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.
“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.”