Dr. Justin Fraser, director of Cerebrovascular Surgery at UK HealthCare, is at the forefront of research to improve stroke outcomes. Here, in our latest Making the Rounds interview, he discusses his path into neuroscience and his passion for his patients and his family.
Tell us about your path into medicine.
As an undergraduate at Princeton, I developed an interest in medicine and healthcare through some personal experiences. I think many people would tell a similar story of how a disease or an ailment affected someone who was close to them, and I had several people who were significantly affected by different ailments through my high school and college years.
My second year of college, I knew I wanted to go into medicine, but I actually didn’t major in science on purpose. I wanted to look at some other areas of knowledge first, so I majored in healthcare policy. It was a different kind of perspective on healthcare.
What was the ‘aha’ moment that took you into neuroscience?
When I saw a living brain for the first time during third-year rotations in medical school, pretty much everything fell away, and I realized that “that” is the person. You can replace a heart, you can replace a liver, you can replace a bone, but the brain is what makes us who we are as people. Seeing that and seeing people actually dedicated to fixing that and helping others get through disease – that sealed the deal for me.
Tell us about your influences and mentors.
On the early side, it was family and friends who were stricken by neurologic disease. My uncle had a very bad brain tumor, and I watched what he went through and struggled with. My best friend’s mother died of the same brain tumor. Watching them go through that was very tough, but yet at the same time, I said, “Hey, this is an area that needs to be addressed.”
Then you get into mentors – I could name dozens and dozens. When I got into residency, all of my faculty were excellent mentors – in particular the ones in cerebrovascular because of their passion for patient care. One mentor expected us to bring 110 percent in how we addressed and cared for our patients. I try to instill that sense of ownership in our residents here. When all things are going bad and the neurosurgeon walks in the room and all eyes turn on them, something has to be felt inside that says: “I may not be able to fix this, but I need to have answers. I need to bring my A game to every situation.”
What does the public need to know about stroke?
From a practical standpoint, key point No. 1 is to know your stroke risk factors and try to modify them. In our state, for example, we still face a relatively high percentage of our population who still smoke tobacco. That’s a huge issue for us. So that’s a challenge.
From the aspect of recognizing a stroke, it comes to helping the lay community understand the signs and symptoms. I’ve heard stories of patients who suddenly got a paralyzed arm and then went to bed thinking they could just sleep it off. So it’s our responsibility to say, “Hey, if your arm suddenly goes weak and you can’t move it, you need to get to the hospital right away,” and to instill in folks the sense that this is a true emergency, not just because it could get worse, but because we now have treatments to undo the damage. We’re still working on them and we haven’t optimized them yet, but we’ve got them.
What’s something your patients wouldn’t know about you?
I consider my family to be the most important thing in my life. I love my patients and I give them 110 percent of my world, but my family has helped me get through tough times. My wife is also a physician, and we sometimes share tough days. Sometimes she’s had a bad day, sometimes I’ve had a bad day – we support each other, and that’s been very, very helpful to both of us. We’re so blessed to have two wonderful children who understand. They’ve grown up understanding that sometimes Dad has to go to the hospital. What it does is it helps me prioritize and value the time that I do have with them.
What else do you do in your free time?
I exercise a lot. Trying to rest your brain and keep yourself healthy – I think that’s really important.