From motorcycles to medicine, this chancellor takes the road less traveled
April 25, 2018
By Kristi Birch
As far back as his high school years in the 1970s in Salem, Oregon, Doug Girod thought about pursuing a career in medicine. The problem was, he didn't like the prospect of so much time in school. He was also preoccupied with becoming a professional motorcycle racer. The motorcycle dream ended his senior year, when he realized he didn't have enough talent to make a living racing. "I came to grips with the fact that I was good, but not that good," he recalled.
And that's how motorcycle racing's loss became academic medicine's gain. Girod went on to become an internationally renowned head and neck surgeon. In 2013, he took the reins as executive vice chancellor of the University of Kansas Medical Center, charged with leading the University of Kansas schools of Medicine, Nursing and Health Professions.
On April 20, Douglas A. Girod was officially installed as the 18th chancellor of the University of Kansas, replacing Bernadette Gray-Little, Ph.D., who retired last year after eight years of leading KU. Girod joins internist Franklin Murphy and pharmacologist W. Clark Wescoe as the only other leader of the KU Medical Center to make the leap to chancellor. "I am honored to lead this remarkable institution. The work we do changes lives and improves our world in meaningful ways," Girod said.
Girod's path to success in academic medicine has been somewhat unconventional. After high school, without the funds to attend a four-year college or university, he moved in with an uncle who was an engineer in Silicon Valley and became the ninth employee at a start-up company that made equipment used to manufacture computer chips. Within a couple of years, the company had grown to 40 employees and he was running its production department of a dozen people while taking night classes at community college to become an electrical engineer.
But after working a while, Girod began to revisit the idea of a career in medicine. The chance to help people directly appealed to him innately. And all those years in the school no longer seemed as daunting. "After you work a while, school doesn't sound so bad anymore," he said.
With two years of community college under his belt and some money saved from his start-up job, Girod transferred to the University of California-Davis, where he got a whiff of some ivory tower snobbery. "They told me to change my plans because I'd never get into medical school since I did my first two years of school at community college," said Girod. "So I decided to prove them wrong."
And he did. After earning an undergraduate degree in chemistry, Girod enrolled in medical school at the University of California, San Francisco, where he quickly realized that surgery was the path for him. "I'd worked on motorcycles as a mechanic; I was a fix-it guy," Girod said.
The harder question was what kind of surgeon to be. That question was answered during his ear, nose and throat rotation. He loved the variety of treating problems related to cancers, allergies, hearing and the voice. As an ENT surgeon, he would treat both geriatric and pediatric patients, and his time would be split between the clinic and operating room.
During his residency at the University of Washington, Girod began training in the relatively new field of microvascular reconstruction surgery with Michael Glenn, M.D. While surgery is one of the primary treatments for head and neck cancers, it can have devastating effects on how a person looks, eats and talks. Microvascular surgeons use tissue from other parts of the body to help rebuild the affected areas.
"The first time I saw a reconstruction, it was a big cancer jaw resection and we transferred bone and tissue from the shoulder to reconstruct the face," he remembers. "I thought it was just awesome."
Once his residency was finished, Girod completed the officer training required by the Navy Scholarship Program he had joined in medical school, and then he began working at a Navy Medical Center in Oakland, California. By the time he decided to leave the military in 1994, he had job offers from all over the country.
He rejected those offers, including one from Johns Hopkins, to take a position at the University of Kansas Medical Center in 1994. Nobody between St. Louis and Denver was doing the kind of reconstruction surgery that Girod now specialized in, and he wanted to fill that void. He set out to build a first-rate otolaryngology and head and neck surgery department in the heartland.
Soon after his arrival, he began working with Bruce Toby, M.D., chair of the Department of Orthopedic Surgery, and Terry Tsue, M.D., now the Douglas A. Girod, M.D., Endowed Professor of Head and Neck Surgical Oncology, to further the field of microvascular reconstruction. Typically, the tissue used to rebuild the head and neck was taken from the leg. Together, Girod, Tsue and Toby spent years developing a new technique in which tissue is taken from the arm, which results in a much less complicated recovery for the patient. The technique they pioneered is now used all over the world.
