Q&A: Stephen Ferrara on his journey to be the first radiologist elected to Congress

Stephen Ferrara, MD, joined the Navy in 1991 and spent the next 25 years serving all over the world. Now, Ferrara—an interventional radiologist—is running for Congress as a Republican in Arizona’s 9th Congressional District.

Ferrara sat down with Radiology Business to talk about his long career of service, how radiology helped prepare him for running a political campaign, and his family’s support.

What led to your decision to run for Congress? Is this something you’ve wanted to do for a long time or did something specific happen that made you decide to run?

Stephen Ferrara, MD: For me, it was a natural progression. I joined the Navy when the first Gulf War broke out in 1991 when I was a college senior and already accepted to medical school. I didn’t anticipate staying for 25 years like I did, but that was where it really began and it led to me spending my entire adult life in public service. In that sense, making this transition to running for Congress is a part of that.

I really began thinking about taking my service to a broader level back in 2005, when I was deployed aboard the hospital ship Mercy, when we went to render aid in Banda Aceh in Indonesia after the tsunami. There was massive devastation. I was the only radiologist on a 1,000-bed hospital ship that had angiography, a CT scanner, ultrasound and X-ray. I brought interventional radiology to that mission and I did all of the diagnostic radiology as well, but the overarching theme was that it was a mission of medical diplomacy. We spent six months on that mission, mostly in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world. This is while we were concurrently fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, so being able to show the softer side of America was an idea that I thought was very powerful. That’s when I became interested in wanting to serve the country at a broader level.

And then I volunteered to go to Afghanistan in 2009—they didn’t send radiologists at the time, so it took me nine months to convince the Navy to let me go—and they sent me as a general medical officer with the Army. I went to do primary care, but volunteered my radiology services at a nearby field hospital in Kandahar, and I was able to see pretty quickly that there was an opportunity to bring IR to the battlefield. I said to leadership, “We can do interventional radiology here, there’s a great need for it” and we started doing it. The military saw this was a great advancement in combat casualty care so they made it part of the permanent trauma care team. It showed me that an individual really can make a difference on a national level.

The final step in this journey was being a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Congressional Health Policy Fellow, where I worked on the Energy and Commerce Committee. I was chosen to be one of the drafters of the bill that ultimately repealed the Medicare Sustainable Growth Rate. We achieved this in a very bipartisan manner which reaffirmed my commitment of wanting to come to Congress.

How did your 25 years with the Navy prepare you for a job working in Congress?

In the military, you have to be very mission-focused. There is frustration in the electorate that elected officials aren’t getting things done, but in the military, you have to get things done. Bringing that mindset to Washington, D.C., is one of my top priorities. I believe the leadership style in the military is well suited for representative government. I was fortunate to be with the Marines during my first operational tour right out of internship, and it was there that I really learned about putting those you serve ahead of yourself. And in the military, you work as a team; it’s not about the individual. Those foundational elements of military leadership are something Washington, D.C. could really benefit from right now.

I was in the military for 25 years and served four presidents, but during 15 of those years, we were in sustained war. Getting more veterans in Congress will better inform our policy decisions and help us better manage our troops and our commitments overseas.

What did your family and friends think of your decision to run? Were they surprised?

I don’t think they were very surprised. They knew I had been thinking about this for a long time. They were very excited and very supportive.

My wife is an active duty Navy Captain, so she’s in public service and serving the country as well. Between the two of us, we have 51 years of military service, so she completely understands what we’re doing. And we have four deployments between us, so our kids are used to it and they see service as the norm.

You would be the first radiologist to be elected to the United States Congress. How do you think this unique perspective would impact your leadership style and the decisions you would make if you were elected?

Radiologists have a very unique perspective on the healthcare system because we interface with pretty much every other specialty in medicine. When I finished my time on Capitol Hill, I became the Navy’s chief medical officer. Some thought an interventional radiologist was a strange choice for that role, but I thought it was an apt choice because radiologists understand both primary care and specialty medicine. And it makes me well-suited to talk about healthcare policy, which is probably our most important domestic issue. In that regard, I think experience in radiology is a huge asset. How many politicians have taken an oath to take care of people and do no harm? Not very many.

Finally, as an interventional radiologist, you have to be decisive. I’m forced to make tough decisions each day. So being a decision maker an a problem solver is something we need more of in Congress.

Do you have any early thoughts so far on running a Congressional campaign? Is there anything that you’ve been surprised by during this process?

It’s been an exciting, exhilarating process. It’s an amazing amount of work, but it’s a labor of love. I’ve definitely gained a new level of respect for small business owners, which this is very similar to in many ways. You have to open the store in the morning, close it at night, have it ready to go for the next day, pay the bills and make payroll when you get home—that level of commitment is inspiring to me.

For me, there’s been a big learning curve in areas such as social media, and I’m learning more all the time. Getting the message out there in those various non-face-to-face methods is valuable, and it’s been great learning about that. Also, getting the team together and learning how to make a campaign move has been a lot of fun and very interesting. And I think we’re off to a really great start. We’ve had great feedback, the team has gelled really well, and I’m really pleased.

The Republican primary for Arizona’s 9th Congressional District is August 28, 2018. Along the way, Ferrara will be providing updates on his progress at www.FerraraforCongress.com.