The Classic Doctor: Steven J. Stack, M.D., ’94

Steven J. Stack, M.D., ’94, the newly elected president of the American Medical Association (AMA), recalls a quiet morning in the emergency department at Saint Joseph East, a community hospital in Lexington, Ky., where he serves as medical director of the emergency department. Quiet, that is, until a nurse shouted, “I need a doctor!” 

Stack and several nurses swarmed around the bed of a 6-week-old baby who had stopped breathing. As the horrified parents looked on, the infant’s skin began blotching purple. Stack carefully worked with the child, massaging his frail chest. Precious seconds ticked by. The infant gave an abrupt gasp and suddenly he was breathing again. 

“It was a moving and humbling experience,” Stack remembers. “The child was dying in front of his parents. But through prompt action, we were able to resuscitate him, and he later went home fine. The mother and father now have their child to enjoy for a lifetime.”

On June 9, Stack was inaugurated as the 170th president of the AMA. At the event, held in Chicago, Rev. Philip L. Boroughs, S.J., president of the College, delivered the invocation. “With Steve’s guidance and generous spirit, may the AMA flourish in the years ahead and courageously engage the varied crises now facing domestic and global health,” Fr. Boroughs said, leading the group of more than 800 in prayer.  

Founded in 1847, the AMA is the largest physician and medical student association in the nation representing the entire medical profession. Not only is Stack the first emergency physician to hold the position, but at 43 years old, he is also its youngest president since 1854. 

A classics major and Henry Bean Scholar for Classical Studies on Mount St. James, Stack visited campus in March at the invitation of classics department associate professors John Hamilton and Mary Ebbott. The pair asked Stack to talk with students about the value of a classical liberal arts education. “Though the buildings and campus have changed since I was a student 21 years ago, the essence of Holy Cross was the same,” recalls Stack. “There was a strong sense of community in the students I met,” he continues. “It was great to see their youth, their intelligence and their own enjoyment for learning. And it was wonderful seeing my old professors, like Professor Hamilton, who was one of my mentors. His office looked unchanged—I’m certain the layout of books on his shelves hasn’t varied in two decades.” He pauses a moment to chuckle. “It was also great to hear from one student that Hamilton is as much a riot now as he was when he taught me.”

Stack’s love for classic literature, his interest in medicine and his connection to Holy Cross began at Cleveland’s Saint Ignatius High School. Biology was a favorite class, as was a Latin course taught by Mike De Vinne ’85, who had also been a Henry Bean Scholar at Holy Cross. Stack says De Vinne ignited a spark for learning that still burns today.

“My Jesuit education taught me that our task is to ‘learn how to learn’ and that the quest for knowledge is a skill we should carry throughout life,” he says. “At Holy Cross, I considered being a classics and chemistry double major. Though I didn’t complete the chemistry major, I completed my senior honors thesis with [former] Assistant Professor of chemistry Alice Deckert. I recall looking at the books on my dresser one semester. I was reading Aeschylus in Greek and Virgil in Latin as well as studying organic chemistry and art history—and thinking how cool that was, such a diversity of topics and such a Renaissance approach to learning. That love of learning is a gift that has served me well in medicine and in life.”

The AMA’s mission, Stack adds, is to promote the art and science of medicine and the betterment of public health, and under his stewardship the organization will continue to work hard to improve the country’s health system to achieve better health, better care and better value. He also acknowledges that in the coming years the AMA will wrestle with tough issues, including the Affordable Care Act, alternative medicine and hospice care.

“The medical profession is undergoing a lot of change, and it’s difficult for most people to embrace it,” he says. “[The AMA] feels the pressure of too much regulation and micromanaging from Washington, D.C., yet we expect and need the entire country to come together to better manage the financing of healthcare, and make sure every American has access to quality healthcare.

"It’s a difficult balance,” he continues. “We don’t want the government to intrude too much into our profession and our lives, yet we definitely need the government to play a role in making sure we have a healthy population that has access to quality healthcare when needed. Americans value their autonomy and freedom of choice—yet we seem to be unwilling to accept the negative consequences of not having healthcare for all. I believe it will be a long time before the United States moves toward a Canadian- or British-type healthcare system.”  ■ 

Our conversation with Dr. Stack continues here