"Technically, he is one of the best surgeons I have ever worked with, someone I try to model my technique after," said Keith Sale, M.D., who was a resident under Girod from 1999 to 2004 and served as the otolaryngology residency program director under Girod from 2010 to 2016. "He's good because he has such a tremendous knowledge base, both research knowledge and clinical knowledge. He's the whole package."
By 2002, Girod was head of the department, taking on additional executive duties and traveling the world on medical missions.
In 2013, after 20 years of being a full-time surgeon, he became executive vice chancellor of the KU Medical Center, requiring him to cut back his clinical and surgical hours to meet the demands of his new job. But he was still in high demand as a medical educator. Lynn Norris, LPN, Girod's nurse in the clinic, remembers a couple of years ago when he had a surgery and needed some help in the OR. "A fight broke out among residents about who got to help him. They wanted to see him operate and get the education they would receive because he's a great teacher," she said. "I think they finally drew straws."
Dr. Nice Guy
Technical skill isn't the only thing that Girod learned as a resident. He credits Charles Cummings, M.D., then chair of the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at the University of Washington, for teaching him, by example, to build a personal relationship with a patient, and that good listening skills are essential to good clinical skills. "If you just sit down and shut up, patients will tell you nearly everything you need to know in just a few minutes," Girod said. "You miss important information if you're not listening. And if you build a personal relationship with patients, then you can make difficult medical decisions together."
It's a lesson Girod learned well. Talk to people about what kind of doctor Girod is, and invariably you'll hear about his kindness and his tremendous empathy for people.
Deborah Ostwald would know. In 2011, Ostwald had surgery to remove two noncancerous tumors wrapped around her spine and in her neck. Girod was one of her surgeons. The tumors turned out to be such a tangled mess — "like a handful of worms," Girod said later — that the surgery lasted 10 hours, twice as long as expected and there was still not enough time to get the second tumor.
In 2014, Ostwald had her second surgery, but Girod, now deep in his role as executive vice chancellor, was no longer available and would step in only if there was an emergency. Ostwald was uneasy about losing half the team that had handled such a difficult first surgery so well.
The morning of the second surgery, Ostwald was in a hospital gown walking to a gurney when suddenly she saw Girod. "There he was in a business suit, waiting for me," she remembered. "He gave me a hug and said, 'Don't worry, I'll be in the hospital all day — I'm just a phone call away. If they need me, I'll be there.'"
Ostwald was touched. "He showed up before my surgery, despite everything else he had to do, just to say that to me," she said. "Who else in his position would do that?"
Sale remembers the respect Girod showed him and his residents as well. "Doug was probably the epitome of what you would want a mentor to be," said Sale. "He was a department chair and a world-recognized leader, yet he talked to you like a friend and a colleague. It doesn't matter where you are in the organizational chart, he relates to you as a person."
At the April 20 inauguration, Vusala Snyder, a 2019 doctor of medicine candidate who shadowed Girod when she was a pre-medical student, reflected on his "unbelievably kind nature" and how he always treated her as a member of his team. Robert D. Simari, M.D., the executive vice chancellor of KU Medical Center, said he left the Mayo Clinic in 2014 and came to KU largely because of Girod's integrity and "quiet, thoughtful leadership" through which he always made people feel valued.
Now working from an office in Strong Hall in Lawrence, with duties that take him across the state and sometimes around the nation, Girod's clinical work will be scaled back even further, and he will see only his long-term patients. He might be leaving that part of his career largely behind, but he's taking his surgeon habits with him into his new position: The early-bird hours. The habit of listening and respecting every contributor, regardless of rank. The focus on evidence, planning and execution, and the emphasis on teamwork. And the necessary cool head.
Norris remembers being in clinic a couple of years ago when a laryngologist was having trouble with a laryngectomy tube, compromising the patient's airway. A nurse came running down the hall frantic for help. Girod stood up calmly, walked quickly down the hall and began working to help the patient. Norris said he then asked her to get a crash cart and to call a Code Blue. When the Code Blue team showed up, they looked into the room and told a startled Norris they weren't going in, that they would stay out in the hall.
"We can't do any better than that," a member of the team explained. "That's Dr. Girod."