Francis Sutter, D.O., ’72

From Surfer to Surgeon

When Francis Sutter, D.O., ’72, started out as an undergraduate at La Salle, his main interest was surfing. The idea that this part-time lifeguard and track-and-field star would one day become a nationally recognized, high-tech heart surgeon is something he never imagined.

Had Sutter followed his original path, “I could have been a lifeguard on a beach in Miami,” he said with a laugh.

Instead, Sutter is the chief of cardiac surgery at Lankenau Medical Center and a clinical professor of surgery at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. He’s also an innovator, having performed more than 1,000 robotic coronary artery bypass grafts—more than any other surgeon in the United States and likely the world.

“Surgical excellence … revolves around one basic principal–improving upon the existing procedure, making surgery safer and easier for the patient.” –Francis Sutter, D.O., ’72

How did he end up trading his surfboard for scrubs? Without a trace of irony, the cardiac surgeon said, “I followed my heart.”

The “game changer” in his life was an anatomy class during his sophomore year at La Salle. At the time, Sutter had a notion of becoming a marine biologist—which would keep him close to the waves. For biology majors, anatomy was mandatory, and the class was extremely demanding.

Despite the demands of the course, he enjoyed it. The challenge gave him a focus that even sports had not. “It woke me up. All of a sudden, my mind started clicking,” he said.

During his remaining years at La Salle, he felt like an athlete in training—becoming sharper, smarter, and more disciplined. “When I hit medical school, I was so in shape mentally that I just flew through,” Sutter said. “Maybe that would have happened wherever I went, but La Salle made it happen for me.

Sutter nearly became an orthopedic surgeon, but realized it would have meant spending more time fixing bones and less time personally caring for patients. Providing all aspects of patient care, he found, was what he truly loved best.

“When performing cardiac surgery, you’re not just operating on an organ. You’re caring for the entire human life,” he said.

In fact, Sutter’s devotion to his patients was what led him to become an early adopter of robotic cardiac surgery. The idea may seem incongruous, but a robot makes heart surgery much more humane and far less traumatic, he said.

Traditional cardiac bypass surgery can really “beat up the patient.” The surgeon must cut a 10-inch incision into the chest and crack the breastbone to access the heart, Sutter explained. Then the surgeon must literally stop the heart and circulate the blood with a heart-lung machine.

orange-chartUsing the robot, on the other hand, requires only two tiny holes and one very small incision. Patients wake up from the procedure as if almost nothing had happened.

“The reason I have a passion for robotic surgery is that I’ve treated so many patients through the long incision, and it just hurt them too much,” Sutter said. “Advances in technology allow for this smaller incision, a better way for patients.”

While the majority of bypass operations in the United States are still performed traditionally, more than 50 percent of all cardiac artery bypass procedures at Lankenau over the past 5 years have been performed robotically using a single, 1.75-inch incision. Sutter recommends that patients seek second opinions for alternatives.

“There isn’t a single surgical tool going back to the first scalpel that wasn’t dependent on practice and a skilled user to achieve the very best results,” Sutter said. “Surgical excellence… revolves around one basic principle—improving upon the existing procedure, making surgery safer and easier for the patient.”

More from the Cover Story

Charting Innovation

A community of Explorers, the University has worked tirelessly to ensure that innovation is not only a part of our foundation, but also a key component of our future. For the Center of Entrepreneurship, that has meant redefining what an education in entrepreneurship means here at La Salle—venturing beyond the traditional boundaries of business and fostering innovation.

Read More

First Word: Investing in Tomorrow’s Entrepreneurs

As La Salle forges ahead with new initiatives to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship on campus and beyond, Stephen Zarrilli, ’83, and Robert Liptak, MBA, ’86, share their insights on what it takes to prepare the entrepreneurs of tomorrow

Read More

Robert Luddy, ’68

President and CEO of Raleigh, N.C.-based CaptiveAire, the nation’s leading manufacturer of commercial kitchen ventilation systems, Robert Luddy, ’68, certainly didn’t take the conventional route to success—he charted his own.

Read More

Lynn Buono, ’75

Transformed into a culinary haven from its former life as a barrel factory in the 1800s, the headquarters of Feast Your Eyes Catering, founded by Lynn Buono, ’75, features a garden, solar panels, and bee hives on the roof. Based in the South Kensington art district of Philadelphia, the off-premise and on-site catering company has events that span in size from six-person dinners to events with 10,000 guests.

Read More

Zach Belmont, ’11

A drug and alcohol counselor at the Malvern Institute and a young man in recovery himself, Zach Belmont, ’11, recently opened a recovery house to provide a structured sober living environment to help other men bounce back from hitting rock bottom.

Read More

Susan Brill McDonald, ’84

On the road to becoming a business leader at CCI Consulting, Susan McDonald, ’84, explored several different career paths—operations management and consulting at Prudential, entrepreneurship as a professional wall muralist, and sole proprietor of her own executive search firm.

Read More

The Results Are In…

Take a look at the key players who helped make the inaugural Open Minds Sustainable Innovations Challenge such a success and the winning teams who walked away with substantial prizes.

Read More