Published February 19, 2020
By John Chadwick
Steven Stylianos is a busy man.
He is a world-renowned pediatric surgeon and serves as Surgeon-in-Chief of New York-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital.
A Rutgers graduate, Stylianos led the teams that separated conjoined twins in 1993, 1995, and 2000. Yet he still manages to find time every week to mentor undergraduates.
“I have a lot of things to do, but I take these kids and put them at the top of the list,” says Stylianos RC’78. “I want to inspire them to fulfill their dreams.”
Working with the Health Professions Office in the School of Arts and Sciences, Stylianos reserves Thursdays for students to shadow him for the day. Students get a very complete experience, from sitting in on radiology conferences where physicians discuss their latest cases, to observing a simulated trauma exercise, to making rounds and meeting patients and their families.
But they also get something else that they will likely remember for years to come: Stylianos’s disarmingly frank reflections on the challenges and rewards of his chosen path. During one recent visit, a group of nine undergraduates gathered around a long conference table and asked Stylianos—at his insistence—a range of questions about his life and career. One asked how he stays energetic and engaged after 30 years as a surgeon. His response left students a bit awestruck.
“When a mother stands in front of you with tears in her eyes saying, ‘Please save my baby,’ it is one of the most powerful forms of human contact you can have,” he said. “The fuel that will keep you going is the energy that comes from these brave little babies and their families.”
When asked how he handles tragedy, such as when a surgery fails, Stylianos drew a deep breath and shared some difficult truths. He said he rarely thinks back on his successes. But, he added, “The ones you lose ruminate inside you and you play back that loop years and years later.”
The only way forward is through fearless honesty. “The way we scrutinize our performance is very important,” he explains. “You owe it to that baby that you lost. You honor that baby by becoming better for all the babies that are going to come after that.”
For the students, the shadowing experience came at time when their minds are preoccupied with getting into medical school: taking the required courses, studying for MCATS, and applying to the right programs. When the day was over, they said Stylianos helped them see a bigger picture.
“He made what we’re all thinking about into a more relatable, tangible, and human goal,” says Brian Chen, an SAS senior majoring in biological sciences. “I really admire this doctor, and he made me want to be surgeon.”
Kinza Abbas, a junior in cell biology and neuroscience, agreed. “This was well beyond my expectations,” she notes. “I really like the personal aspect. He is so open to questions.”
The day was not without humor. Stylianos, a bit of a card, elicited laughs frequently, such as when he discussed doctor shows like Grey’s Anatomy. “We’re not that funny, and we’re not that good looking,” he says.
After a presentation on pathology by a medical student, Stylianos thanked the student, saying, “This is the first time I will say it was a treat to listen to a pathology lecture.”
Stylianos’s dedication to mentoring comes from firsthand experience. He was in his third year at NYU School of Medicine when he received some life-changing advice from a prominent surgeon, John H.C. Ranson, who was serving as his preceptor in a clerkship, or rotation.
At the time, Stylianos was planning to pursue obstetrics and gynecology.
“He said, ‘Listen, you are a surgeon,’” Stylianos recalls. “That was a very powerful conversation and I was just so fortunate to be there at that place and time.”
Sylianos made a fateful decision. “I had wanted to help people have their babies,” he says. “When Dr. Ranson helped me pivot toward surgery, I realized I could take that instinctive love for children and combine it with surgery and become a pediatric surgeon, a focus that took nine years, but was well worth it.”
Stylianos says that students today have much more access to advising services than students of his generation. Nevertheless, he finds that many undergraduates considering medical school are naturally apprehensive and uncertain about their path. The benefits of talking to an experienced, caring physician are lasting.
“If a physician shows these young students that someone cares about them, they gain confidence in their own journey,” he says. “It empowers them to work even harder to achieve their goals.”
Story originally appeared in Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences