Executive Spotlight Q&A: Dr. Jonas Fontenot, Mary Bird Perkins-Our Lady of the Lake Cancer Center

Photography by Don Kadair

Dr. Jonas Fontenot

Position: Chief of Physics and Chief Operating Officer, Radiation Oncology, Mary Bird Perkins-Our Lady of the Lake Cancer Center

Age: 37

Hometown: Crowley, Louisiana

Education: B.S. in physics from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette; M.S. and Ph.D. in Medical Physics from the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences

Where did your career start, and how did that previous experience prepare you for your current position?

My healthcare career began in the medical physics doctoral program at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where I was fortunate enough to learn from and work with the leading cancer specialists in the world.

What is one thing about your job people don’t expect or know about and hear about?

Cancer therapy is precision medicine and the margin for error is smaller than anyone can imagine. We delivered nearly 50,000 radiation treatments last year, each one highly customized to the individual’s disease and anatomy. Once radiation is delivered it can’t be taken back, so our entire team has to be on their game at all times. We expend a tremendous amount of resources to ensure safety and quality for our patients.

What drew you to the medical physics field? And, for the uninitiated, what exactly is “medical physics”?

Medical physicists are board-certified clinical scientists that typically work in the oncology or radiology fields. The profession appealed to me because it provided an opportunity to apply my strengths in mathematics, physics, and problem-solving to the diagnosis and treatment of human disease. After practicing for seven years at Mary Bird Perkins-Our Lady of the Lake Cancer Center, I saw corporate management as an opportunity to expand the ways that I could impact patients’ care and experience during their time with us. I also saw it as an opportunity to show that a physicist and scientist can be a successful organizational leader.

What drew you to medical physics? And what attracted you to corporate leadership?

Medical physics afforded me the opportunity to apply my strengths in mathematics, physics and problem-solving to the diagnosis and treatment of human disease. After practicing for seven years at the Cancer Center, I saw corporate management as an opportunity to expand the ways that I could impact patients’ care and experience during their time with us. I also saw it as an opportunity to show that a physicist and scientist can be a successful organizational leader.

What are your goals for your company?

Our goal is to be a premier cancer care destination of the Gulf South, ensuring that cancer patients in our community receive compassionate, state-of-the-art care.

What have been some of the unexpected challenges in your position?

The pace at which healthcare economics have changed. It’s a perpetual challenge that requires us to continuously re-evaluate our strategic plan so that we can maintain proper investments in technology, facilities and talent.

How have you separated Mary Bird Perkins-Our Lady of the Lake Cancer Center from other competition in the industry?

I have worked very hard to position our team to safely and effectively support the latest technologies as they become available. As a result, our clinical programs utilize a comprehensive collection of state-of-the-art equipment and nationally accredited standards of care that are unrivaled in our state.

You helped bring the Gamma Knife Icon to Mary Bird Perkins-Our Lady of the Lake Cancer Center. How will that device help improve the care given at your center?

The Gamma Knife Icon is the premier brain radiation surgery device in the world. It allows us to treat cancerous or non-cancerous brain conditions while keeping healthy tissue intact. Because the procedure uses radiation instead of a scalpel, treatments are non-invasive, produce very few side effects, and enhance quality of life. Patients go home and resume normal activities the same day of the procedure. 

What is your role in the LSU-Mary Bird Perkins Medical Physics partnership?

My role in the program is to teach graduate students preparing for a career in medical physics and to lead research and development projects that improve cancer care for patients in our community and beyond. While I have many corporate leadership responsibilities, I still protect some of my time each week to commit to the program, which is truly unique to the region.

What was it like to care for Mike the Tiger during his cancer treatment? And what kind of disease did he have, exactly?

It was exciting to be a part of Mike VI’s care and we were honored to partner with the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine to treat him. Last year, Mike VI was diagnosed with spindle cell carcinoma, a malignant tumor that grows from connective tissues of the bone. The goal with Mike was not curative, but to extend his life and allow him to live comfortably for as long as possible. 

You’re an adjunct professor at LSU in physics and astronomy. What is your greatest challenge in that role?

Teaching. Our graduate students are enthusiastic, motivated and very smart. Their questions frequently lead to discussions that require me to revisit conventional wisdom and challenge longstanding assumptions about how we deliver care to patients. 

If you had to choose one characteristic, what would you say is the most special thing about Mary Bird Perkins-OLOL?

The overwhelming support from our community. Our donors, volunteers and sponsors are the true champions of our mission. Insurance companies reimburse us for clinical services, but it is our community support that enables us to drive the academic, outreach, survivorship and supportive care programs that elevate us from a treatment clinic to a premier cancer care organization. 

What is your favorite part about what you do? What makes you excited about going to work?

The best part about what I do is having a role in helping people overcome a life-changing health diagnosis. What inspires me each day is to come to work with a team that is as passionate and committed to our mission as I am.

What is the greatest personal or professional obstacle you’ve overcome, and how did you overcome it?

Transitioning from my role in science and clinical medicine to corporate leadership. There is a perception that skills in one area are not translatable to the other. However, I have found that my analytical skills have served me well as I have pushed beyond my previous boundaries and into areas of finance, communications and operations.

What professional accomplishment are you most proud of?

I hope that my most significant professional accomplishment is still ahead of me. In the interim, leading the effort that brought a Gamma Knife Icon program to the Cancer Center to benefit brain disease management was a major milestone. There were many, many people involved in the project and I was humbled to serve the team that made this sophisticated technology a reality.

What other leadership roles do you hold in the community and/or what volunteer efforts do you support?

Locally, I recently served on the court for Karnival Krewe de Louisiane, a local organization that has raised more than $3 million to bring education, screenings, support services, innovative treatments and clinical trials to more cancer patients than ever before. Nationally, I serve on the editorial board of a major scientific journal, review applications for the NIH small business innovative research program and am active on two professional economics councils that review and advise Medicare on healthcare policy.

What is a great piece of advice you personally received? Did you have occasion to put it to use?

Don’t be afraid to fail. I use it regularly.

What gets your workday off to a good start?

Caffeine always gets my day off to a good start! But, in addition to that, mornings are the time of day that I can spend some time with my kids and talk with my wife. It puts me in a good frame a mind to begin my day.

What do you do to unwind?

Exercising regularly helps to clear my mind. Beyond that, I love food. I became addicted to barbecue during my years in Houston and so I often spend time on weekends trying to perfect my own recipes.

What is an item on your “bucket list”?

I have secret—well, not anymore—aspirations to run for political office. But, until then, we are planning to visit all the U.S. national parks with our kids.

Where is your go-to spot in Baton Rouge during your free time?

Home. Between work, activities with my kids and other obligations I don’t get to spend as much time there as I would like, so it’s always my go-to spot.

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