May 11, 2017

Varied interests inspire Urologic Surgery’s Chang

If a career in medicine hadn’t worked out for Sam Chang, he might have been a politician. As an undergraduate at Princeton University, Chang chose to major in politics instead of common premed majors such as biology or chemistry. That way, he would have the opportunity to take a spectrum of liberal arts classes, from psychology to sociology to anthropology.

Urologic surgeon Sam Chang, M.D., MBA, is always looking for new ways to help his patients, students and colleagues. (photo by Susan Urmy)

If a career in medicine hadn’t worked out for Sam Chang, he might have been a politician. As an undergraduate at Princeton University, Chang chose to major in politics instead of common premed majors such as biology or chemistry. That way, he would have the opportunity to take a spectrum of liberal arts classes, from psychology to sociology to anthropology.

“I was hedging my bets a bit with politics and was able to be very flexible in taking different courses that could apply to my major,” said Chang, M.D., MBA, Patricia and Rodes Hart Professor of Urologic Surgery. “I was fortunate enough to take classes with great professors and be exposed to a lot of things that I would not have been if I had majored in molecular biology or chemistry.”

It was an early indication that Chang, though passionate about medicine, is incurably curious about a broad range of subjects. He graduated with a politics degree from Princeton in 1988 before starting at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. With the exception of a two-year fellowship in Urologic Oncology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, Chang has been at Vanderbilt ever since.

“There are so many people who would switch shoes with me in a heartbeat,” he said. “I feel very lucky every day.”

Chang had medicine in his blood. He was born in Korea, where his father trained as a general surgeon. His dad moved to Nashville with his family when Sam was a child, switched careers and studied to become an anesthesiologist at Vanderbilt. But he never pushed his son into medicine.

“It was basically me saying that’s what I want to do,” he said. “And he was very encouraging after I made that decision. And then once I got in to medical school, he was nothing but supportive and excited.

“It may sound cliché, but he has been, is, and will be, by far, my biggest hero.”

Chang said he decided that medicine was right for him during his undergraduate years. He spent successive summers at the otolaryngology laboratory at Ohio State University and the Pulmonary Research Lab at Vanderbilt, and loved the experiences.

“I appreciated the scientific method of making observations that lead to hypotheses and then research to provide answers as opposed to the more theoretical essays and discussions of many politics classes,” he said.

His first surgical experience was a rotation in Urology during his third year in medical school at Vanderbilt, and he took to it quickly, determining the field was the best combination of clinical, surgical and people skills.

After his fellowship at Sloan-Kettering ended in 2000, he came back to Vanderbilt to stay.
“Sam was a star as a medical student and we really wanted him as one of our residents,” said Joseph A. Smith Jr., M.D., the William L. Bray Professor of Urologic Surgery.

“He was a star during his fellowship afterward and we really wanted him back as a faculty member. He has been a star as faculty and we have been lucky to keep him at Vanderbilt when virtually every place in the country wants him. He is a great physician, teacher, and colleague.”

David Penson, M.D., MPH, the Paul V. Hamilton, M.D. and Virginia E. Howd Professor of Urologic Oncology and chair of the Department of Urologic Surgery, echoed those sentiments.

“We’re so lucky to have Sam on our faculty,” he said. “He’s an internationally known expert in urologic oncology who takes on the toughest cases out there. He’s a truly outstanding surgeon — really one of the best I have ever seen. He’s absolutely committed to his patients and they adore him for it. He loves teaching medical students and residents. Most importantly, he’s a great human being. Simply put, Sam’s the complete package.”

In his practice, Chang treats all the urologic cancers — bladder, kidney, testis and prostate — as well as rarer cancers. His is a diagnostic, surgical treatment practice, but he works closely with medical oncology colleagues who offer chemotherapy.

He commits a half day each week to working at the Veterans Administration hospital in Nashville, something he started not long after beginning his practice here.

He is also committed to clinical research, focusing on improving the quality of perioperative care for surgical patients, decreasing complications and length of stay, ultimately providing value for the institution and happier patients.

Chang is chair of bladder cancer guidelines for all three bladder cancer organizations (American Urological Association, American Society of Clinical Oncology and American Society for Radiation), which are developing combined guidelines for the first time that will come out later this year. He just rotated off an eight-year chair stint at the American Joint Commission on Cancer.

In 2011, he gained one of the highest honors in his profession, the Gold Cystoscope Award. Presented annually by the American Urological Association, it honors a single urologic surgeon for outstanding contributions to the profession within 10 years of completing residency.

“That’s a testament more to what Vanderbilt, my department and all the residents and fellows have provided for me than anything I did individually,” he said.

Chang now has the opportunity to mentor the next generation of doctors, and keeps in touch with many who have left Vanderbilt for positions across the country. One of those is Will Lowrance, M.D., MPH, assistant professor in the Division of Urology at the University of Utah School of Medicine, who was a urology resident at Vanderbilt from 2004 to 2008. He said Chang had a huge influence on his career path.

“He encouraged me to pursue a fellowship in urologic oncology and has tirelessly supported my academic career ever since,” he said. “Dr. Chang was, and still is, an outstanding mentor, and I greatly appreciate the teaching and support he has provided me and many other residents through the years.”

Chang with his wife, Michelle, and daughters Julia, Grace and Rachel.

When he’s not working, Chang said the most important thing he does is spend time with family.

His wife, Michelle, is the chair of English at the Red Gables Campus at Ensworth School in Nashville. He has three daughters — Grace is a junior at Southern Methodist University; Rachel is a freshman at Occidental; and Julia is a sophomore at Ensworth. His parents and mother-in-law also live in Nashville.

Through it all, he keeps a sense of humor. “People who really know me know that I joke and laugh,” he said. “I think life is precious and short. I think people in the clinic, people in the operating room, all the residents, all the people who know me well realize that I’d much rather smile than frown.”

And his interests continue to be varied. For example, he graduated with a Master of Business Administration from Vanderbilt in 2015.

“I’d been thinking about contributing beyond clinical practice,” he said. “How can I be able to positively benefit more people, perhaps in a different way? And these courses were in areas where I had no knowledge.”

Last year, he served a term on the Nashville Health Care Council, which is co-directed by former U.S. Sen. Majority Leader Bill Frist, M.D., and Larry Van Horn, Ph.D., MBA, MPH, associate professor of Management, Law and Health Policy at Vanderbilt. The council was started in 2013 to engage industry leaders in clearly defining health care’s greatest challenges while exploring business strategies to navigate complex issues facing the nation’s health care system.

“And politics again is in my life as a member of the Vanderbilt Faculty Senate,” he said. “I love learning and teaching, and I am surrounded by inquisitive, committed residents and colleagues. They help me stay fresh and not boring. I like to think I’m not old enough yet to be stodgy.”