JABSOM Faculty Snapshot: Dr. Susan Steinemann, a thrill-seeking trauma surgeon

This piece was written for UHMEDNow. See the original post here.


The Grassy green hills of Kaka`ako boast the perfect viewing spot for the cool, crashing blue waves of the Pacific Ocean. The fresh air of the waterfront park is just steps away from the John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM), making it the ideal academic home of JABSOM’s Interim Surgery Chair, Dr. Susan Steinemann.

She can’t stay away from the water. “As anyone who has seen me traipsing around the hospital with my wet hair can attest,” said Steinemann, after a morning spent swimming, surfing or stand up paddling.

This trauma surgeon is not just a thrill-seeker in the water but sustains her spirit on land as well. Whenever Dr. Steinemann is not wearing her scrubs, she dons her sports shoes and heads out for a brisk walk, rock climb, bike, ski or snowboard.

Although she is always on the move, Dr. Steinemann admits that as a child she was always the second-last pick for all the team sports in grade school. “I suppose it is my perverse nature that I always wanted what didn’t come naturally,” Steinemann says. “With three sisters I always longed to be ‘one of the boys.’”

Most people would describe her activities as fearless and exciting but Dr. Steinemann thinks of herself as the average busy surgeon.

“I look at sports the same way I have attained skill in surgery: desire, perseverance and lots of practice,” Steinemann says.

She believes that the seemingly risky sports she loves are relatively safe compared to the truly dangerous practices that result in cases she encounters at the operating room: drinking and driving, driving without a seatbelt and riding motorcycles, mopeds or bicycles without a helmet. “I never do that!” said Steinemann.

Her philosophy stems around the “flow” or “cycle of challenge and success” that is intrinsic in many sports as well as in surgery, “I think you’ll find a number of surfing surgeons who thrive on that.”

Dr. Steinemann graduated with her Bachelor’s degree in Physiology and Cell Biology from the University of California Santa Barbara. She also graduated from the UC San Diego School of Medicine on a full academic scholarship. She worked throughout college and the first few years of medical school as an ocean lifeguard in San Diego. Her work as a first responder for ocean and cliff rescues fostered her initial interest in trauma and surgery.

During her fourth year of medical school she published her first paper in the Journal of Trauma and went on the UC Davis for her General Surgery residency. She trained with Dr. William Blaisdell, renowned pioneer in trauma. During this time she was selected for a two-year basic science research fellowship at the Scripps Research Institute, Department of Immunology, where she investigated the cellular mechanisms of trauma and sepsis.

She was also selected from over 100 applicants to be a member of the American College of Surgeons Medical Student Committee and now serves on the executive board.

In 1996 she did her Critical Care Fellowship at the University of Hawai`i and assumed the role as Clerkship Director in 2000. In July 2012, she assumed the role of Interim Chair of Surgery. Steinemann said she is inspired everyday by the genius and diversity of the faculty she works with.

“I am constantly amazed by their innovation and their altruism in their clinical practice and teaching endeavors,” says Steinemann. “We have international experts and leaders in their field who are very approachable and are able to inspire our residents and medical students.”

She enjoys watching the residents grow confident in their abilities and smiles behind her surgical mask when they ultimately “boss her around” as chiefs in the operating room.

She hopes for the advancement of excellent surgical care in Hawai`i and believes strongly in the alignment of clinical service and academic endeavors.

With the Hawaiian Islands’ relatively geographic isolation, self-sufficient health is a top priority.

“We must grow the academic surgeons who will take an interest in our unique clinical problems and foster surgical teachers and administrators who will deliver evidence-based curricula to our students and residents so that our students will stay or return to practice in Hawai`i.”

With all the hustle and bustle that comes with the job, this tough trauma surgeon is also a wife to her husband Jack and a nurturing mother of two children, Elsa and Cable.

Dr. Steinemann is currently a guest editor for the American Journal of Surgery and a reviewer for JAMA, Annals of Surgery, Journal of American College of Surgeons and AM J Surg. She serves on the Board of Directors of the Association for Surgical Education.