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Executive medical director, Abdominal Transplant and Hepatobiliary Program; Global and Executive Health Program
Aurora St. Luke’s Medical CenterVIEW PROFILE
Ajay Sahajpal, M.D. (TRNS ’08), the son of an immigrant teacher, says he’s living the American dream. He followed in the footsteps of his cousins in becoming a physician and only deviated from that plan in terms of his specialty — pursuing liver transplant surgery instead of family medicine or emergency medicine. He credits relationships with mentors at Mayo Clinic with assisting in career development and practice philosophy. “I practice in the ways instilled in me at Mayo Clinic,” he says. Today, Dr. Sahajpal is medical director of the Abdominal Transplant and Hepatobiliary Program at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and is cutting his teeth in administration.
“I wouldn’t be where I am in my career if I hadn’t maintained connections to Mayo Clinic. Dr. Nagorney’s support has helped me have the confidence to branch out. I bounce cases off of him and get his opinion on things. That mentorship has been invaluable.”
My dad emigrated to Canada from India in the 1960s along with his siblings. Between my sibling and cousins, I’m the youngest of six boys who went into medicine. Someone was always applying to medical school, in medical school or in residency. By the time I came along, it was assumed I’d go into medicine, too. All of our parents were teachers. As immigrants, they thought medicine would be a stable career so we could provide for our families. I never considered anything else.
My brother is an orthopedic surgeon in Florida. My cousins are in Canada — a urologist in Ottawa, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon in Newfoundland, a neurosurgeon in Vancouver, and a critical care physician and anesthesiologist in Hamilton, Ontario. My eldest cousin from my childhood is a nurse in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
My dad emigrated to Canada to build a new life. The core values of hard work were instilled in us. My cousins worked at McDonald’s while growing up, and I delivered newspapers. We’re all physicians now. I’m very thankful and appreciative to be living the American dream.
In medical school, I thought I’d practice family medicine or emergency medicine in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada, where I’m from. Then, I was introduced to surgery by a surgeon who’d returned from a fellowship at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota — Edward Davis, M.D. (PRES ’94). He was the only person to wear a suit to the hospital. I shadowed him in the OR and watched and learned — and got hooked on surgery.
As a fourth-year medical student during an elective, I worked with a transplant surgeon in London, Ontario, who did the first liver transplant in Canada. He got me interested in liver transplant. I like the complexity of the liver and working in teams and collaborating with anesthesiologists. Giving someone a new liver can give them a chance at life. It felt like a calling, and I canceled my other electives to pursue liver surgery.
After medical school, I went to Toronto for residency in a big liver program. I wanted to go somewhere else for my fellowship, and I was interested in learning from David Nagorney, M.D. (S ’82), Department of Surgery at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. He’s a world-renowned liver surgeon who trained with a pioneer in the field, Martin Adson, M.D. (S ’55, deceased). I did a fellowship in multi-organ transplant and hepatobiliary oncology. Dr. Nagorney is amazing. I wasn’t in his program, but I was fortunate to spend time with him in the OR and spent six weeks with him during an elective.
I wouldn’t be where I am in my career if I hadn’t maintained connections to Mayo Clinic. Dr. Nagorney’s support has helped me have the confidence to branch out. I bounce cases off of him and get his opinion on things. That mentorship has been invaluable.
I feel privileged and lucky to have experienced the best of both worlds — learning from general surgeons and transplant surgeons. I practice in the ways instilled in me at Mayo Clinic — how I set up kidney transplants and how we do rounds as a team.
I follow the philosophy of the three shields. I maintain focus on education, patient care and some form of research to move the target forward. I wear a suit every day. I approach patients in a thoughtful, patient-centered way, rooted in the Mayo Clinic philosophy. And I instill those values in the team I’ve built. It’s all about the patient. We listen to, understand and care for the patient. The culture and traditions from Mayo Clinic organize me and my team.
I had planned to return to Canada after training. The opportunity at a large nonprofit health system in Milwaukee came up. Jeffrey Steers, M.D. (TRNS ’92), a surgeon who’d worked with Mayo Clinic for many years in transplant, had moved to Milwaukee to build the liver transplant program at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center. He was looking for someone to build the program with, and I took it. He’s now at Avera in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
I’ve been in Milwaukee since 2008 and directing the transplant program at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center since 2012. In 2019, I was a Presidential Leadership Scholar, a program for mid-career leaders from around the country and have cultivated my administrative side since then. I’ve always been interested in process improvement and leadership. I’m the only full-time clinical physician serving on the System Hospital Board for our 16 Wisconsin hospitals. I also serve on the Advocate Aurora Health Research Institute Board. While I love administration, I also love patient care — running the transplant program, doing big surgeries and having patient contact. I love talking to people, hearing their stories and learning about them. I’ll continue to have foot in each canoe.
I’m also passionate about serving our community. I’m on the board of the Milwaukee Academy of Science, an inner-city charter school with a goal to provide African American students with STEM experience. To date, the more than 1,300 students in the school have a 100% college placement rate.
If you do a good job with patient care, everything else will fall into place.
I’m married and have children ages 4 and 6. My wife is a nurse administrator and former transplant nurse— we met at Mayo Clinic.
I’ve realized that spending time with our kids rejuvenates me and keeps me grounded. Being a dad gives me passion to do a good job as a physician. I’d rather play with the kids in the backyard than go golfing.
As a fellow at Mayo Clinic, I had to return to Canada to testify about a shooting on Boxing Day that got a lot of national attention. I was a first responder and trauma resident at the hospital where victims were taken. I was on the street when the shooting started and was called to the hospital to care for victims. The case got a lot of media attention, given the time of year and the tragedy.
See past New Chapter stories here.