Persistent, Reasonable, Caring, Collaborative, Positive
These are the words that Jason Stopyra, MD, MS, Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine and Medical Director for Randolph and Iredell County EMS, uses to describe himself. His commitment to serving rural communities has led him to advancements in research, expansive community outreach and educating medical students and EMS agencies on ways to engage and improve health care for this underserved group.
Growing up in rural upstate New York, Stopyra witnessed the challenges and access barriers to health care that people living in rural communities can face. He has dedicated his career to problem solving the unique obstacles of providing appropriate and adequate medical care in rural areas and to underserved individuals.
As the grandson of a dairy farmer, Stopyra learned from an early age the lessons of rural communities and the importance of supporting that population. Get to know him in his own words.
What inspires or motivates you?
I’ve always really enjoyed pushing my limits and abilities to the point of being challenged every day – I feel like when your abilities are challenged, and you strive for strong goals, the impact you have is greater. When you’re able to accomplish what you’re currently working on, it readies you for the next challenge.
When it comes to working on providing better care for patients, I certainly want it to be equal care. I really focus on helping rural patients – a vast majority of my career has focused on rural areas – and public health and EMS initiatives. I’m also passionate about making sure there are no racial or gender disparities.
Tell us about your background. What’s your experience and how did you get into the field?
I grew up in rural upstate New York and became an EMT during my undergraduate years at Cornell University and worked for a year with a private ambulance service and community hospital before entering medical school at University of Buffalo - State University of New York. I completed my Emergency Medicine residency at Wake Forest University School of Medicine and then worked at Northern Regional Hospital in Mt. Airy. During this time, I also became the EMS Medical Director of Surry County. For nearly 15 years I enjoyed this role and was actively involved in everything from tactical medical support to curriculum development for a community paramedic program.
In 2013, I accepted an academic position with the School of Medicine with a concentration in EMS and cardiovascular research. I earned my Masters of Science degree in Clinical Research from Wake Forest University in 2019.
I also was named the North Carolina Doctor of the Year in 2016 and in 2020 I was awarded a Wake Forest Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) KL2 training grant to study Rural STEMI (ST-Elevation Myocardial Infarction) care by prehospital professionals.
What do you do at work on a daily basis?
One of the beauties of my job is that I do something different every day – whether I’m working in the emergency department and get to see different patients or working at the Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist Davie Medical Center location, which allows me to have that community feel. Some of my days also are spent in my Medical Director role for Randolph and Iredell County EMS and at the Wilkes County Health Department.
Any existing research projects?
Having worked out in the community for over 10 years, and then coming back to academics, I thought I would go into medical education as my specialty. However, my partnership with Chad Miller, MD, Chair of Emergency Medicine, and Simon Mahler, MD, Professor of Emergency Medicine, really caught fire and their partnerships and mentorships really challenged and inspired me. With a team approach and support from them, along with a strong department supporting us, I’ve been able to accomplish some really solid initiatives and research and have been able to implement things in the rural environment like the Rural STEMI project.
The Rural STEMI project studies why one rural patient – that’s of equal distance to a percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI) center as another rural patient – may receive treatment within time goals while the other doesn’t. STEMI is a life-threatening cardiovascular emergency that frequently affects people without warning. These patients have a direct relationship between first medical contact to PCI time and mortality. Delays are particularly important in STEMI patients with cardiogenic shock, who experience an excess 3.3 deaths per 100 for every 10 minute delay to PCI (for PCI times between 60-180 minutes).
Sadly, many rural EMS agencies fail to consistently achieve the recommended 90 minute PCI time goal. Rural agencies are less likely than urban or suburban agencies to meet time goals and this disparity exposes rural patients to excess illness and mortality. Our Rural STEMI program and research is aimed at altering certain prehospital strategies to reduce total ischemic time, particularly in rural settings.
What made you want to get into education?
I love to teach! The challenge of engaging learners and watching them process the topic you are presenting is amazing to experience. We all learn every day and it’s wonderful to be that catalyst.
What makes opportunities at Wake unique?
Wake Forest has an amazing amount of support from CTSI and our culture is really focused on team science and improving health. Those themes really permeate through every professional here. Our department supports our faculty by allowing them to explore their passion which in turn improves their ability to be maximally productive. When you wake up in the morning and you can’t wait to work on your projects, it’s such a benefit for yourself, your teammates, department and institution, and hopefully for the people we care for.
I think that’s the secret to the sauce, when you’re able to follow your passion and make yourself more productive, it subsequently benefits and help others.
What skills should someone pursuing a career in healthcare have?
Persistence, but persistence is only possible with a positive attitude. You need a good balance – I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without support from my family and church. That’s what allows you to be able to fulfill your career goals. If you’re going to be challenged, you have to find that balance to keep yourself whole.
What advice do you have for future students and researchers?
Find a good mentor and a team that shares your passion. Everyone in my opinion should have a mentor and be a mentor. Share what you learn and be helped. It’s important to walk in a path of humility.
How can students and researchers find mentors?
The mentorship relationship is very important and deserves a significant time investment. You can start by assessing your own interests in medicine, then search Pubmed for researchers that share your interests.
The next step is having the courage to reach out to them and ask for an opportunity to volunteer your time to help with something like data entry or chart review. In time, if the match is a good one and you are willing to work hard, a lifelong mentorship relationship could develop.
What are some of your hobbies or interests outside of work?
Just like many emergency doctors, I enjoy figuring things out and working with my hands. As time has moved on and my family has grown, I taught myself some basic woodworking skills which allowed me to build perfectly imperfect beds, changing tables and props for my kid’s school plays. I have also dabbled in raising pigs, chickens and goats at a hobby farm and remodeling old houses. Through trial and error, and the ability to laugh at myself, I’ve been able to “fix” a lot of things around my house.
The only true hobby I claim is hunting. I love the challenge and the reward of cooking and then enjoying a great recipe that includes white-tail deer, turkey or wild hog with family and friends.