Shrunjay Patel, DPM, AACFAS, joins the UNC Department of Surgery as an assistant professor in the division of vascular surgery. He sat down to discuss what inspired him to become a podiatric surgeon, his goals while at UNC Surgery, and letting go of his dreams of one day being a professional cricket player.
Dr. Patel received his undergraduate degree from Toronto’s York University in 2011 before earning his medical degree at Rosalind Franklin University in 2015. He completed his Reconstructive Foot and Ankle Surgery residency training at St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis, where he was Chief Resident. He then pursued a fellowship in Reconstructive, Trauma, and Limb Salvage Foot and Ankle Surgery at the University of Texas, graduating in 2019. Since that time, he has been employed by Carolina Foot and Ankle in Mooresville, NC.
Dr. Patel has presented nationally and internationally on topics related to his specialty and has published in podiatry journals. He maintains membership in his professional organizations and continues to hone his skills through specialized coursework. He is fluent in Hindi and Gujarati and proficient in Medical Spanish, Punjabi, and Urdu. His office will be 3026 Burnett-Womack.
What inspired you to become a doctor?
When I was little, I saw my uncle suffer from diabetes and complications related to the disease. As I watched him deal with his condition, it made me realize that I wanted to become a doctor to help people like him.
I was always fascinated by the complexity of the human body and its ability to heal. As a child, I read anatomy books and used to recite the names of bones and organs to my parents. They have pictures of me pretending to treat my sister with a toy stethoscope when I was eight years old.
I grew up in India and saw many sick and poor patients who desperately needed medical care, but were unable to afford it. I decided that when I grew up, I wanted to become a doctor so I could combine my love of studying human anatomy and care for sick people like my uncle. And that’s precisely what I did.
How did you decide to pursue your current specialty? Has it met your expectations?
I’ve always enjoyed playing sports. I used to play cricket as a child and suffered from several ankle sprains. During one of those injuries, I was sent to a foot surgeon, and he explained to me how he could treat the ankle sprains. During my visits to him, I peppered him with questions about different injuries, and he would describe the treatment for the injury. That heavily influenced my desire to specialize in the Foot and Ankle field.
Another influence was an incident in which my mom needed to see a foot surgeon. While waiting in the clinic with my mother, I saw an external fixation device, a big halo device that was put on one of the patients who was also waiting to be seen. I did my own research on the device and learned how it was used for deformity correction in order to save his leg. It was very fascinating to me. I knew I wanted to do something like that to help people.
I went on to my residency and picked a subspecialty within my residency, which was limb salvage. I performed many diabetic limb salvage surgeries and from then on, I had one goal in mind—to specialize and sub-specialize in diabetic foot and ankle. I did my fellowship under Dr. Zgonis, a world-renowned surgeon who specializes in diabetic foot and ankle disorders. He has written several articles and books on this topic.
He inspired me. I want to contribute my talents towards the diabetic foot and ankle limb salvage. I started my studies in a wide field of surgery, but with time I chose to narrow my focus to become an expert in the field of diabetic foot and ankle.
What contributions would you like to make to your specialty?
A big passion of mine is clinical research. I love to research and to discover new techniques and treatments to help patients. At UNC, one of my main objectives is to conduct research and move the needle forward in medical discoveries, specifically in the field of diabetic foot surgery.
Based on some studies, one in three Americans will be diabetic by 2050. Amputations and limb loss due to diabetes are on the rise. My goal for my patients is to research amputation prevention and limb salvage techniques, so we can keep Americans walking and feeling healthier.
One day, when I retire, I want to leave behind a legacy as a foot surgeon who contributed to the field of diabetes within UNC and in North Carolina.
Why did you decide to pursue a career in academia?
I was drawn to academia because of my love for teaching. When I was in my residency, I enjoyed sitting down with medical students who did rotations at our program and teaching them how to suture. We did a lot of journal clubs and talked about ongoing research projects and what was happening in the world of foot and ankle. As a chief resident, I did a weekly lecture series where I presented cases and lectured on various medical and surgical topics. That got me excited about being in academia.
When I graduated from my fellowship, I joined a private practice. I came to realize I was not enjoying the experience as much as I thought I would because the teaching and research components were missing. I started looking for academic opportunities in North Carolina, and a perfect position opened up in the UNC Department of Surgery.
What drew you to the department of surgery at UNC?
My wife is from North Carolina. She went to the University of North Carolina, a Tar Heel born and bred. We spent quite a bit of time on campus and in Chapel Hill, and I came to love it as much as any other person who calls this place home. I love the people, the culture, and the southern hospitality.
When the UNC Surgery position opened up, it was the perfect opportunity. It was the chance for our family to move to an area we love, a chance for me to care for patients in a beautiful community, and it gave me the ability to dive back into teaching.
Do you have any specific goals you’d like to achieve during your time at UNC surgery?
My 5 and 10-year goals at UNC Surgery would be to start a podiatric residency program and a limb salvage center. We want to create a world-renowned limb salvage Center of Excellence within the state of North Carolina, where we can draw patients from all over. Another long-term goal of mine would be to create a limb salvage fellowship, where we could train fellows, much like the training I have received from my previous institution.
Other than a doctor, was there any other profession you wanted to be when you were a kid?
Every kid thinks they want to be an astronaut. I enjoyed looking at the stars at night, seeing the expanse of the universe, wishing that I could travel into the space. Being an astronaut was one of the careers that I was interested in as a kid. Being a cricketer was another one. Soon enough, I realized neither of those were going to happen, and lucky for me, my passion for medicine overcame my desire to pursue cricketing and exploring space.
What did you wish you had known when you were starting your medical studies?
Before starting my medical studies, I wish I would have known how severe the health crisis is for diabetes. I would have done more research and tried to contribute a little bit more towards the disease. Since I started my studies in medical school, I realized how bad things are in America and around the world. I grew up in India, and diabetes is so prevalent there, but they don’t have the subspecialty of Podiatry in India. The country is starting to realize that there’s a considerable need for diabetic foot surgeons. One of my future goals is to serve in the medical missions to the underserved communities around the world.
What is one thing you wish your patients or co-workers knew about you before they met you?
I want my patients to know that I will listen to their problems, give them my undivided attention and treat them like my family members.
If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?
Be patient. Having patience and knowing that everything happens for a reason would be the advice I would give to my younger self. There’s a plan for everything, so be patient, and enjoy the journey.
If you could pick the brain of someone alive or dead, who would it be?
I would sit down with Mahatma Gandhi. He is one of my role models. I admire many of his qualities including honesty, non-violence and leadership.
What do you do when you aren’t working?
When I’m not working, I like to spend time with my family, exercise, ride bicycles with my wife, and play sports like cricket and table tennis.
How would you describe yourself in one word?
If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?
If I could have one superpower, it would be an ability to heal my patients as quickly as possible, with or without surgery.