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Dr. Michael Mison Answers Ten: Surgical Oncology, Ah Ha Moments, and Summiting Kilimanjaro

By: Sacha Adorno Published: Jun 5, 2018

Dr. Michael Mison stands in front of Ryan HospitalAs a child, Dr. Michael Mison’s parents encouraged him to be a physician. Drawn to animals and science, Mison knew early on that he would indeed go into medicine but focus on animals instead of humans.

“The opportunities in veterinary medicine are limitless,” said Mison, Clinical Associate Professor. “From the variety of species to the type of work — clinical care, research, teaching, or industry... The opportunities are limitless.”

Mison’s career trajectory has taken him through academia to private practice back to academia. He’s been on Penn Vet’s faculty since 2015 and last year was appointed Ryan Hospital Director and Chief Medical Officer.

Today, his family holds him up as someone who followed his passion and enjoys going to work every day. Mison talked to us about this work and more.

What motivated you to become a veterinarian?

When I was a kid, we had dogs, small mammals, birds, even fish and sometimes had to take them to the vet. Veterinarians were like magicians to me; they made my pets better. At age six, I told my parents I wanted to be a vet. They saw it as a phase, similar to being an astronaut or firefighter. But I never veered from the plan and stayed laser focused on the goal. 

Dr. Michael Mison in surgeryWhy surgery and oncology?

Starting vet school at the University of Florida, I was research-oriented. Then I got to my clinical rotations and loved it. The applications of science and physiology intrigued me, and I planned to pursue either internal medicine or zoo/wildlife medicine.

Surgery wasn’t on my radar until I did a rotating internship at Michigan State University and had greater exposure to the specialty — it was a “wow” experience. Surgery is tactile. There’s an immediacy to it, with an end-point to outcomes. If, for example, we face something unexpected mid-procedure, we must identify a solution in real time — much like MacGyver. Surgeons appreciate and Penn Vet students learn from the challenges.

I gravitated toward soft tissue surgery because it deals with anatomy, physiology, and medicine. I think my affinity for this kind of surgery is where my interest in surgical oncology developed. When I was a resident in the early 2000s, there wasn't yet a surgical oncology subspecialty. What surgical oncologists do now is what soft tissue surgeons did then. So, I had exposure to surgical oncology cases, such as visceral tumors and large cutaneous — or skin — tumors requiring reconstructive surgery. It stuck.

How did you end up at Penn Vet?

I’ve always enjoyed academia. After my residency, I was faculty at Washington State University for a few years before going to work for a private specialty practice in Seattle. I kept up with academia during short visiting faculty stints at different universities. 

When a corporation purchased the practice, I decided to open my own. So in 2007, I opened Seattle Veterinary Specialists with my business partner.

It grew into a large multi-specialty hospital. We sold it in 2015, and I decided to go back to academia. There was an opening for a faculty surgeon at Penn Vet. I was attracted to the School and it’s Philadelphia location and came on board.    

What is a typical day for you?

I have two roles. As surgical faculty, I do consultations, perform surgeries, train interns/residents, and teach students. As an administrator, I run the hospital along with Ryan’s deputy hospital director, and have four directors reporting to me. We handle operational day-to-day issues and strategize on the future.   

What are you most passionate about?

I love teaching, especially those moments of student discovery — when something clicks and a student “gets it.” It’s a very cool and magical occurrence.  If they can appreciate the art and science of surgery, I’ve done my job.

On the clinical side, I still love doing surgery.  The operating room is my “fortress of solitude.”  When on clinics, I enjoy teaching students and house officers and work with clients and their beloved pets. I also enjoy interacting with referring veterinarians, helping them with cases and sharing what Penn Vet is learning and doing.

As hospital director, I want to run a successful business and I am always exploring Penn Vet’s niche as an academic teaching hospital. We're not like a private specialty practice, but we do operate within the world of private specialty practices. My challenge is articulating the value of Penn Vet and enhancing our relationships with private practices and Penn Vet alumni.   

Dr. Micahel Mison, second from right, instructs a student, at right, during surgery. Penn Vet offers a “different level of Doctor” — what does that mean to you and how does it impact the way you care for animals?

For me, patients are the primary concern, but at Penn Vet we have the added benefit of knowing that what we learn with animals may contribute to the health of humankind.   

Penn Vet practitioners are at the top of our game. We work in an environment primed for discovery. In our care for animals, we try novel things and judiciously push boundaries to improve and progress veterinary medicine.  

What are some advances you think will revolutionize human and animal medicine?

As a surgical oncologist, I’m obviously interested in advances in cancer prevention and treatment. The way surgeons approach cancer has evolved. The old approach, which is to be invasive and aggressive, doesn’t apply as much anymore.

Today, we consider the tumor type and stage, client needs, and animal’s ability to tolerate surgery. Sure, we could remove a large tumor via a complicated surgery, but is it necessary? Rather we “dose” surgery, tailoring the procedure to the individual patient, clients’ expectations, biological behavior of the tumor, and the multi-modal approach to cancer.

In addition to surgery, the immuno-oncology treatments that my other colleagues are working on are fascinating and revolutionary. 

What’s something personal your clients don’t know about you? 

I like activity and adventure — skiing, cycling, tennis. I love climbing mountains and have summited Kilimanjaro, Mt. Rainier, Mt. Saint Helens, Mt. Adams, etc. Kilimanjaro was the highest so far — 5,885 meters (19,308 feet). With mountain climbing, as with surgery, there’s a goal, and you don’t stop until it’s reached, until the mountain is summited. I also play classical piano — that’s the more creative side of my brain, and it’s good for my hand skills.

Dr. Michael Mison at the summit of Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the highest mountain in Africa.And professionally — what do you want clients to know?

Veterinary medicine is a team effort among doctor, client, and referring veterinarian, as well as all the people that support us in managing a pet. At Penn Vet, the team includes nurses, support staff, students, and interns/residents. We are all important in the care of the animals.

And, of course, we all want to know if you have animals at home?

I have an eight-year-old Golden Retriever named Pike after Pike’s Place Market in Seattle. He was my patient as a puppy. He had a birth defect (ectopic ureters), so his owners couldn’t breed him. I had recently lost my older Golden Retriever and jokingly offered to take Pike, and his owners took me up on it. The rest is history. Pike was my climbing buddy in Seattle!

Dr. Michael Mison with his Golden Retriever Pike

Blue the Super Hero Dog

If ever there was a hero it’s Blue. The brave pit bull took a bullet protecting his family during a home invasion. Learn how Mison helped save Blue’s life and got the dog back to his loveable, exuberant self.