Get to Know Joel DeCastro, MD, MPH
G. Joel DeCastro, MD, MPH, is an assistant professor of urology at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons who completed medical school and residency at Columbia. He is an expert in robotic and laparoscopic techniques for treatment of urologic tumors, specifically for bladder, kidney, prostate, and testicular cancer. His strong interest in development and public health has taken him across the world to treat underserved populations.
DeCastro was born in Puerto Rico to Dominican parents and grew up in Key West. He has been a surgeon, faculty member, and researcher at CUIMC since 2011. He travels with ICAP, which was founded at Columbia in 2003 to improve the health of families and communities around the world, and regularly conducts health outreach in Washington Heights, where CUIMC is located.
Read the article below to learn more about DeCastro, in his own words.
Editor’s note: DeCastro’s responses have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Can you describe your work for us?
I spend most of my time seeing patients in clinic and performing surgeries. Most of my teaching occurs in the operating room. It’s clinical work, but I’m teaching residents at the same time. I also teach the medical students who rotate through urology. I’m also involved in research, mainly in clinical trials for bladder cancer.
How did you decide on a career in medicine?
My father was a pediatrician, so I was exposed to the hospital and the clinical environment from early on. It wasn’t necessarily always for me, as I always enjoyed development work. After I finished college, I moved to Bolivia, where I was mainly doing public health work. But what you think is best for people at the population level is often very different than what is needed on the individual level. I found myself wanting that individual-level interaction, so I came back to the U.S. and applied to medical school.
With such a strong interest in public health, how did you decide on surgery as your specialty?
It’s interesting. You know, I figured I would go into a specialty like infectious disease, but it ends up that you make these choices based on what you enjoy. I found out that I’m most interested in what happens in the operating room. But I still wanted to continue working abroad, so probably twice a year I take a week off and I go to either Gaza or the West Bank and I do surgery and teach surgery. I’ve also traveled to Mozambique with ICAP. And I’ve been to Mongolia a few times for surgical teaching. I enjoy surgical training and teaching abroad in resource-poor settings.
What do you like most about being at Columbia?
When I was that 24-year-old recent college grad and came up here to interview for medical school, I just really liked the setting. It’s a superb school and it has this really attractive aspect of being in a community where I’m able to use the fact that Spanish is my first language. I would say what I enjoy the most, probably, would be the privilege of working in a place like Columbia and having the resources of a world-class institution, great nurses, great operating rooms with great technology, great residents and medical students who are some of the smartest people around—all in the context of a working-class community with a population that I have a deep and personal commitment to.
Do you believe your background helps when you are treating Hispanic patients from this community?
You don’t need to speak Spanish to be a good doctor to Spanish-speaking patients. But, all things being equal, it does help you to help them. I strongly believe that having somebody who has some sensibility about their culture and who is able to speak to them in their language helps tremendously. Part of it is, they appreciate the fact that I can speak to them about emotionally and psychologically complex things in their own language, and that I’m able to empathize in a slightly different way. I also help with community events, like prostate cancer screenings, which we do every year.
How do you feel about the nation’s observance of Hispanic Heritage Month?
Although I’m not an immigrant myself, I’m the product of immigrants. Hispanic Heritage Month is a time to be proud of our backgrounds. The cool thing about the United States is that you can consider yourself 100% American and be grateful for the opportunity this country gives you but still identify with, and appreciate, the background of your parents.
What do you do in your downtime?
I’m an extremely avid traveler, and I enjoy the outdoors tremendously. I do lots of hikes. I prefer heights like Mount Kilimanjaro and the base camp of Mount Everest. I’m an avid runner. I run the New York marathon on a regular basis and I’m running it again this November.