On August 29, renowned thoracic surgeon and mesothelioma specialist Dr. David Sugarbaker passed away after battling liver cancer. He was just 65.
His death touched everyone in the mesothelioma community, patients and peers alike. Yet he didn’t just care for patients and train a new generation of top mesothelioma specialists. He rewrote the playbook for mesothelioma treatment.
Sugarbaker’s Life and Legacy
Sugarbaker was director of the Lung Institute at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston after a remarkable 30 years in the field.
After graduating cum laude from Wheaton College in Illinois, Sugarbaker spent most of his career at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. It was there that he began to focus on pleural mesothelioma, and over 26 years, developed the groundbreaking surgical techniques we see prolonging so many lives today.
Sugarbaker was the first physician to introduce multimodality therapy to mesothelioma treatment, for example. He completed the first-ever lung transplant in Massachusetts. Nationally, he built the first non-cardiac division of thoracic surgery and developed the first general thoracic surgical training program. He later became Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School and founded the International Mesothelioma Program, still the largest program of its kind in the world.
Then, in 2014, Sugarbaker joined Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine, where he built the Lung Institute. He intended for it to be bigger and better than the program he’d founded in Boston. It ended up the most prestigious and internationally recognized mesothelioma treatment program in the U.S.
The ‘Gold Standard’ in Mesothelioma Treatment
Sugarbaker earned such deep respect from the mesothelioma community that people traveled from all over the world to be part of his work.
In particular, said colleague Dr. Jacques Fontaine: “His legacy will endure through the accomplishments of all the prominent thoracic surgeons he has trained.” Fontaine trained under Sugarbaker and later founded a mesothelioma research center in Tampa. “He is the mentor of mentors. His vision, focus and dedication to advancing the treatment of mesothelioma have influenced an entire generation of thoracic surgeons.”
Yet the real testament to his skill was the devotion of his patients. The patients Sugarbaker treated in Houston traveled to Boston for checkups. Some survived more than 5 or even 10 years beyond their life expectancies – which, for a rare disease with an average survival of 12 months, was unheard of.
Mesothelioma is a historically misunderstood disease with no cure. But in Sugarbaker’s hands, it felt conquerable. People are living longer than before. Needless to say, the surgeon’s skill, innovation, and compassion for his unmatched following will be missed.
“In this field [of mesothelioma], he is the gold standard. I don’t think you’ll get any argument over that,” said Dr. Abraham Lebenthal, another thoracic surgeon Sugarbaker trained in Boston. “He is Dr. Mesothelioma.”