While studying for his undergraduate degree at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Seun Johnson-Akeju, MD, MMSc, says one course that set him on the path to becoming a doctor required students to delve into original research articles. In particular, the course explored seminal developmental biology papers by the Nobel Laureate, Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, PhD. After reading these papers, he became inspired to switch the focus of his studies to science and medicine.

Today, Dr. Johnson-Akeju is the chief of the Department of Anesthesia, Critical Care and Pain Medicine (DACCPM) at Massachusetts General Hospital. He assumed this role in January 2020, after a career as a clinician and scientist in the department. Over the last year, Dr. Johnson-Akeju has been tasked with leading the department through an unprecedented time in medical history—the COVID-19 pandemic.

His clinical practice is primarily devoted to the care of patients with neurological diseases, and his research interests focus on using anesthesia as a probe to study mechanisms of fundamental neurobiological processes, such as sleep and pain.

I recently shared with our residency applicants that my job as the chief is to carefully weigh many models to ensure that I make the kindest decisions all the time. "Kind” does not mean I get to make everyone happy; rather, and for the most part, it means that I am able to put our collective needs above individual needs when it matters the most.

Seun Johnson-Akeju, MD, MMSc

Q. What brought you to Mass General?

I chose Mass General for my training in anesthesiology because the institutional culture of excellence was unparalleled. Also, the department's intellectually rich environment struck me as one that would fundamentally shape and nurture my growth as a clinician and scientist. I realized very early on in residency that Mass General is a special place, which is why I continue to devote my clinical and scientific career to it. I consider myself fortunate to serve as the departmental chief.

Q. It has been a year since you became anesthetist-in-chief. What has it been like?

Seun Johnson-Akeju, MD

I recently shared with our residency applicants that my job as the chief is to carefully weigh many models to ensure that I make the kindest decisions all the time. "Kind” does not mean I get to make everyone happy; rather, and for the most part, it means that I am able to put our collective needs above individual needs when it matters the most. My guiding principles are based on transparency, equity, inclusion, excellence and accountability.

I continue to benefit from the wise counsel of Warren Zapol, MD, and Jeanine Wiener-Kronish, MD, both of whom are Mass General anesthetist-in-chief emeritus. My predecessors are very much engaged in research and mentoring efforts at Mass General and have been extremely gracious with their time and counsel. It feels very much like I am in a relay race of sorts—I have been handed the leadership baton to build on the significant lead they have built, while they are both cheering loudly from the sidelines. 

I am fortunate to have grown up as a clinician at Mass General, and to have developed professional relationships in our department and many other departments along the way. I have benefitted greatly from the support, flexibility and kindness these relationships have afforded me as a new departmental chief during a difficult time in our history.

Q. What was your experience assuming this role at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and throughout?

The challenges resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic have been felt by everyone at every level. One of my favorite songs is Lee Ann Womack’s “I Hope You Dance.” In some ways, our departmental and institutional response reminds me of the line in the song, “When you get a chance to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance.” Our staff have certainly risen to the occasion, and danced if you will, as we have reimagined our approach to medical education and patient care.

At an institutional level, the leaders at Mass General were quick to implement the Hospital Incident Command System (HICS) to help coordinate our pandemic response. Ann Prestipino, MPH, our HICS commander, has been an effective leader and has partnered with us as we have shaped and reshaped our departmental experience of and response to the pandemic. More recently, it has been a pleasure to partner with her as the senior medical advisor to the HICS commander. I am very thankful and proud to lead our department and help with the Mass General response to the pandemic.

I could not be prouder of how everyone—our anesthesiologists, residents, certified nurse anesthetists, anesthesia technicians, biomedical engineers and administrative staff—collaborated across Mass General to provide exceptional care to our patients and to conduct research projects to further clinical knowledge about the virus. As a departmental family, I am also proud of the way we rallied together to take care of our work family. In a way, this experience exemplified the best of Mass General.

Q. What does the future of education in this field look like?

We recently asked ourselves the question, "How can we redefine residency training in anesthesia at Mass General for the next generation of anesthesiologists?" This question's answer has led to a bold and ambitious plan to, for the first time in our storied history, launch an integrated Anesthesiology Residency Program in which residents train across many specialties and departments. Beginning June 2021, 24 interns will commence their training in the DACCPM. They will rotate through our intensive care units as well as our acute pain service, and they will participate in a new and exciting Longitudinal Education for Anesthesia Practice curriculum. DACCPM interns will also rotate through the Department of Emergency Medicine, the Department of Medicine and the Department of Surgery.

In brief, we are making these premier departments and others at Mass General readily available to our interns. I expect this change will make our residency program even more attractive to applicants, enhance its rigor and improve the care we provide to all our patients. Mike Fitzsimons, MD, and Daniel Saddawi-Konefka, MD, MBA, co-chaired our residency assessment, innovation and redesign committee. Peter Slavin, MD, president of Mass General, has also supported this effort and I am grateful for his steadfast commitment to our department's core missions despite the financial uncertainties engendered by the pandemic.

Q. What keeps you motivated in your work?

I am optimistic that 2021 will herald a turning point in our COVID-19 fight and that the humanity and kindness we have demonstrated towards each other will enrich our culture; that the changes in our residency training program will redefine clinical training in anesthesiology for future generations; and that our departmental strategic planning efforts will position us as a premier department of anesthesia for decades to come. Personally, I look forward to remaining grounded in clinical care, and I am enthusiastic about new and exciting research directions in our laboratory. Finally, I am motivated and humbled by the many dedicated staff and trainees within the Mass General community and I am honored to be a part of this great institution.