Eric Kim, MD, is a urologist who specializes in robotic surgery for kidney cancer, bladder cancer and prostate cancer.
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What happened in the course of schooling to influence you to choose your specialty of urology?
I attended medical school here at Washington University, but hadn’t planned on going into urology. It was during a rotation in general surgery when I met R. Sherburne Figenshau, MD, one of the senior urologists here and chair of minimally invasive urology. I thought, man, what he does is really cool and interesting -- he seems like such a nice, laid-back guy, I want to be like him. Over Christmas break that year I had the opportunity to hang out with him for a few days. His personality and sense of humor just seemed to fit with mine – that was the start of everything.
Urology, as a field, has latched onto robotics and Dr. Figenshau does a lot of robotic surgery. For me and most medical students who are interested in urology, robotic surgery is definitely a big draw of the specialty.
What brought you to Washington University?
St. Louis is my home town -- I grew up here and went to Parkway South High School. I went to Rice University in Houston and studied chemical engineering. After college I was offered job with British Petroleum (BP), but my mother got really upset that her only son wasn’t going to be a doctor.
To make her happy, I applied to medical school and Washington University was nice enough to accept me. It seemed like the right decision at the time, and it was. That’s the reason I came back to St. Louis.
My background in engineering melded really well with robotics. A great deal of chemical engineering involves designing plants that move different chemicals around. Urology is basically doing surgery on a body’s plumbing – kidneys that move urine into the bladder. There is more overlap than you would initially imagine.
Which aspect of your practice is most interesting?
The most interesting aspect of my practice is the technology and robotics. Urology is a broad field and I am lucky here at Washington University because I am able to focus on diagnosing patients and performing robotic surgery for cancer of the prostate, kidney or bladder.
Ten years ago, no one imagined what could be done without a long surgical incision. Today we are able to remove a patient’s cancerous bladder, create a new bladder out of a piece of bowel and attach it to the urethra – with five incisions that are 1/3” long. After surgery, the patient is still able to urinate just like he or she used to.
Another interesting aspect is new imaging applications that allow us to do a better job diagnosing cancers accurately. This makes sure we are doing biopsies and surgery on the right people, and also making sure we don’t miss diagnosing disease on others.
Are new diagnostic tools being used for prostate cancer?
Today the PSA screening test does a really good job of identifying everyone with prostate cancer, but it also misdiagnoses a lot of people that don’t have prostate cancer – they just have an elevated blood test. This misdiagnosis means that these patients get extra testing and unnecessary invasive procedures. By giving a patient an MRI after an elevated PSA test, we can correctly determine the next steps in treatment. Imaging is a valuable diagnostic tool, and with the advancing technology in MRI we can now apply it to prostate cancer.
Has surgical treatment for prostate cancer changed to prevent fewer adverse side effects?
Because of advancements in robotic surgery, prostate surgery is a different story than it was 5 or 10 years ago. That being said, even with the best surgeons, people are going to have some adverse side effects after surgery – urinary function and/or sexual function. What is more important is to take a step back before surgery and say, which patients need surgery? Some people have a very slow growing type of cancer – and they don’t need surgery immediately. Again, this is where imaging is important to decide the best treatment, if any, is needed.
Where are you from?
I’m from St. Louis -- my parents were thrilled that I ended back here. During each step of medical school and training, my parents always became a little nervous – wondering where’s Eric going to go? And every time I decided to stay in St. Louis, they were really relieved. They were very happy when Gerald Andriole, MD, chief of urologic surgery, offered me this position after my fellowship.
My parents both emigrated here from Korea, neither finished high school and they owned a store in North City. I don’t know why they thought I should go into medicine, but to them, that sounded like a really good idea. I don’t know why my mom didn’t really want me to be an engineer – sometimes our parents know us better than we do.
I think it was super insightful of my parents to push me towards medicine.
Which particular award or achievement is most gratifying?
Not to be super corny, but what makes me the happiest is when my patient has a good outcome. Especially after prostate surgery, when my patient has good urinary continence with no leakage. That makes me feel better than anything.
What is the best advice you’ve received?
The best advice I received was during college after I had returned home for winter break. My dad does not say much, but he asked me, “Eric, did you forget something?” I thought to myself, what could I have forgotten? I think I packed everything. He said, “Maybe a couple months ago, did you forget something?” I look over at my mom and at that moment realized that I had forgotten my mom’s birthday, which is in September. My dad said, “Eric, no matter where you are, no matter how important you become, never forget your mother’s birthday.” I think that is the best advice.
If you weren’t a doctor, what would you like to be doing?
Realistically, if I wasn’t a doctor, I probably would have taken that job at BP and I’d be sitting at a computer all day trying to figure out how BP could make more money by moving oil faster.
Something else I’d like to do, and this probably goes back to my parents being small business owners, I would really like to own a small business. As long as what you are selling or providing to your community is of some benefit -- that would be fun and very cool.