Honoring a gentle giant in the field of thoracic surgery

The Division of Thoracic Surgery in the Michael E. DeBakey Department of Surgery recently was renamed the David J. Sugarbaker Division in Thoracic Surgery, making it the first named division in the department.

The renaming honors Dr. David J. Sugarbaker, who founded the division in 2014 and served as its chief until he passed in 2018. A reception was held in recognition of the official renaming of the division, with members of the Sugarbaker family, Baylor leadership and division faculty and staff in attendance. Dr. Paul Klotman, Baylor president, CEO and executive dean, emceed the naming ceremony.

“This is a seminal event in the history of the department,” said Dr. Todd Rosengart, chair of the Michael E. DeBakey Department of Surgery at Baylor College of Medicine. “Dr. Sugarbaker joined the ranks of icons like Drs. DeBakey, Cooley and Crawford, and it was well deserved. He truly was an innovator, trendsetter and pioneer who inspired the department.”

The physician and surgeon

David J. Sugarbaker

David J. Sugarbaker

Sugarbaker was an internationally recognized leader in thoracic surgery and the treatment of mesothelioma, a type of cancer caused by asbestos exposure where tumors form in the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart.

“Dr. Sugarbaker was a visionary, a master surgeon and really a force of nature,” said Dr. Bryan Burt, chief of thoracic surgery at Baylor.
Sugarbaker was adored by his patients because he took on tough cases and searched for treatments for mesothelioma that made sense for his patients.

“He used to say ‘When hope is in the equation, anything is possible,’” Burt said. “He connected deeply with his patients.”

“The fact that patients are so appreciative of the care they get in the division is a testament to the culture that Dr. Sugarbaker established,” said Rosengart, who also holds the DeBakey-Bard Chair in Surgery.

The mentor

According to Rosengart, it’s not a coincidence that the division is now being led now by the three faculty members who Sugarbaker recruited, two of whom trained with him.

Burt trained under Sugarbaker for his general surgery internship and cardiothoracic surgery residency at Brigham & Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

“It was outstanding training. He found a way to bring out in his residents a profound sense of self-motivation to be their best selves as physicians, surgeons and educators. As a trainee on his service, I realized that thoracic surgeons have a very important role as primary caregivers, especially in the care of those with cancer,” Burt said. “He was a student of excellence and he modeled excellence. He had an effect on his residents that they wanted to do the same.”

“He also was a gentle giant – as much as he was a force of nature in terms of advocating and pushing for what he believed in, he also had a disarming way of always being collegial and collaborative, which of course was a compelling part of his leadership,” Rosengart said.
Burt knew what an enormous opportunity it was when Sugarbaker recruited him to join the team at Baylor.

“I had known him as a teacher and mentor and then I had an opportunity to be his partner and to still learn from him for many years,” Burt said.

The legacy

David J. Sugarbaker plaque

The plaque in front of the renamed David J. Sugarbaker Thoracic Surgery Clinic.

“How often Dr. Sugarbaker’s name, thinking and teachings are invoked even today, four years after his passing, is a real reflection on his importance to our college and to thoracic surgery in general,” Rosengart said.

Sugarbaker set the bar high for excellence in patient care which is something that all of the faculty and staff in our division believe in and take pride in, and that will remain his legacy, according to Burt.

“One of his favorite teachings was ‘clarity of purpose,’ and his approach to finding treatments that made sense for patients with mesothelioma continues to have significant impact in the world today,” Rosengart said. “We hope to continue that clarity of purpose in advancing the treatment of thoracic disease.”

Through the Everett D. & Geneva V. Sugarbaker Foundation, the Sugarbaker family established the David J. Sugarbaker, M.D., Division of Thoracic Surgery Endowed Fund to support thoracic surgery, including global outreach. It also will help ensure that future thoracic surgery trainees follow Dr. Sugarbaker’s example and remember all he accomplished at Baylor.

By Dipali Pathak