August 1, 2022
Editor’s note: The Bulletin of the American College of Surgeons (ACS) publishes a series of articles profiling leaders of the College. The series is intended to give readers a look at the person behind the surgical mask and inspire members to consider taking on leadership positions within the organization and the institutions where they practice.
For this month’s profile, we interviewed Yewande Alimi, MD, MHS, Chair of the Resident and Associate Society of the American College of Surgeons (RAS-ACS) Executive Committee. Dr. Alimi is a minimally invasive and bariatric surgeon at MedStar Health, which includes MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, Washington, DC, and MedStar Washington Hospital Center, DC.
In medical school, I always was interested in the surgical specialties because of the benefits of being able to attack the patient’s disease in a fairly short period of time. I will say that my interests changed over time. I started out being very interested in colon and rectal surgery and then turned to minimally invasive surgery. What drew me to colon-rectal surgery was that many of the procedures were done minimally invasively.
I attended Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, GA, where I got my medical degree, and I went on to complete my residency at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. I then completed my fellowship in minimally invasive surgery at Stanford University in California, which was an amazing experience, and then I came back to work at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital.
In my time as a medical student and as a resident, I was able to work with the bariatric patient population and saw how the procedures that we do for them can really change their outlook on life, both from a mental health as well as an overall health standpoint. It really intrigued me and drove me toward bariatric surgery and foregut surgery.
I certainly most love being in an operating room (OR), working with a coordinated team, doing the procedure, and having the patient walk out of the hospital the same day or next day. With the advances in minimally invasive surgery, you are seeing patients recover quickly after surgery, and it is exciting to be able to apply new techniques, such as robotic surgery. It creates a pretty impactful and immediate response. You can see some of that in other medical and surgical specialties, but I think that really is what drives me the most right now, in addition to seeing the profound impact that bariatric surgery has on the overall health and well-being of these patients. The satisfaction patients derive from the outcome—just seeing the smiles on their faces, or that renewed self-assurance and hearing them say, “Doctor, you changed my life”—that is what drives me to do what I do.
My journey to becoming Chair of the RAS-ACS Executive Committee started at the committee level. I started out on the Membership Committee in 2015, attending monthly meetings over the phone during which I heard about activities and events with a focus on how we could make RAS more attractive to residents and Associate Fellows. Our charge was to draw them in and get them involved. It was just a phone call per month and some intervening work. That felt very approachable to me.
I am certainly involved in many other societies now, but when I was a postgraduate year-2 resident, I felt this was a very approachable organization that would allow me to just step in and offer my services. All I had to do to get involved was simply join a phone call or a Zoom meeting. So, that was the initiation of my engagement in RAS-ACS.
As I got more involved, I became the Secretary of the Membership Committee, rose to Committee Chair, and then proceeded to join the Executive Committee and rise to Vice-Chair and now Chair of the RAS.
For me, what has been really impactful is getting to collaborate with many people from different walks of life—residents from academic medical centers and residents from community-based hospitals. We have people who are interested in going into colon-rectal surgery and people who are interested in going into private practice, and they can all come together in the space of the ACS and, particularly, RAS.
What I find really beneficial about being active in RAS is the collegiality and the opportunity to work with people outside my own institution and my own specialty. I find it beneficial to collaborate with people outside of my institution and learn how they do things at other places, not just from a surgery standpoint, but how we build teams, how we mentor our residents, and so on. I think that residents who may not have many mentors at their own institution or who don’t have people who sit on large institutional committees can see RAS as an access point for leadership positions in their communities.
I have had the opportunity to work over the past several years with some amazing people, both on the RAS Membership Committee and now the Executive Committee, including our Secretary Kaitlin Ritter, MD, and Julia Coleman, MD, our Vice-Chair, who both are powerhouses, not only with respect to their involvement in RAS, but locally in their communities and their institutions.
It has truly been an honor to take this journey to becoming Chair of RAS.
One of the key roles of the RAS Executive Committee is to listen to what residents and Associate Fellows are experiencing—the challenges they are facing and also what they believe is going well. The past few years, we have been directly tackling the effects of COVID-19 on our constituents. As this issue of the Bulletin demonstrates, we surveyed residents, Associate Fellows, and young surgeons to see how COVID affected their ability to access the education, training, and resources they need to enter and start a practice.
A survey initiated through the Advocacy and Issues Committee enabled us to evaluate the dire need for people in training programs, as well as our early career surgeons, to have access to personal protective equipment (PPE) during the pandemic. As a result, the RAS was influential in the College’s “Statement on Resident Access to PPE,” which the Board of Regents approved in June 2021.
While COVID and related challenges were top priorities the past few years, our ongoing challenge is getting residents and young surgeons more involved in and integrated into the ACS leadership structure. There are a number of opportunities within the RAS, and we now have RAS liaisons to the Advisory Councils and Board of Governors, as well as most of the ACS standing committees. These positions can be filled by any resident or early career surgeon, although we do want to see that they have been involved and engaged with RAS at the time they apply for these positions. It is really important to get a seat at the table as a trainee, and being a representative of the RAS-ACS can help to accomplish that.
RAS has a close relationship with the Young Fellows Association (YFA) because we have similar issues. We collaborate with them on education points and other impactful activities within the young surgeons’ community. As a leader of RAS, I often work with the YFA leadership.
I also work with the leaders of the College, particularly lending my voice as a representative of residents and early career surgeons in meetings with the Board of Regents and the Board of Governors. The conversations that take place at meetings of the Board of Regents are focused on what is happening within the entire House of Surgery, and I am able to impart how these issues and policies affect trainees and other younger surgeons, so that our voices are not left out of the equation.
As RAS leaders, we have a seat at the table and can make sure that the College’s leadership is taking the young surgeons’ point of view into account in developing programs, whether it is the Clinical Congress or another educational programs, such as Surgeons as Educators. I want to make sure we can get this information to the residents and early career surgeons to help them grow and develop their practices and learn everything they need to know to succeed within the House of Surgery.
Being involved in RAS for as long as I have been has helped me get in front of important people who could help me get involved elsewhere, including other surgical societies such as the Society of American Gastrointestinal and Endoscopic Surgeons (SAGES). Involvement with RAS has helped me leverage myself as a resource in other communities, so that now I have leadership positions in SAGES and other surgical societies.
I think that anytime we can get our voices heard at the table with senior leadership, it gives us an opportunity to make sure that when they are creating new programs and making new rules, they are thinking about the perspective of the younger surgeon.
So, I think that putting in that work and that time at the table has certainly helped me develop additional leadership skills that I hope to use in my clinical practice, as well as in advancing my career.
I like the term “work-life equilibrium” because I think it is truly impossible to get a perfect balance. There are some weeks or some months when I am very busy clinically or with research or with professional societies, and there are some times when I’m focusing on my family, my husband, and just doing things outside of the workplace. But it truly is an equilibrium, where sometimes some priorities are a little bit higher and sometimes they are a little bit lower—because there are only a finite number of hours in a day.
Personally, the things I engage in professionally do give me joy. They spark joy. I am happy to be in these spaces and having these conversations because it’s not work. So, it makes it easier to be able to answer this question when it is phrased as work-life equilibrium rather than balance.
The first step is to make sure that the things that you are saying “yes” to are things that really do spark joy. For me, there is a certain aspect of service to what we do and in giving back to our institutions and organizations that is very fulfilling to me. It makes the work easier, and it makes it easier to find said equilibrium.