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20 Under 40: Paul Tonkin

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Paul Tonkin, Medical director of robotic surgery at Essentia Health2 / 2

Paul Tonkin

Age: 39

Occupation: Medical director of robotic surgery at Essentia Health in Duluth, where I also serve as chairman of urologic surgery.

What do you actually do? I am a board-certified urologic surgeon, who specializes in the medical and surgical treatment of the male and female urinary tract as well as the male reproductive tract. My main area of clinical focus is minimally invasive surgery, and many of the procedures and surgeries I perform involve no incisions. Ninety-nine percent of the cancer operations I perform are with the surgical robot, a highly sophisticated tool that allows surgeons to perform highly complex operations with a minimally invasive approach. The majority of our patients usually experience extremely low blood loss, minimal discomfort and often return home within 24 to 36 hours of the operation.

As medical director of robotic surgery, I work with a team of physicians, nurses and administrators to bring national-level-quality robotic surgery to the Twin Ports. We recently made a multimillion dollar investment to purchase our second surgical robot and to bring the newest generation surgical robot with advanced technology to our Duluth site. This is the first of its kind in the Twin Ports and is allowing us to perform a wider variety of minimally invasive surgeries for our patients. We have also purchased a robotic surgery training simulator, and are in the process of releasing a simulator training curriculum for our 15 robotic surgeons who work in Duluth. This simulator will allow our new surgeons to practice skills on the simulator, not on patients, and will also allow for a surgical “warmup” prior to starting an actual operation.

One point of clarification: Surgeons control the robot, not the other way around. That would be terrifying! We’ve been doing robotic surgery at Essentia since 2004 and have completed thousands of cases. I hope our readers don’t need this service, but, if you do, you are in good hands.

Years in your job: Seven

Education: I attended Carleton College and the University of Minnesota Duluth, and completed my surgical residency at Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.

Family: My wife, Emily, and I have been married for 13 years.  We met while working in Duluth at Northwood Children’s Services before we each went back to graduate school. We have two amazing daughters, Kendall, 9, and Brooke, 7. These two young ladies are smart, funny, empathetic people who make the world a better place.

Community involvement: I have been “cookie mom” for Girl Scout Troop 4006 for the past two years (my affection for thin mints and peanut butter patties got the better of me). This has been more work than I was expecting. I salute all Troop leaders and volunteers.

I serve on the board of the Lester Park Elementary School Foundation, with my main role being fundraising. We organize and financially support Lego robotics (intro and competition), Destination Imagination, Spanish Club and schoolwide programs and assemblies. We also actively support our teachers with annual teacher grants for classroom projects and initiatives.

During this past year I partnered with Lester Park’s second-grade teacher Sherry Williams to help create the Roots and Wings Garden. Sherry’s vision was to turn an empty space into something functional and appealing to pull children and teachers outside. My main contribution was to convince Sherry that she should dream bigger and that we could find the funding necessary to support her vision. We are now working toward an outdoor classroom and a harvestable garden. My main motivation is to help draw the connection between our environment, the food we eat and our health. We all need to better understand where our food is from.

Native of the area? Even though I was not born in Duluth, I consider myself a fourth-generation Duluthian. My parents, grandparents and great-grandparents all lived and worked in Duluth. My parents, Tom and Laura Tonkin, moved from Duluth to the Twin Cities during the Vietnam draft era as my father had received an exemption from the draft to teach high school in urban Minneapolis. We moved to Eden Prairie in 1977 when the population was approximately 8,000. I attended Eden Prairie High School and played varsity hockey for coach Lee Smith.

I spent the summers of my youth in Duluth fishing for brook trout, mountain biking and attending hockey camps. It was always my dream to return to Duluth to work and raise my family. I returned to Duluth in 2000 to find work, spend time with my aging grandparents and to apply to the University of Minnesota Duluth School of Medicine. When I arrived, I had no job, no money and no local friends. All I had was a rusted Pontiac Grand Am and a poorly behaved, but very loveable, black Labrador-mix dog named Dow. Over the next two years, I worked several short-term jobs (including a stint as pizza chef at Sammy’s), met my wife and started medical school. I’m convinced I was accepted to medical school because I basically refused to leave the campus. I was the goalie for the medical school hockey team long before I was ever accepted as a medical student. I simply love that medical school and all the faculty and staff that continue to make it a top medical school in the country.

How do you spend your free time? Fish the local trout streams in Duluth and northern Wisconsin. I’m very fortunate to have many patients who are in the twilight of their lives and are willing to trade some of their secret fishing holes for red carpet medical care (I am only partially kidding). I love spending time on local waters, especially the ones hidden within the city limits of Duluth.

My wife, Emily, and I are becoming serious gardeners, and we enjoy working our Lake Superior plot of land. We have excellent sun exposure, and our yard is turning into an edible landscape.  Our goal is to increase our sustainability every year.

Of course, spending time with my kids is a top priority. We like to bike the Lakewalk and stop at Amity Coffee whenever possible. I also brought my daughter Kendall on her first Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness canoe trip this August.

Influential person in your life: Dr. Brant Barr has been the most influential person in my professional life. We met when I pursued a nontraditional medical curriculum during my third year of medical school called the Rural Physicians Associate Program. I spent that year in Faribault, Minn., where he worked as an obstetrician/gynecologist. He quickly became a mentor and friend. He is now semiretired from clinical medicine and works as a physician coach, and continues to ask me the critical questions about my life and my professional pursuits.

Biggest accomplishment: My biggest personal accomplishment came in February. The great people of Hanabi Sushi chose my “Tonkin Roll” creation as their featured specialty sushi roll of the month. The “Tonkin Roll” features fried soft-shell crab, cream cheese, avocado and is topped with spicy mayo and bacon. Boom!

In one word: savory.

In two words: life changer.

I have only one remaining goal for my life: to make the “Tonkin Roll” the featured premium specialty roll at Hanabi Sushi and to get it formally added to their menu.

Some friends and I have offered to make a donation to CHUM for every “Tonkin Roll” that is sold if this were to happen.

Come on, Hanabi!

Three people – dead or alive – you’d like to have dinner with: Jeff Tweedy, Shjon Podein and Michelle Obama.

Tweedy is the lead singer of the band Wilco. I’d want to hear what he has to say about the evolution of his band over its 22 years and what he and his bandmates have done to keep the band together. I’m also curious on his insights pertaining to working within the music industry and specifically within the era of digital streaming music. I love Wilco and the band he formed with his son Spencer called Tweedy. If you haven’t, check them out.

Podein is the high school hockey coach at St. Louis Park (Minn.) High School, but better known for being a great hockey player at UMD and for a long career in the National Hockey League. He won the Stanley Cup when he was with the Colorado Avalanche, won the King Clancy Memorial Trophy in 2001 and was recognized for best exemplifying the qualities of leadership on and off the ice and for making substantial humanitarian contributions to his community. I knew Podein as a counselor from my summer hockey camps. He was a genuinely nice person, and his work ethic was something that has stuck with me all these years.

Obama is an amazing woman. I’d love to hear how she kept normalcy within the White House while her daughters were growing up, as well as her ideas about the importance of nutrition for our nation’s children and how we might do better as a nation in providing high-quality food for our public schools. I would love to pitch her the idea of an edible landscape at every public school. Why aren’t there apple trees at bus stops and near playgrounds?