Commencement Spotlight: Sanjay Jinka

NEOMED’s Commencement Ceremony was held Saturday, May 6, at E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall. Among the graduating class was Sanjay Jinka, who earned a Doctor of Medicine degree.

The story of Sanjay Jinka’s early inspiration for becoming a physician is nuts. Or rather, drupes.

“I have a great uncle in India who is a neurosurgeon, and he was visiting when I was in kindergarten,” Dr. Jinka explained. “I asked what he did. He was eating cashews at the time. He put these cashews on the table in the shape of a brain and explained, ‘Take one out, I'll fix it and I'll put it back in. And that's kind of what brain surgery is.’ Very rudimentary, but I was in kindergarten. I was captivated.”

It happened to be career week at his elementary school in Maumee, Ohio. “So I went to school the next day, and said, I want to be a neurosurgeon, not understanding what that really meant,” he shared. “As I grew older, I thought about many different fields in computer science, business, engineering, but I ended up falling in love with biology and science.”

In high school, his passion for science led him to reach out to a faculty member at the University of Toledo to work on research. He became involved in a project examining TRIP13 overexpression in cancerous cells.

“I was lucky to be published while I was in high school and actually gave a TEDx talk on one of my projects,” he said. “That showed me that I really wanted to do something that was related to biology and science.”

He also became involved early in community service with underserved populations. In eighth grade, he created a shoe charity with his home economics teacher called Shoes for Smiles.

“We collected lightly used shoes from the community, mainly students. Together we received over a thousand pairs of shoes, and we were able to donate them to a local church in downtown Toledo.

“I remember there was a kid younger than me who was in tears that he was able to exchange his shoes with holes in them for the newest pair of Nikes,” Dr. Jinka recalled. “I think that really showed me there's a need in the community and that I wanted to do something that was people facing in a service-oriented industry.”

Journey to NEOMED

Dr. Jinka was born and raised in Maumee, where his parents moved when his father, a mechanical engineer, took a position at Glasstech in nearby Perrysburg, Ohio. He attended Anthony Wayne High School in rural Whitehouse, Ohio.

The rural setting was a bit of a culture shock for his Indian-born parents. “That's kind of what I knew though and I really enjoyed going there. It was a good way for me and my family to learn about American culture,” he said.

Dr. Jinka attended Kent State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in integrated life sciences as part of the final cohort in NEOMED’s B.S./M.D. program.

Beginning his accelerated undergraduate journey just one week after graduating from high school at age 16, he entered NEOMED at age 18 and earned his Doctor of Medicine degree at age 22.

As a medicine student, he followed the Rural Medical Education (RMED) Pathway.

Mike Appleman [associate director of pathways programs] came to our undergrad school early on in the program, and I was really drawn to the pathway’s focus on serving underserved populations,” Dr. Jinka said. “Also I just liked Mike as a person. He’s been a great individual and mentor.”

Dr. Jinka was drawn to the idea of becoming a patient-centered physician and learning to serve underserved populations. He also liked the culture of NEOMED. “The faculty, the staff and students are really one big family and that was something that really attracted me,” he said.

Learning Leadership

During his second year in the College of Medicine, Dr. Jinka was appointed by Governor Mike DeWine as a student representative to the NEOMED Board of Trustees.

“Michelle Mulhern [former chief of staff] was nice enough to sit down with me and explain what the student trustee does. She explained that the trustee is not only a representative for the student body, but also an individual who can create a lasting impact at the University. And to me, that was very exciting,” he said.

Serving as a trustee also created networking opportunities with other Board members, faculty and other professionals.

“That’s been very beneficial in growing myself professionally, developing my leadership skills and growing my network,” he noted.

Dr. Jinka also honed his leadership skills at the Student-Run Free Clinic, where he served as chief executive officer through Student Outreach to Area Residents (SOAR).

He learned about the free clinic when he attended a Casino Night fundraiser prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was a time where all the faculty, staff and students got together and were able to raise money for the clinic, but also just have a great time,” he said. “It was a really good bonding moment and it showed me the Student-Run Free Clinic has a huge impact and that got me interested.”

On his first day volunteering at the free clinic, a patient came in experiencing chest pain.

“As an M1, that's a very scary thing to deal with,” he shared. “I very quickly brought in Dr. Paul LeCat, our preceptor at the time. He quickly realized it wasn't a cardiac manifestation, but rather a psychosocial one. He was able to elucidate the patient's psychological stressors and go through them one by one to make her feel better.

“At the end of the encounter, knowing that she was Catholic, he asked if he could lead a prayer with her and everyone else in the room. She obliged. And together we had a prayer. And by the end of that, there wasn't a dry eye in the room. So the patient was truly moved and just very thankful. That showed to me the power of the free clinic and the power that we as doctors can have.”

Under his leadership, the Student-Run Free Clinic grew to accept more patients, began offering behavioral health services and won multiple awards.

“I’m definitely sad to be leaving the free clinic,” he said. “I hope to come back as a resident and still volunteer, and hopefully as an attending.”

Dr. Jinka will begin a surgery-preliminary residency with Case Western/University Hospitals Cleveland with the goal of becoming a plastic surgeon.

He became interested in the field during his first week as an M1 when Ananth Murthy, M.D., FACS, director of pediatric plastic and reconstructive surgery at Akron Children’s Hospital, talked to his class about his work to reconstruct ears for children born with microtia, that is, malformed or no ears.

“I found that work really exciting and on the border of innovation and medicine,” Dr. Jinka said. He had the opportunity to shadow and conduct research with Dr. Murthy. “I found plastic surgery to be a really innovative field, one that's always improving and on the cutting edge.”

While his career plans focus on serving patients, he would like to one day hold leadership positions in a hospital department and possibly a national surgical society.

Dr. Murthy remains an important mentor to him. “I think that he has been a critical mentor in terms of showing me how to rotate surgically, how to do research, and how to just be a great clinician in general. He showed me how to be a great doctor,” he said.

Another mentor who has been instrumental in his development toward being a physician leader has been NEOMED President John Langell.

“President Langell has shown me how to be a great leader and shown me how to network. I think without him I wouldn't be the person I am,” he said.

In addition to his roles on the Board of Trustees and at the Student-Run Free Clinic, Dr. Jinka was a member of the Virtuous Healer Society and the Alpha Omega Alpha honor society, and served as the NEOMED delegate to the American Medical Association. “That was really exciting,” he said, noting through that experience he was able to help create several different AMA resolutions that were adopted. “That showed me a little bit about organized medicine and how to interact in a large group setting and to advocate for the interests of my peers.”

Advice for Others

What advice would he give to students pursuing careers in the health professions?

“I recently heard from one of my mentors that one of the critical things to be successful [as a physician] is to be adaptable. Take whatever challenges come to you and be able to navigate around them,” Dr. Jinka shared.

He also would counsel others to step back and enjoy what they’re doing.

“I think that you have to enjoy the journey. This is last time you're going to be a medical student, the last time you're going to be in a group like this with all of your peers,” he said. “And I think I did have fun. I definitely enjoyed the journey.”

To those who are preparing for medical school, he said “just do what you're passionate about. Whatever you do today, whether it's something like community service, or you want to get more shadowing experience, or you want to start an organization, just try to indulge that passion.”

He also pointed out the importance of moral support.

“I think without a support system you can't be successful,” Dr. Jinka said. “They're just as important to the journey as the hard work that we put in. I owe a lot of what I've done to my family.”

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