Ask Dr. Jocelyn Burke, the newest faculty member in the surgery department at the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine, how she became interested in a career in medicine and her memory lane winds back to her time at a Southern Oregon high school in the 1990s.
“I was fascinated by a human anatomy and physiology class – wanted to know more about how our elegant machine functions,” she says. “I eagerly anticipated our proctored dissections for anatomy class, learning how all of the pieces fit together to get a better understanding of the whole. This clear thrill with learning how we work, combined with my desire to have the knowledge and skills to make people who were injured or sick feel better, led me to pursue medicine.”
She entertained the idea of becoming a teacher or an actor until a good family friend who was an emergency medicine physician helped steer her to medicine. “I was able to set up a summer observership…I credit that high school summer observership with cementing the idea that I would be happy studying medicine for the rest of my life.”
She has since completed one fellowship in advanced upper GI and minimally invasive surgery from the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California and another in pediatric and adult surgical critical care from Northwestern University.
Now, after working as an attending surgeon at Colorado’s Institute of Esophageal and Reflux Surgery, Burke is training Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine resident-physicians in surgical techniques and, she says, “working to establish a multidisciplinary, minimally invasive surgery center of excellence through UNLV, bringing together a group of surgeons with a devotion to minimally invasive approaches to the disease processes they treat.”
She is well aware of the importance of such a center in Las Vegas, which has often seen people of all ages leaving town for a variety of surgical procedures. “The goal with this,” she says, “is to provide a known, trusted service to the people of Las Vegas where they can reliably seek advanced, less invasive surgical care for a number of conditions.”
No one was happier about Burke’s December arrival in Las Vegas than Dr. John Fildes, the medical school’s associate dean for external affairs and chair of surgery. He formerly was director of the UMC Trauma Center – where 96 percent of those who arrive alive survive – and had such success at the trauma center that the American College of Surgeons named him chair of the national committee on trauma. In an emailed message to department chairs at the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine, Fildes called Burke a minimally invasive surgeon who is “a great resource for patients” who need either abdominal wall repair (hernia) surgery or foregut surgical care, which deals with treatment of diseases of the esophagus, stomach, and upper small intestines.
A graduate of the Ivy League’s Dartmouth College/Brown University joint medical school program, Burke says her decision to pursue surgery as her specialty was made because “only the surgical disciplines allow us to potentially provide complete medical care for our patients. As a surgeon, I can provide medical care for my patient’s chronic conditions, complete the operations they need, and follow up with them for ongoing care.”
Burke says she was blessed growing up in San Francisco to have “amazing teachers,” a major reason she thought of becoming a secondary teacher herself. “I was always that nerdy kid that felt more comfortable talking with teachers than trying to socialize with my peers. I once asked my math teacher in high school what she most liked about teaching math, and what she thought her best strength as a teacher was. She replied that she enjoyed the challenge of finding three to five or more different ways of explaining the same concept so that students with different learning styles could all understand it.
“That was a lightbulb moment for me…affecting my approach any time I am teaching or explaining something in medicine. I always take the time with my patients to make sure they understand their diagnosis and our treatment plan, and I usually draw pictures and use other modalities to address the different ways that people process information.”
While acknowledging that some women have experienced being counseled not to enter STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), Burke says her parents – both of whom worked behind the scenes in live regional theater before retiring – let her know as a young girl “that I could do and be anything I wanted,” a position most of her teachers shared. “Any time I encountered someone in the education space who questioned whether I really wanted to dissect that worm, frog or cat or…whether I wanted to answer that math question on the board, my easy answer was ‘absolutely’ and I didn’t get much more push back.”
The fact Burke, who did her undergraduate work in neuroscience at Pomona College in California, settled on surgery as her specialty still makes her unique in American medical practice. A 2019 American Association of Medical Colleges article headlined “Where are all the women in surgery?” points out that for decades women were discouraged from entering surgical specialties – and that today women comprise less than one-quarter of 10 surgical specialties. Only in OB/GYN do women outnumber men, at 57 percent.
“I have certainly met challenges to my presence in surgery as a woman,” says Burke, who completed her general surgery residency and internship at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. “I have been told I’m not mean enough, I don’t yell enough, I’m not stern enough, I’m not arrogant enough to be a surgeon. I believe that patients actually benefit from my compassion and kind-hearted nature – they know I truly listen to their concerns and address them without assuming I already have the answer.”
Foregut disease surgical treatment interested Burke because of its prevalence in the U.S. “Over one-third of the American population has gastroesophageal reflux disease, many of whom will benefit from surgical treatment of their disease,” she says. “It is particularly rewarding to operate to improve a patient’s ability to eat when they haven't been able to do this normally for so long…So much of our social life and interaction with the world revolves around eating and drinking…These operations can give them back their participation and enjoyment in them.”
Burke, who sings in choirs to alleviate stress, says she enjoys abdominal wall repair for similar reasons. “Abdominal hernias are often underappreciated in their ability to add difficulty to everyday life. Some hernias limit a patient’s activity and participation in sports or exercise, some prevent patients from sitting up without great effort. Many cause sporadic pain and intermittent bowel obstruction. I appreciate the different strategies that can be employed to put a dysfunctional abdominal wall back in working order, and I enjoy the challenge of figuring out the best way to make that happen.”
How patients fare, says this surgeon who listens to music in the operating room because she says it improves her concentration and makes her work more efficiently, is always her main concern.
“My biggest satisfaction comes from seeing patients two months after antireflux surgery with joy on their faces saying things like, ‘I had pizza for the first time in 15 years last night’ or patients who are able to play with their kids without worrying about their hernia.
“I value and treat as sacred the relationship of trust I form with my patients – few relationships are closer as they grant me permission to place my instruments or my hands in their body to achieve the healing they need.”