We interviewed Dr. Ameer Farooq, a PGY-6 in Colorectal Surgery. We chatted about his role as an Associate Digital Editor to the Canadian Journal of Surgery, co-hosting the medical podcast “Cold Steel“, and his personal research in the field of colorectal surgery.
You are an Associate Digital Editor of the Canadian Journal of Surgery. How did you come into this position? Can you tell us about some of your responsibilities, and some of the most enjoyable aspects of it?
I was lucky enough to do general surgery residency in Calgary. One of my mentors, Dr. Chad Ball, became the Co-Editor in Chief at the CJS when I was a 4th year resident. I have always loved using twitter and podcasts, and have tried to understand how we can use different modalities to invigorate the dissemination of knowledge within surgery. Maybe to just get me to stop talking about podcasts, Dr. Ball offered me the chance to be the Associate Digital Editor. This obviously demonstrates the huge serendipity with which these things sometimes happen but also perhaps about not being afraid of being passionate about things both inside and outside of surgery. You never know when your side hustle might become part of your “main hustle”.
As an Associate Digital Editor, I’m responsible for producing the CJS podcast. We are also developing visual abstracts for the journal and exploring new ways of enhancing the outreach for the journal. In addition, I also am asked to review some manuscripts that are submitted to the journal – I’ve learned so much from that process and have had the chance to read some cool research.
My favourite aspect of being part of CJS is how much I have learned from Dr. Ball and Dr. Harvey, the editors in chief. Getting to understand what goes on behind the scenes at journals has been fascinating.
You are also the co-host of a surgery podcast called “Cold Steel”. What inspired you to get into podcasting?
Anyone who knows me is sick and tired of hearing about how much I love podcasts. I got hooked on podcasts after I listened to the tremendously famous Serial podcasts. I have always been an auditory learner and growing up loved listening to CBC programs like Ideas, the Dead Dog Café, The Debaters, and Under the Influence. Podcasts for me were like on-demand television – I could listen to incredibly creative programs on topics I cared about without interruption. I also homeschooled all the way up to university. As a result, I’ve always really appreciated when I could listen to a lecture or watch a video rather than having to read about something out of a book, which always has felt much more laborious. Hearing someone talk about something, especially if done creatively, helps me to remember things much more than I might if I read it passively from a book. I can listen to podcasts whenever, particularly on commutes, and still retain most of the information that I listen to. Beyond that, podcasts seem to me like the one medium in our world where it feels like you can really explore deeply another person’s point of view. Podcasts seem to me so different than traditional interviews, almost as if you are sitting with someone in their garage while you just talk. For all these reasons, when Dr. Ball offered me the chance to be a part of creating a podcast for CJS, I jumped at the chance.
The Cold Steel podcast has been so incredibly valuable for me personally. We’ve interviewed some amazing guests and I am always humbled by what a unique profession we are a part of and the incredible things that surgeons and physicians are doing across the country and across the world. I have, however, come to really appreciate how hard it is to be a good interviewer, and am very thankful for the ability to edit my “ums” and “ahs” sometimes…
Tell us more about your podcast. What is the process like of creating an episode like? What have been some of the challenges and successes of running your own podcast?
As I alluded to above, I’ve always really enjoyed listening to surgery podcasts, and have always felt that conversational style that podcasts engender somehow helps me to remember content much more than when I read it. Initially, when we started the podcast, we planned on Cold Steel a lot like most of the other journal podcasts. We would pick an article published in that month, talk about what we liked from it, and release it.
Cold Steel has turned into much more than that. The podcast has really turned into an exploration of some of the big challenges in surgery and medicine. We’ve done episodes on burnout, social media, and even Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in addition to some important clinical topics not just in general surgery, but in all branches of surgery. Dr. Ball and I create a list of guests and topics that we think that would be interesting to our listeners. Dr. Ball seems to know everyone and takes care of securing guests, and I handle the technical aspects of recording and editing all the episodes. We both work on outlines of questions and topics that we would like to ask our guests. I am no journalist, but I certainly have come to appreciate how much work goes into preparing for interviews! We try to really do a deep dive into the work that our guests have done, and figure out what angle to take for each episode. Our guests have been absolutely amazing. The editing process was hard in the beginning as I was learning to use the software but it’s gotten much easier over time.
The biggest challenge in being involved in a podcast as a resident, and as a fellow is simply that it takes time. I’m always inspired by Dr. Ball – the man doesn’t seem to need sleep! But for the rest of us mortals, it can sometimes be challenging to fit in the time. To make our interviews work, we sometimes must coordinate with guests across time zones. Finding both time and a good space to record can be a huge challenge. I’ve recorded from my closet, from call rooms, and most memorably, from my car while parked on the side of a beach in Hawaii! Whenever you do something that’s a little out of your comfort zone there always hiccups along the way. But the experience has been so rewarding. I must again credit Dr. Ball with pushing us to try new things and taking risks with the podcasts. As I alluded to, we’ve done episodes exploring things like the documentary RBG and the intersection with surgery, interviewed a medical conference planner, had discussions on social media and the #MedBikini controversy, talked about Black Lives Matter, and of course COVID19 related topics. Breaking down the silos between the OR and the rest of the world on the podcast has resonated with a lot of listeners. In the end, if nothing else, I have tremendously enjoyed talking with so many amazing guests.
What have been some of your favourite episodes that you’ve done on Cold Steel?
That’s like asking a parent to pick a favourite child! We have done so many fantastic episodes with amazing guests and I’m really proud of all of them. To talk about some highlights:
Early on, we interviewed Scott Gmora, a bariatric surgeon in Hamilton. Dr. Gmora talked about the way he approached training in a way I had never heard before, and I adopted a number of things that he talked about in the way I approach residency and fellowship. I’m proud of the episode on “Equity in Surgery”, where we tackled some of the challenging issues around diversity in surgery. Dr. Mohit Bhandari is an orthopedic surgeon in Hamilton, and he gave us an incredible overview of how he carried out some of the landmark trials in orthopedic surgery, and how he approaches presentations. There have been a ton of really amazing clinical episodes as well – Dr. Sav Brar’s episode on gastric cancer stands out to me in particular. We’ve done some fun ones where we had discussions on a paper on aging surgeons, RBG, and the Danish mask study on reducing COVID transmissions. Those were thoughtful discussions thanks to Dr. Kelly Vogt’s and Morad Hameed’s (the head of the department of surgery at UBC) input! Recently, we have put out a couple of phenomenal episodes: Sean Langenfeld on social media, Karen Norris on medical conferences in a post-COVID19 era, and Andrew Ibrahim on the intersection of surgery and architecture. We have published 60 episodes so far and have so many more recorded that we can’t wait to put out into the world. Stay tuned!
Switching tracks, you are presently conducting research around the regret in rectal cancer patients. Could you tell us more about your focus on this topic? Where do you hope to take the research?
I am lucky enough to be doing my fellowship at St. Paul’s Hospital with a phenomenal group of colorectal surgeons. One of my projects is to look at the experience of rectal cancer patients. Rectal cancer has been going a revolution in treatment modalities, with a lot of interest in organ-preservation (without requiring radical resection). I’m interested in trying to understand how best to help patients make the right decision for them, sometimes in the face of very daunting and challenging choices. To that end, we are doing a survey asking patients with rectal cancer if they have experienced regret with the treatment pathways they have undertaken. Hopefully this information can help inform how we explain treatments for rectal cancer patients. Ultimately, I’d like to create an interactive, online platforms that considers patient preferences and backgrounds and uses that information to help guide them through decisions around rectal cancer in a personalized way.