Editor’s note: Carlos A. Pellegrini, MD, FACS, FRCSI, Immediate Past-President of the American College of Surgeons (ACS), presented the ACS Lifetime Achievement Award to Thomas R. Russell, MD, FACS, former Executive Director of the College, during the Convocation, October 26, at Clinical Congress 2014 in San Francisco, CA. The award was presented posthumously, and Dr. Russell’s wife Nona and his daughters, Jackie and Katie, accepted it on his behalf.
Following is the text of Dr. Pellegrini’s remarks. They have been edited to conform to Bulletin style.
It is my great honor to present the Lifetime Achievement Award of the American College of Surgeons. This award is presented to an extraordinary individual for a lifetime of contributions to the art of medicine and surgery, and service to the ACS. Not surprisingly, this is only the third time that our College has conferred this award in its 100-year history. In choosing Dr. Thomas Russell, the College is not only recognizing his contributions and service to the organization’s mission, but also is recognizing a dedicated leader, a compassionate humanitarian, and a man who touched many lives in ways that left us all better people for having known him.
A committed physician
Dr. Russell spent his youth in California, and had the unique experience as a teenager of working as a wrangler at a dude ranch, a job that would have a profound influence in his life. After earning his bachelor of arts degree at the University of California, Berkeley, and his medical degree from Creighton University Medical School, Omaha, NE, Tom returned to the Bay Area for his surgical residency training at the University of California, San Francisco. His training was interrupted by service in the Vietnam War from 1968 to 1970, during which he served as a Lieutenant Commander and flight surgeon in the U.S. Navy. In 1975, he joined a practice in San Francisco and began what would become 25 years as a practicing general and colon and rectal surgeon.
Tom became a Fellow of the ACS in 1979. He was Secretary and later President of the Northern California Chapter of the College. He was elected to the Board of Governors in 1990 and served in that role until 1993, when he was elected to the Board of Regents. His roles in the ACS as a Regent are too numerous to name, but included chairing the Nominating Committee and serving on the Member Services Liaison Committee and the Advisory Council for Colon and Rectal Surgery.
In 1999, the Board of Regents, facing unprecedented challenges, asked Tom to take the difficult job of Executive Director of the College. Our College was in need of thoughtful and compassionate leadership, and Tom was the right person for the job. He had a reputation as a bright, kind, high-energy individual who was willing to weigh all sides of an issue.
Soon after assuming the position of Executive Director, he initiated a strategic planning process, which revealed his innovative and insightful leadership. The College structure was reorganized. Education programs were expanded to offer new and innovative courses. He directed the establishment of the ACS Foundation in 2005 to better support the ACS’ scholarship programs.
A mission statement was developed to guide the work of staff and volunteers alike: “The American College of Surgeons is dedicated to improving the care of the surgical patient and to safeguarding standards of care in an optimal and ethical practice environment.” These articulately presented ideals continue to guide us.
Dr. Russell encouraged the College to take a proactive stance in the politically charged atmosphere of the early 2000s to protect patients’ access to quality care. Under his leadership, our presence in Washington, DC, grew, and a new building was erected near Capitol Hill to house our Division of Advocacy and Health Policy.
One of Dr. Russell’s most significant accomplishments as ACS Executive Director was bringing the Veterans Affairs National Surgical Quality Improvement Program into the private sector under the College’s aegis as ACS NSQIP®, which launched in 2004. Nearly 600 hospitals have since become participants in ACS NSQIP and have used the program’s risk-adjusted, evidence-based outcomes data to significantly reduce complications, limit errors, and save countless lives and millions of dollars.
Kind, fair, and honorable
I count it among one of the great blessings of my life that I am able to call Tom a friend. He was insightful, generous, personable, compassionate, and above all, kind, fair, and honorable. His spirit lives on in the lives of his partner and wife, Nona, and his daughters, Katie and Jackie, the three “stars” of his life. His gentle humor and enduring optimism always brought out the best in people. His imprint will permanently remain on the College and the countless lives he touched while living every day by his motto, “Take the stairs, be nice to the janitor, and the patient comes first.”