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Remembering a Pioneer in Mesothelioma Care: David J. Sugarbaker, MD

The late Dr. David Sugarbaker and mesothelioma survivor Heather Von St. James

In late August, David J. Sugarbaker, MD, a pioneer of mesothelioma treatment and research, a gifted surgeon, and an outstanding mentor, passed away from cancer at age 65. This was an unexpected shock for the entire mesothelioma community. I’ve had the privilege of working alongside Dr. Sugarbaker for over 20 years at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) where he was the founding chief of the division of thoracic surgery, as well as the founder and director of the International Mesothelioma Program (IMP). Dr. Sugarbaker had a profound impact on the way we treat mesothelioma today, pushing the boundaries of surgery and multi-disciplinary care to prolong the life of his patients. He devoted his life to finding a cure for mesothelioma and had a tremendous influence on all of us here at the Brigham through training, collaboration, mentorship, and support.

David Sugarbaker was born in Jefferson City, Missouri in 1953. He was the eighth of ten children— five of whom became physicians. His father was a prominent surgical oncologist and inspiration to David who assisted his father in the clinic, operating room, and research lab starting at a young age. Dr. Sugarbaker double majored in biology and philosophy at Wheaton College and proceeded to Cornell Medical College, where he was inducted into the prestigious Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Society for the best students in medical studies. He, like his three brothers, graduated from Cornell at the top of his class and was accepted into the renowned General Surgery residency at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital (which later became part of what is now known as Brigham and Women’s Hospital) in Boston.

While serving as Chief Surgical Resident at BWH, Dr. Sugarbaker’s medical knowledge, surgical skill, and unbounded energy influenced a generation of surgical residents. After graduating from general surgery training at BWH in 1986, he completed two additional years of advanced training in Thoracic Surgery at Toronto General Hospital. Following the completion of his residency training, Dr. Sugarbaker was recruited back to Boston to serve as the first Division Chief of Thoracic Surgery at BWH. As the head of the first non-cardiac division of thoracic surgery in the United Sates, he would go on to become one of the leaders in the field, earning his reputation and doing some of his most important work at BWH.

In 2002, Dr. Sugarbaker founded the International Mesothelioma Program at BWH, where he led major developments in mesothelioma treatment that included extra-pleural pneumonectomy, an aggressive surgery that removes a cancerous lung, the lining around the lung and heart, along with nearby lymph nodes and a portion of the diaphragm. His experience in this operation led to a fives times reduction in the associated operative mortality rate and led to its acceptance as the appropriate surgical treatment of mesothelioma around the globe. Dr. Sugarbaker succeeded in obtaining even higher mesothelioma cure rates and developed intra-operative heated chemotherapy to bathe the inside of the chest for an hour at the time of operation. His surgical innovations at BWH helped lower the operative mortality rate, extended the lives of many patients, and moved the mesothelioma community closer to finding a cure. Dr. Sugarbaker was dubbed “Dr. Mesothelioma,” as he was considered one of the most forefront experts in mesothelioma.

With an extensive knowledge of all current mesothelioma therapies and an ability to effectively treat patients, Dr. Sugarbaker eagerly shared his research and expertise with the medical community. During his tenure at BWH, he published over 300 scholarly articles. He also built a tissue bank that helped to delineate the nature of cancers and the body’s response to those cancers. This bank has allowed numerous collaborators throughout the world to advance our knowledge of lung cancer, esophageal cancer, and mesothelioma.

While he was often recognized for his clinical excellence, innovation, teaching, and research, Dr. Sugarbaker was also known for the way he cared for his patients. He was committed to providing them with the best possible treatment as well as creating an environment that would provide hope and comfort to the sickest of the sick. He modeled compassion and enthusiasm, inspiring both patients and faculty. Understanding the critical nature of the disease, he created a single postoperative intermediate care unit at BWH for Thoracic Surgery patients to provide specialized intensive care, as well as an additional 10-bed dedicated Thoracic ICU. He designed individualized treatment programs in consultation with patients, while ensuring the families’ access to support groups. Providing emotional support for the patients and their families is an essential part of the program, as it is vital to approach treatment with the right attitude, and BWH continues to offer different programs to support patients and their families throughout their journey.

Dr. Sugarbaker ultimately built a one-of-a-kind surgical program at BWH that to this day brings in patients from all around the world who have been turned down for surgery in other hospitals and provides them with a new-found hope. To many of us here at the IMP, he was an inspiration and we are deeply committed to continuing to push the boundaries in mesothelioma care and research. To honor his legacy, we hope to keep his memory alive through the annual David J. Sugarbaker, MD Lectureship, where a leading national or international thoracic surgeon is invited each year as the Sugarbaker visiting lecturer to spend a few days with the faculty and residents as well as deliver a grand rounds lecture at BWH.