April 2, 2020
4 min read

STS News, Spring 2020 — Acquiring a unique combination of skills and finding a niche are becoming increasingly important in the rigorous and competitive environment of cardiothoracic surgery, where success often is defined by expertise. With specialist skills—commonly called “the new currency”—surgeons experience greater career satisfaction and, most importantly, are able to better care for patients.

Leah M. Backhus, MD, MPH, an associate professor of cardiothoracic surgery at Stanford University in California, saw an opportunity to expand her skillset in pectus repair, given her growing interest in chest wall reconstruction and the fact that no one at her institution currently performs the Nuss procedure.

After securing the support of her division chief, who pledged to help Dr. Backhus implement a pectus repair program, she applied for the Levi Watkins Innovation and Leadership Development Scholarship from The Thoracic Surgery Foundation (TSF), the Society’s charitable arm. 

“My goal in pursuing this scholarship was to gain experience in a variety of repair techniques by visiting a high-volume center performing minimally invasive adult pectus surgery and complex reconstructions,” she said. “As the final goal is to establish a program at my home institution, it was important to also gain experience with patient selection and program infrastructure.”

The TSF Watkins scholarship provides up to $5,000 for cardiothoracic surgeons who are within 10 years of their first faculty appointment and supports travel to a center of excellence for the purposes of acquiring clinical, translational, or leadership training. 

Scholarship recipient Leah M. Backhus, MD, MPH (left), with mentor Dawn Jaroszewski, MD, MBA

The award is named after Levi Watkins, MD, an accomplished cardiothoracic surgeon at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, who was part of the team that implanted the first automated internal cardiac defibrillator in a human being. He also was the first resident of color in the Johns Hopkins residency program and the first underrepresented minority to join the cardiac surgery faculty at Johns Hopkins.

TSF awarded the Watkins scholarship to Dr. Backhus in 2019. In November, she traveled to the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, Arizona, where she studied pectus repair with Dawn Jaroszewski, MD, MBA, a national leader in surgery for pectus carinatum, excavatum, and mixed defects in adults.

During her 4 days at Mayo, Dr. Backhus observed several primary Nuss procedures on patients with a varying severity of pectus deformities.

“Cases included both severe and milder pectus deformities, use of titanium bars in patients with heavy chest walls, and mixed and asymmetric defects,” she said. “I also was able to observe bar removal procedures, which require specialized prep and technical considerations for safe removal.”

Building a pectus repair program requires more than just learning surgical technique, however. Patient selection, workup, and an emphasis on multidisciplinary care are critical components to establishing a new program. To increase the program’s chance of success and maximize the learning experience, Stanford provided funding for two of Dr. Backhus’s nursing colleagues to travel with her.

"The scholarship is an investment in yourself and your future."

Leah M. Backhus, MD, MPH

“Taking members of the Stanford thoracic team with me to Arizona was, by far, the most important decision ever,” she said. “It allowed me to concentrate almost exclusively on the technical aspects of the surgery and direct patient care, while our outpatient nurse practitioner delved into the details of patient flow from referral to postoperative care. Our thoracic OR RN concentrated on room setup and equipment, and he even was able to obtain preference cards for me to adapt at home.”

While Dr. Backhus acknowledged that it can be challenging for early career surgeons to make time for these types of trips, she encouraged her colleagues to apply for a TSF scholarship and find their niche.

“Traveling to a center of excellence gets you away from your normal environment—with all of its distractions—and allows you to immerse yourself,” she said. “The scholarship is an investment in yourself and your future.”

>Learn more about what TSF does and how you can donate at thoracicsurgeryfoundation.org.

TSF Awards More than $1 Million in New Grants
Earlier this year, TSF issued 29 new grants totaling $1,047,500 in support of research and education programs in cardiothoracic surgery. These grants will help advance treatment options for patients with heart and lung diseases and offer much-needed assistance to underserved patients in developing countries and regions such as Armenia, Honduras, India, Kenya, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa. Additional awards and scholarships will be distributed later this year. For a full listing of grant recipients, visit sts.org/2020TSFawards.