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Surgeon-Scientist Relishes Career and Quality of Life


Cancer-related orthopedic surgeons typically fall into two categories: those who are cold with patients; and those who are almost too empathetic. And then there's Kevin Jones, MD.

How many physicians do you know who work 80 hours each week but still get to have dinner at home with their families almost every night? Probably not many, but Kevin Jones, MD, is one of them.

Jones is an orthopedic surgeon and scientist at the Huntsman Cancer Institute and Primary Children’s Medical Center at the University of Utah. He performs surgeries to remove bone and muscle cancers, and rebuild limbs in both children and adults. He also believes he has the best of all worlds.

“As a surgeon-scientist, I get the emotional return of patient care, the thrill of scientific discovery, and the flexibility to choose when I work the bulk of my hours,” Jones explains. “This allows me time with my family, as well as time to serve in my community and church.”

Not to mention, a seven-minute commute to work.

A father’s influence

Jones was born in the San Diego area, but grew up in the Midwest. That’s because his father, a physician who ran a family practice in southern California for nearly a decade, decided there was something missing. His desire to become a surgeon prompted a move to St. Louis and an orthopedic residency — and it taught Jones some very important life lessons.

“I think I learned two things from [my father’s] career,” Jones says. “Number one, that even in your mid-30s or early 40s, you can still change. If he could go back and do an orthopedic residency in the days when those things were pretty brutal, you can do anything. No matter what you’re doing, you don’t have to feel pinned down.”

The second lesson was his father’s love for his job — he often said he would do the job without getting paid.

“He was having so much fun at 70 that he was not envious of his (retired) friends playing golf,” Jones says. “So, I think that there’s no doubt watching how satisfied my father was with his career certainly impacted me.”

A story lover

Jones was an English major in college, and a lover of stories. Today he says that he doesn’t think there are any areas of medicine that are more dramatic or even melodramatic than taking care of young people with cancer.

“A 2- or 3-year-old gets [Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia], and it’s a total tragedy for the parents, but the 2- or 3-year-old doesn’t really get what’s going on,” Jones explains. “You take a 15-year-old and not only do they get it and they understand that they’re staring death in the face to some extent, but then you have to work with them to make very life impacting decisions about what kind of surgery you’re going to do. Are you going to an amputation, or try to take out the bone and reconstruct it, and how is that going to limit their function afterward? Those kinds of conversations are intense, and I definitely was attracted to that.”

The entire physician-patient relationship is emotional as well. But Jones believes that, for whatever reason, he has developed the right temperament for the work that he does. He points to the relatively small group of physicians who do cancer-related orthopedic surgery and divides them into two categories: those who are cold, almost robotic, with patients; and those who are very empathetic and sometimes broken by that closeness.

And then there’s Jones’ approach.

“It’s not a great strength of character or resolve; it’s just personality. I can be very empathetic with my patients, I care deeply for them, I cry with about half of them when they’re going through these rotten experiences,” he says. “But somehow — maybe I’m just ADD enough or oblivious enough — but I go home and I still sleep at night. I know I didn’t give them these horrible experiences. I’m trying to partner with them. But I think somehow it works with the way my psyche is made up.”

Putting it on paper

What Doctors Cannot Tell You: Clarity, Confidence, and Uncertainty in Medicine

Jones has just published a new book, (Tallow Book, $15.95). The book, he says, arose out of a growing sense that patients and physicians don’t speak the same language. And not only do they not speak the same language, they don’t think about things in the same way.

As an example, Jones points to the concept of ‘confidence.’ Every patient wants a physician who’s confident, who’s technically good, especially a surgeon, but often times that confidence becomes a bit of a show. In other words, it’s too easy for some physicians to turn on the charm, the confidence, rather than truly educating patients about their illness.

“I think that physicians can take a better role in educating patients about the salient points in any decision,” Jones says. “Too often, physicians can communicate more confidence than even they really have. Tell a patient to go home and everything is fine and [the illness] will never come back, and if it does, it can be devastating for the patient. I think that slight shift in tone is so prevalent in medicine, and that’s what this book is about.”

Preparing to cast off

Despite his busy schedule, Jones makes time for his family and his community. Hobbies, however, are another story.

“I had all these great hobbies when I went to medical school, and they basically disappeared,” he laughs. “I used to love fly fishing, and I haven’t been in about 14 years. My values have changed, and I think that my kids sort of became my focus. So any time I am not at work, I want to be doing something with them. But when they’re old enough to fly fish, I’m going to fly fish with them.”

Jones admits that he is spoiled by his seven-minute drive (without a stoplight) to work. When he plotted his career post residency, he only considered faculty positions at university medical centers that were located in neither unsafe nor exorbitantly expensive urban centers.

“That may have limited my options significantly, but no one with the view of the mountains from my office could possibly complain,” he says.

One More Dance, a book about one family's courageous battle against time and glioblastoma brain cancer. Read more about the book here.

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