On Being a Cardiothoracic Surgeon
An early love of science and amazing mentors propelled Edward Gerhardt, MD, chief of surgery at The Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital, toward a career in cardiothoracic surgery.
For Edward Gerhardt, MD, the process that led him to become a physician and surgeon began early in life.
“It was a slow evolution,” he says. “One thing led to another. It wasn’t that I woke up one day and decided to become a cardiac and thoracic surgeon.”
Gerhardt’s interest in science came naturally. Much to the chagrin of his father and grandfather, who were businessmen, the maternal side of his family influenced Gerhardt’s interest in science and medicine. Gerhardt’s grandmother earned a degree in organic chemistry in 1913, a rare accomplishment for a woman at that time. His mother taught college biology. As a boy in Virginia, Gerhardt usually headed to his mother’s biology lab after school and waited there as she finished her workday.
“I ran into people who were physicians in different roles and learned from them what medicine was about,” he says.
In high school, Gerhardt volunteered at a local hospital. He started out readying patients and transporting them to surgery; later, he packed up surgical instruments. By his senior year, he was working as a surgical scrub tech, assisting surgical teams during procedures. After earning his undergraduate degree from Washington and Lee University, Gerhardt attended the University of Virginia School of Medicine. From there, he went to Vanderbilt University for a surgical residency and two fellowships in cardiac and thoracic surgery. This training prepared him for his career as a cardiothoracic surgeon, a medical specialty that includes surgical procedures of the heart, lungs, esophagus and other chest organs.
“By the time I was coming out of med school, it was clear I was headed into a surgical specialty,” Gerhardt says. “The people who trained me influenced my choices along the way—seeing the work they did, their encouragement of me and how willing they were to let med students and residents do the actual work of physicians and surgeons.”
In 1989, as he was completing his final fellowship, Gerhardt interviewed with Cone Health in Greensboro. He’s been a cardiothoracic surgeon with Cone Health ever since. Here’s more of what he had to say about his career and life during a recent conversation.
How is surgery different from business?
Over the years, I’ve taken those personality profiles and I always test as a perfectionist. The people administering the test would say to me, “Perfectionism—that’s bad.” And I’d respond, “Not for the work I do.” Surgery is like a combination of individual and team sports. You have to have a strong team to do the work, but ultimately the surgeon holds personal responsibility.
Patients benefit because it’s a team of people who work together with the common goal of doing the best for patients. Physicians and other medical professionals benefit because of good teamwork and longstanding working relationships in and out of the operating room.
What can patients do to be a good member of the team?
Ask questions to make sure you understand what doctors and surgeons are saying to you. Don’t be bashful. The patient who asks questions is more informed, knows what’s coming and knows what to expect. Bring someone with you to visits and to the hospital—a spouse, another family member or an advocate. Strong support influences surgery outcomes. Have someone with you who can write down answers to your questions and who will support you through surgery and recovery.
What’s the best thing about your career as a cardiothoracic surgeon?
The greatest satisfaction comes when I happen to run into a patient after they’ve fully recovered from surgery. Just the other day, a woman came up to me at a Boy Scout meeting and said, “Thank you for saving my life.” It had been 10 years since I operated on her.
What would you tell others who are interested in becoming cardiothoracic surgeons?
Cardiac and thoracic surgery is exciting but also demanding—physically and psychologically. And it’s time-consuming. If you don’t have the fortitude, determination and commitment, go into another type of medicine.
What keeps you up at night?
The beeper. Being on call.
What do you do when you’re not working?
When I’m not answering text messages from my son, daughter and stepson, I’m flyfishing or sailing or reading and relaxing. My latest project is redoing an old log cabin in Virginia. My wife and I go there to watch the pine trees grow.