Why You Do What You Do: John E. Fortunato, MD, Pediatric Gastroenterology
July 21, 2021 | 4 min. to read
John E. Fortunato, MD, is director of the Neurointestinal and Motility Program in Pediatric Gastroenterology at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. He completed his undergraduate medical training at Tufts University School of Medicine, and then spent six years training in general surgery at the University of Chicago, where he also completed a two-year research fellowship in vascular surgery. He then went on to complete training in general pediatrics and pediatric gastroenterology at Johns Hopkins University. He was a member of the faculty at Wake Forest University and the University of Colorado, where he developed and directed the pediatric neurogastroenterology and motility centers for both programs before joining Northwestern Medicine in 2016.
Dr. Fortunato has a continued interest in pediatric motility and functional gastrointestinal disorders, which includes approaching care collaboratively, using a biopsychosocial model. His research focuses on the relationship between the autonomic nervous system and motility/functional gastrointestinal disorders and defining discrete patient phenotypes, notably in patients with chronic nausea and irritable bowel syndrome.
Dr. Fortunato has spent 18 years in the military reserve, first with the U.S. Navy, and currently as an Air Force flight surgeon with 445th Airlift Wing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where he serves as chief of the medical staff.
Why did you choose to pursue a career in medicine? I was pretty set on pursuing medicine in high school. I’ve always been fascinated by biology and physiology. I completed my undergrad at Tufts performing my research at the Harvard School of Public Health, where at the age of 19 I focused on cancer biology mutation research. Through my fascination with how things work — and how to fix them when they’re broken — my career progressed. Training in general surgery during the first part of my career allowed me to combine the clinical aspect of figuring out the disease process, the technical aspect of correcting the problem and the research aspect of understanding why.
Why did you choose pediatric gastroenterology? After six years of surgery, I decided I was better suited for a younger population. During my surgical training, I became increasingly attracted to being able to figure out the mechanisms on the research side of things. As a technical surgeon, it was hard to have it all as a clinician and researcher. By transitioning to pediatric gastroenterology, there was more of an opportunity to figure out disease processes and in turn, develop evidence-based treatment strategies. As a result, I found I had more to offer in the long-term outcomes of the younger population. It’s satisfying work.
What do you find most rewarding about your job? I enjoy the crosses between medicine and the military. They’re both multidisciplinary and show that you work so much better as a team. As a physician, I like working with new people who bring new things to the table, and I enjoy the dynamic of everyone working together. Our program meets weekly and everyone has a voice. We hold each other accountable, and it’s really fun to work in that collaborative forum.
We have a pretty diverse team who all take an active role in the program; from a clinical standpoint, there’s even psychology directly involved in our program. Being sick and fear of the unknown can be a terrible, anxiety-provoking experience, so bringing in specialties like psychology helps give our patients a more robust care plan. Additionally, part of my interest in research is defining patient symptoms and comorbidities so we are able to take a holistic look at care. As we break the silos among disciplines, it helps us keep an open mind to the other possibilities that can have a role in patient experiences.
Another good and challenging part of medicine is following patients for a long time. The amount of time I’ve taken care of patients ranges from a few months to more than 15 years. But as a patient’s health improves, there may come a time when it’s appropriate to transition care. We aim to function as a consultative service, so it’s rewarding to be able to transition maintenance-level care back to the patient’s primary care team. It’s very gratifying when patients get better and “graduate” from our program. What do you like to do outside of your work? Outside of work and the military, my family is important. My wife and I have been married for 26 years, and we have four children. When I’m not navigating school with my children, I do piano lessons. I’ve been playing classical piano for about 20 years.
I also enjoy the camaraderie of my air force team. I like flying; currently I fly as flight crew. My goal is to get my pilot’s license in the future. My MBA program at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University has also been great. I have a keen interest in advancing digital health technology, so this program allows me to build those skills. The program has a similar team-oriented environment, and the faculty there is wonderful. We’re currently restructuring a grant that will be submitted to the National Institutes of Health. In all, I enjoy learning. It keeps things interesting.