Dr. Nelson. As Vice-Chair of the Advisory Council for General Surgery, I was able to work with a variety of Advisory Councils, including the Advisory Council for Rural Surgery. The members of the Advisory Council for Rural Surgery are very passionate, and there has never been a challenge that they haven’t risen to meet.

After serving as Vice-Chair, I was elected to serve as Chair of the Advisory Council for General Surgery and subsequently elected as Chair of the Advisory Council Chairs.

How do you achieve work-life integration?

It’s a matter of putting the important things first and understanding that you have a finite amount of time to dedicate to your patients and a finite amount of time for your family. Each of those has different levels of importance as you go through life. Understanding that and realizing that it’s essential to be “in the moment” with your patients and with your family has enabled me to maintain a work-life blend.

Now that you are mid-career, what interests do you have outside of surgery?

Several things interest me outside of medicine. One of my passions is policy—health care policy and education policy—and understanding how we even the playing field for all citizens of our country. I think the past year and a half has allowed us to better understand inequities in society. I enjoy the opportunity to help shape policy and mentor others to effect change to set the stage for a better tomorrow.

Dr. Stewart (left) with his family, 2021

Do you have any hobbies?

To me, hobbies are things that enrich your life and prolong your life. So, I do what my wife tells me to do so that I can live a long life. I enjoy cooking. I do play golf once in a while—not that I’m any good. I am also a citizen of the “Peloton nation.”

Is there any advice you would give to a young surgeon interested in becoming more involved in the College?

The College is an inclusive organization, and I believe that the ACS has something for everyone. Members have ample opportunities to align their passions with the offerings of the College.
I want to highlight a couple of Fellows who have followed their passion—for example, Paula Ferrada, MD, FACS, has done a fantastic job aligning the ACS Young Fellows Association with international medicine and social media. Also, Patricia L. Turner, MD, MBA, FACS, Director of the ACS Division of Member Services, has leveraged her passion for expanding the College’s reach and making sure that our profession is inclusive.

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