UMKC Is One Of Few That Teaches Fetal Surgery

The heart of UMKC is our campus community. With small class sizes, it’s easy to develop faculty-student mentorship teams. And these rich relationships–our Dynamic Duos–are some of our best success stories.

You might have heard about Emanuel (Mike) Vlastos, M.D., associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the UMKC School of Medicine, because he’s made news for performing life-changing surgeries — in the womb. For example, he has been able to lessen the defects of babies who have spina bifida (when the spinal cord isn’t covered with skin and bone) before they are born. When he came to Kansas City from St. Louis in 2017, he brought open-fetal surgery to Children’s Mercy, where he is director of fetal therapy.

Akash Jani, a Chicago native who is a six-year-medical student expecting to graduate in 2020, sought out Vlastos for a rotation in fetal medicine and surgery.

Student Akash Jani talks to Mike Vlastos, M.D.
How did this mentorship come to be? Some people go their whole lives without having a mentor.

Mike Vlastos: It was Akash’s impetus and push, which brought this to fruition. He has broken trails for the next student to tread. It has been a pleasure and a challenge. Let this continue!

Akash Jani: I sent him an e-mail after hearing about the work that he was doing with fetal surgery and it all snowballed from there. All you have to do is find a faculty member or staff person who’s inspiring to you, does cool work, or is respected in their field, and just introduce yourself.

My experiences have led me to apply to obstetrics and gynecology for my residency after I complete my M.D. I have never felt a more rewarding feeling than when the OB/GYN team hands a mom her newborn baby.

Closeup of medical equipment in an operating room.
What has Dr. Vlastos taught you?

Jani: Dr. Vlastos has challenged me to not let any obstacles stop me — our potential is limitless. A lot of his work and surgeries were once thought to be crazy ideas with impossible outcomes, yet here he is doing them every week. This idea is also evident in his teaching; he does not let me get away with saying that something is not possible.

Dr. Vlastos has inspired me to be a better physician. Einstein once said “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough” and that is how Dr. Vlastos practices fetal surgery. He often uses the sleeve of his shirt to explain the amniotic sac to a patient or an ultrasound probe to explain the kidneys and he simplifies it so the patient can understand. He taught me that making sure you can communicate and teach is one of the most crucial jobs of being a physician.

“I admire Dr. Vlastos’ humility. He performs some of the most difficult, intricate surgeries in the country and saves families, mothers and babies who were never supposed to make it.”
Akash Jani

Student Akash Jani and Mike Vlastos, M.D. talk near the Bridge of Hope that connects Children's Mercy with Truman Medical Center
What changes have you seen in Akash?

Vlastos: Step up to the Tree of Knowledge and take a bite! So it is with Akash. He has taken the whole fruit of this rotation to chew on. From skin to seed, the nutrition has fed his learning and, furthermore, it is now part of him. Looking forward to see what will happen next!

Jani: Before working with Dr. Vlastos, I always thought that life’s paths were linear and you just go from one stage to another. Through teaching me fetal surgery and sharing the journey of how he got to Kansas City, I’ve learned that it is okay to go through life in unconventional ways, take breaks, and try new things out. There is plenty of time to do what you want to do. This means a lot when I’m finding it hard to put things into perspective.

I admire Dr. Vlastos’ humility. He performs some of the most difficult, intricate surgeries in the country and saves families, mothers and babies who were never supposed to make it. I have never seen him brag about his expertise, be arrogant or disrespectful to someone on his staff. Whenever patients thank him for saving their babies, he simply smiles and says, “It’s the team! We all did it!”

Student Akash Jani and Mike Vlastos, M.D. walk in a hallway.