Colon and Rectal Surgery Education Women in Surgery

The Rewarding Aspects of Being a Surgeon: with Kerri Ohman, MD

Dr. Kerri Ohman in the WISE lab with surgical residents.

For Colon and Rectal surgeon Kerri Ohman, MD, one of the most satisfying parts of being a surgeon is the relationships she can form with her patients.

She knew she wanted to establish these relationships ever since her surgery rotation at the University of Michigan Medical School, when she was able to witness firsthand the kinds of connections surgeons form with the people they treat.

“I really liked how the surgeons were able to take care of the whole patient, not only treating them surgically, but following them down the road postoperatively and maintaining that long term relationship,” states Ohman. “I thought it was so interesting how directly they were able to interact with the patients and essentially take the lead in helping cure patients of their disease.”

Ohman recently joined the Department of Surgery faculty as an Assistant Professor of Surgery. Prior to becoming faculty, Ohman completed a Colon and Rectal Surgery fellowship and General Surgery residency at Washington University School of Medicine. Her specialty areas include colon and rectal cancer, anal cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s Disease.

Ohman’s interest in taking care of and forming relationships with patients started at an early age.

“My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was a kid, and I think watching her go through treatment and surgery and coordinating all of the different doctors’ appointments was eye-opening,” Ohman explains. “Her physicians and team really cared for her, and I learned early on how important it was to have such a good relationship with your patients. Later on in life, my father was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, and seeing him go through a life-changing diagnosis and navigating the sequela of that diagnosis certainly also impacted my life and career decisions.”

The ability to connect with patients throughout their entire journey is ultimately what led her to surgery.

“I really like that you see patients throughout their entire disease course,” Ohman states. “We treat such a broad spectrum of diseases and illnesses in colon and rectal surgery, and you follow many of your patients for years, both those with cancer and without.”

When Ohman started residency, she was interested in one of the surgical oncology realms. With this in mind, she turned to colon and rectal surgery because she felt that there was a wide variety and breadth of oncologic procedures she can perform. Ohman enjoys the field because she can offer her patients many types of surgeries – from smaller, office-based procedures to larger cases in the operating room with an assortment of tools, including laparoscopic and robotic surgery. This variety also opens up the range of patients she can see.

“What I really liked about colon and rectal surgery is that you take care of a broad spectrum of patients—patients with malignancies, chronic medical conditions, and benign diseases,” she states.

Being a part of an academic institution allows Ohman to have these opportunities to treat patients from a multitude of different backgrounds. She sees patients at the VA Medical Center and at Christian Hospital and notes that she has the opportunity to help a lot of members of the St. Louis community.

“I think that’s really one of the benefits of being at an academic institution. You have that institutional support to reach out in the community,” says Ohman.

In addition to this variety in patient backgrounds, working at Washington University School of Medicine provides Ohman the support needed to continue her educational ventures.

“Overall, I feel supported in both my clinical and academic pursuits and interests at Washington University,” she states.

Ohman’s research is primarily focused on quality improvement and enhanced recovery for patients. This entails examining how treatments have traditionally been done and formulating more tailored ways to treat patients instead. Furthermore, at Washington University, she was excited to join the multidisciplinary team in the treatment of rectal cancer.

“The treatment of patients with rectal cancer is evolving, and at Washington University we have a number of clinical trials that are really exciting,” she explains.

Washington University moved to short-course radiation therapy early on, and now the Colon and Rectal Surgery team is assessing response to therapies and whether all patients who are successfully treated with radiation and chemotherapy need to undergo surgery or surveillance.

“Wash U has always been at the forefront of pushing how we treat patients with rectal cancer, so I think it’s been really gratifying now to join the team and be a part of that,” she says.

Ohman joined the Section of Colon and Rectal Surgery as an Assistant Professor after training at Washington University for her General Surgery residency and Colon and Rectal Surgery fellowship. The transition from fellowship to professorship at the same institution can be difficult, but for Ohman the experience has been very pleasant.

“We have such a strong residency program and fellowship program that it’s actually been a really smooth transition,” she states. “I get to work with some residents that I’ve known since they were interns or medical students and now some of them are my chief residents. It’s actually really nice seeing how the trainees have been able to evolve and progress overtime and observe also how our working relationship has changed too. It’s been a fantastic experience.”

Ohman cites the great mentorship she received from faculty at Washington University as an inspiration to join the Section of Colon and Rectal Surgery.

“At Wash U everyone that I trained with from a faculty standpoint really values their role as a surgeon educator,” Ohman states. “We have such great role models here that want to train the next generation of surgeons.”

Now as a mentor herself, Ohman can continue that passion for surgical education at Washington University and inspire future surgeons. Furthermore, working in an academic setting pushes Ohman to learn and grow from her trainees and colleagues every day. One of the advantages of the job is being able to share that excitement for the field with her residents.

“It’s very rewarding when you’re able to teach with residents in clinic in addition to the operating room, because with the variety that we see in our practice, that lends itself to a number of teaching points,” says Ohman. “Our trainees really value the experience in our clinics, and as the surgeon you are able to show and share your enthusiasm and interest in your field with the trainees.”

Ohman’s excitement for the future of colon and rectal surgery and surgical training began in 2012 when she first started her journey at the Department of Surgery as an intern. Originally from Michigan, Ohman grew to enjoy not only the training at Washington University but the city of St. Louis as well. She is now raising a family with her husband and fellow faculty, Westley Ohman, MD, and is grateful for her decision to train at the School of Medicine.

For any medical students applying to residency programs, she shares advice for finding the right fit:

“Look for a residency that really values you as a person – not just the work you can bring into a program, but a program where you can foster your development academically and where you can succeed personally,” she states. “Look for a place that really just feels like home.”

For Ohman, that place is Washington University.