February 25, 2021

Honoring Excellence: Q and A with Stacey Quintero Wolfe, MD, FAANS

This interview is one in a series of interviews with recipients of the 2021 ACGME Awards. The awardees join an outstanding group of previous honorees whose work and contributions to graduate medical education (GME) represent the best in the field. They will be honored at the ACGME Annual Educational Conference, taking place virtually February 24-26.

2021 Parker J. Palmer Courage to Teach Awardee Stacey Quintero Wolfe, MD, FAANS is associate professor and residency program director and director of neurointerventional surgery at Wake Forest School of Medicine.

ACGME: How did you become involved in medicine, and in academic medicine specifically?

Wolfe: It is always my goal to improve the care we can give to our patients. Academic medicine allows me to care for patients, identify opportunities to improve that care, take those questions and knowledge gaps into the research realm, and partner as a team science collaboration to understand disease and develop better treatment options. And most importantly, to then train the next generation to do the same.

ACGME: What does this award mean to you?

Wolfe: This is the highest honor I could receive. This was an award that I nominated my mentor, Dr. Roberto Heros, for in 2007. He was the first neurosurgeon to receive this honor, and I am now the third. He inspired all of his residents to act with utmost integrity and excellence. He taught us to passionately care for those whom we have been gifted the privilege to help in their times of greatest need. And he modeled the fact that our greatest contribution is teaching those who follow us to do it even better. That my learners and colleagues saw this in me and nominated me for this award is truly humbling, and I am so proud to carry on this great legacy. I am truly blessed.

ACGME: What do you feel is the most important job the program director has?

Wolfe: My most important job is to develop each learner into the amazing physician, surgeon, and innovator that they have the potential to be. That means I invest in them personally and professionally; I’m an encourager and a sounding block. I help them set their goals, challenge them, and empower them to achieve. My greatest contribution to this program has been to develop a team in which they all depend on each other, cover for each other, build each other up, and serve with excellence.

ACGME: What is the most rewarding part of your job?

Wolfe: The most rewarding part of my job is mentorship, and the ability to create opportunities. When you can give someone with initiative, drive, and an idea a viable opportunity… that is an unstoppable equation. Absolutely anything becomes possible. It takes energy to listen, invest, and troubleshoot, but the dividends of building up that learner into a leader is priceless. "No" isn't a strong part of my vocabulary… it is much more valuable to help each mentee work out solutions. I have been blessed to have an incredible chair and colleagues who foster this training style and make Wake Forest an incredible place to work and learn.

ACGME: What is the most challenging?

Wolfe: Time! Or lack thereof. My most rewarding professional moments are sitting with each individual resident. I only wish I could give them each more of that time... as well as to my family, my patients, and my research. Achieving balance as a female neurosurgeon ends up as a compilation of many very unbalanced moments.

My best advice is 1) flexibility and 2) be “all in” at every individual task. Being “all in” may be the most important advice I can give. When caring for a patient, your focus must be completely on that patient. But equally important, when you’re with your kids, doing homework or shooting hoops, be all in. Residents, patients, and family are all important... and they know when your head is elsewhere. For years I tortured myself about not spending the same amount of time that “good moms” spend with their kids. My husband jokes with me that I fit more activities into a weekend than most kids get to do in a year. And whether we are having a competition to see how many vegetables we can get into a single dinner, playing an accelerated game of Monopoly because there’s no way we’d otherwise finish before bedtime, or making a competition of who can pair the most socks out of the laundry (you’ll notice that chores become games in my house), they are my focus and my cell phone is away.

That said, they know all about emergencies and that they are part of helping those patients because they are willing to share their mom for a bit. I try to be as open as possible with my residents about how I succeed (and fail) with managing time. And truly, my residents are part of my family, and vice versa. And when all else fails, know that it won’t always be perfect and enjoy the adventure.

ACGME: What advice do you have to residents or fellows who may be interested in pursuing a career in academic medicine?

Wolfe: Build teams around all of your endeavors: clinical, science, and education. True success is developing others to succeed exponentially, and a team can accomplish so much more than you could accomplish yourself. How do you build a team? Know your people and their motivations. Invest in them; leverage their strengths. Ask, and then listen to them; they will usually tell you the answer just by laying out the problem. Allow them to fail (in a safe and controlled manner), learn, and redirect for success. Lead from the front and never ask someone to do something that you haven’t done first; servant leaders are the leaders that people want to follow.

ACGME: Is there anything else you would like to add that we haven’t asked about?

Wolfe: Medicine is an incredible privilege. The awe of the human body and mind is inspiring, and our duty to our fellow man is a sacred duty. This is often lost in the daily checklists, medical records, and medicolegal runaround. But we must never forget that at the heart of every patient interaction is the patient: someone’s mother, brother, friend and confidant. As faculty members, it is our job to remind our learners of that awe and gratitude... to remind them why we do what we do and enable them to overcome the hard times and excel.