Profiles in ACS leadership: A few questions for Beth Sutton, MD, FACS

Dr. Sutton

Editor’s note: The Bulletin of the American College of Surgeons is publishing a monthly series of articles profiling leaders of the College. The questions are intended to give readers a look at the person behind the surgical mask and to inspire other members of the College to consider taking on leadership positions within the organization and the institutions where they practice.

For this month’s profile in American College of Surgeons (ACS) leadership, we interviewed Beth Sutton, MD, FACS, Immediate Past-Chair of the ACS Board of Regents. Dr. Sutton is a general surgeon in private practice in Wichita Falls, TX.

How would you describe your leadership style, particularly when you were Chair of the ACS Board of Regents at the height of the coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic?

When I became Chair of the Board of Regents, I was fortunate that I was paired with L. Scott Levin, MD, FACS, as Vice-Chair, and who is now Chair. We started by contacting all the Regents by phone to get a sense of their priorities. We had a team approach to getting things done. Throughout the year, I frequently called Regents, Governors, and Officers

individually for advice, and they all were extremely generous with their time to give me the benefit of their experience. Because I’m in private practice in a hospital without residents, there were a lot of things about which I needed their perspective.

Dr. Sutton (center, front) in 1981, as chief resident at Scott and White Memorial Hospital.

The pandemic imposed some limitations that took some of the decision-making out of our hands. I think the whole Board of Regents, ACS Executive Director David B. Hoyt, MD, FACS, and all of our staff should get an immense amount of credit for the fact that we all just kept communicating with and talking to each other as much as we needed to in order to figure out the next steps we needed to take. It was incredibly gratifying how willingly and consistently the Regents would gather by Zoom to work on projects or for us to educate ourselves. We had extra meetings about innovative ideas for education, the upcoming website conversion, and quality initiatives. It was an extremely stressful year for all of the Regents, and it was heartwarming to see the priority they gave to these activities on behalf of the College, at a time when they were dealing with tremendous challenges in their own institutions and families.

Who were some of your mentors, and how did they influence you?

There are so many people in that category, and I wouldn’t want to neglect to mention any of them. I will say at the outset that I feel extremely fortunate to have been able to be a surgeon at all. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that I would be able to do this, and a lot of people had to encourage me along the way.

Dr. Sutton in 1984, when she was inducted into ACS Fellowship.

I had a great-aunt who was very involved in my life when I was growing up, and she was fascinated by how the human body worked. When I was just old enough to read by myself, she got me a book with pictures of all the organs and a basic description of how they worked. After that, I read lots of books about nurses and doctors, especially biographies. I figured out that I wanted to be a physician, but it was after I was told as a medical student at Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, TX, to view a case in the operating room (OR) that I knew that I wanted to be a surgeon.

I completed my residency at Scott and White Memorial Hospital, Temple, TX, in 1981. I thoroughly enjoyed my residency. I was the only woman in the program, which, at that time, finished two chief residents a year. We all were treated with respect and had wonderful surgeons to teach us. Later, I attended the ACS Clinical Congress and went to a meeting of the Association of Women Surgeons and had the opportunity to meet other women surgeons who had succeeded in this field.

What are some of your interests outside of surgery?

There hasn’t been a lot of time for me to concentrate on them. I’ve loved rocks since I was a little girl, and I would hit them with a hammer to see what they looked like on the inside. (Fortunately, my mom didn’t think about the risk of a piece flying into my eye!) I still find them fascinating, especially the minerals and such. I like old cars and enjoy driving them. I have a 1957 Chevy that was acquired (used) as our first car in 1966 when I was in high school, and it gives me so much pleasure to drive it. I enjoy cooking, especially when I can have friends over to share it.

Dr. Sutton operating on a cadaver in an ASSET (Advanced Surgical Skills for Exposure in Trauma) course in Wichita Falls. At the time, the hospital OR stocked only extra-large gowns.

How do you achieve work-life integration?

I think people talk about this topic as if work and life are two different things. I’m reminded of the adage, “Find a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” I have loved being a surgeon, and have been so proud to be one. I’m so extremely fortunate that my husband, a diagnostic and interventional radiologist, has always supported me in every way, sharing all of the day-to-day tasks and the family responsibilities. It is a wonderful source of satisfaction to have a real partnership with your spouse.

What advice would you offer to a resident or a young surgeon who is interested in achieving a leadership position within the College?

I would say, most of all, don’t be hesitant to work toward what you think you want most. The College really has an opportunity for almost every medical student, resident, or young surgeon. Don’t hesitate to ask someone who is doing something you are interested in how you could get involved, too. Almost everyone likes to talk to enthusiastic young people about their own passion. The website is a great source of information, too—there is contact information for how to get involved in committees and projects.

Anything you would like to add?

Dr. Sutton and her husband, Richard N. Sutton, MD, at the Southern Surgical meeting, 2018.

The Board of Regents is special because we have surgeons from all practice patterns and all specialties on the Board. Getting to know our specialty Regents and developing more recognition of the challenges that beset the different surgical specialties has been a remarkable experience. Dr. Levin and I and the Regents who represent a specialty in surgery would like to see greater collaboration with, and inclusion of, specialty surgeons in the College.

Christian Shalgian, Director, ACS Division of Advocacy and Health Policy, and his staff have built the Surgical Coalition into something strong and valuable with respect to advocating for Medicare physician payment and quality. There are myriad opportunities for the specialty societies and specialty boards to help the College and for the College to help them. I’m so pleased that we will be waiving the Resident and Associate Society dues for all surgical trainees of all specialties. I think it will increase the representation of young surgeons in the College and amplify our diversity and inclusion initiative.

Being selected by the Regents to be their Chair was the greatest honor of my career. I will always be grateful to them.

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