Hey, I'm Doc Z
Rick Zollinger, MD, FACS, UHM
Executive Physician Coach
Medicine was a huge part of my family. You may be aware of a little thing called Zollinger-Ellison Syndrome. Robert M. Zollinger and Edwin H. Ellison described two cases of a condition whereby patients developed severe, recurrent, multifocal ulcerative lesions of the proximal gastrointestinal tract. Well, Robert Zollinger was my uncle.
But my uncle wasn’t the only family member to go into medicine. My father, a mere 9 years younger than my uncle, would find his own path to surgery. As a kid growing up, I just kind of thought that’s what you did for a living. It was all I ever knew.
When I went off to college, I started off as a chemistry major. I needed three more courses at the end of sophomore year, but I hated chemistry. Naturally, I went to my advisor and asked what I could do differently. They told me I could take English, History or Political Science and graduate in four years. So, I picked English.
It wasn’t until my junior year when I got a taste of Comparative Anatomy, that my interest in medicine would grow by leaps and bounds. I’ll be honest. Those first few years of college I was flying around by the seat of my pants.
I tried to keep an open mind, but I always thought I was going to become a surgeon. The way I grew up, I knew what the lifestyle was. In fact, in those childhood days, I would sit on the anesthesiologist lap when my father did an appendectomy with the windows open in the OR. It was the 1950s.
As it turned out, I love obstetrics but I didn't like gynecology. I loved delivering babies, but I also loved everything about the heart. I read Grey’s Anatomy cover to cover and highlighted its pages in yellow.I thought I could blend my love for obstetrics and cardiology together and become a pediatric cardiac surgeon. I didn’t quite make it to that specific career but looking back I can’t believe all the places my career has taken me.
When I was a fourth-year surgical resident, I rotated through cardiothoracic surgery at Ohio State University, where I met a guy from Akron, Ohio. He was our chief resident. Little did I know we’d eventually become friends and in a short time, he would be the reason I moved to Charlotte, North Carolina.
My wife’s family was from Durham, I ended up putting down roots in the beautiful city of Charlotte. I would go on to succeed in multiple practice settings as a single practitioner and for larger multi-specialty clinics and in group settings. I founded the Charlotte Cardiothoracic Surgical group and served as an Assistant Clinical Professor of Surgery for the Department of Vascular Surgery at UNC Chapel Hill.
I loved teaching. The opportunity to positively influence and mold young minds excited me. Working with young people, if I had to do it over again, I would do more of it. It was very rewarding.
I was a sort of maverick physician in a way. As the hospitals and health systems started buying up physician groups, I got fed up with the system and I retired. After six months, one of the administrators who knew me beckoned me back into medicine. The hospital was starting a wound care center. I didn’t know much about wound care, but I was willing to learn. I had no earthly idea how complicated wound care was!
Turns out I ended up helping set up their first wound care and hyperbaric medicine center. It was exciting and fun because I got to do something where it wasn’t just other peers who did what I did. There were internists, infectious disease doctors, family physicians, cardio surgeons, and they were all doing wound care. You could talk about a complicated problem from all different perspectives. I really enjoyed that more than anything because it made me feel more a part of medicine than in my cocoon of cardio stuff.
Looking back with more than three decades of clinical moments in general, cardiovascular, thoracic surgery, and wound care, I could share stories with you for days. Today you can find me playing golf, traveling with my beautiful wife, inspiring the future of medicine on TikTok, and serving as a physician coach with MD Coaches.