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What's in a Name?

The bar has been set high for Anton Sidawy, M.D., M.P.H., who became chair of the Department of Surgery in the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences in December 2010. He succeeds the doctor credited for saving the life of President Ronald Reagan, inherits one of the nation’s top-ranked residency programs, and joins a lineage of surgeons whose contributions to the field have earned countless awards and history book accolades.

“It’s quite humbling to follow in the footsteps of the chairs before me [who] were a highly accomplished group of surgeons,” said Sidawy, Feb. 9, at a special meeting he called to honor the department’s rich history. With students, residents, and faculty in attendance from the GW Medical Center and all of its affiliates, Sidawy announced that the four surgical teams — or groups of students and residents assigned to specific surgeons within the Division of General Surgery — will be named after former department chairs Brian Blades, M.D.; Paul Adkins, M.D.; Ralph DePalma, M.D.; and Joseph Giordano, M.D.

“As we look forward to restructuring and expanding our surgical programs, it is important to recognize our past accomplishments and build on them,” said Sidawy, who came up with the idea to name the teams after his predessors. “We hope to provide our students, residents, and young faculty members a sense of continuity and historical perspective to encourage clinical achievement and academic pursuit.”

Brian Blades, M.D., 1946-1970

The first team was renamed “the Blades Team,” after the department’s longest tenured chair, Brian Blades, M.D. “Although this department has been in existence for many years — some argue since 1821 — it was Brian Blades [who initiated its] modern educational efforts,” said Sidawy. “Since then, the educational mission has been our most emphasized mission.”

Not only influential in his role at GW, Blades also contributed significantly to the field as whole. He is most recognized for developing a technique for lower lobe lobectomy, a surgical treatment for certain types of lung cancer. Before the 1940s, lobectomies were high-risk procedures performed by mass ligation, or tying, of the pulmonary artery, vein, and bronchus. But Blades and his partner Edward Kent, M.D., developed a method of ligation that involves the individual dissection, transaction, and closure of the artery, vein, and bronchus. After working with 83 cadavers, Blades and Kent treated 18 patients without a single mortality or empyema (a type of lung infection).

“This was a phenomenal statistic for the time, when mortality rates were up to about 20, 25 percent for that operation, and empyemas occurred in about half the patients,” said Fred Brody, M.D., associate professor of Surgery and of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and a member of the Blades Team. “This set the bar very high, and is a standard that is held today for lobectomies.”

Paul C. Adkins, M.D. 1970-1980

Team two was renamed “The Adkins Team,” in honor of Paul Adkins, M.D., who was an expert in lung surgery, esophageal surgery, and hiatal hernia. During his decade as chair, Adkins “ascended to the top of the thoracic surgery world,” said Paul Lin, M.D., associate professor of Surgery and member of the Adkins Team. A mentor to future chairs Ralph DePalma and Joseph Giordano, Adkins “was as well known for his teaching as his surgical leadership,” added Lin.

But Adkins’ story is also a tragic one. Like many surgeons of the time, he was a heavy smoker. After a drop in his golf game, a loss of focus, and a persistent cough persuaded him to get a chest x-ray, Adkins diagnosed himself with lung cancer, saying “I am looking at my own obituary.” Despite chemotherapy, Adkins died four months later at age 55. “Ironically and interestingly, he had done prior research on the fast doubling times of lung tumors, only to witness this firsthand,” said Lin.

Ralph G. DePalma, M.D., 1982-1992

Ralph DePalma, M.D., the namesake of “the DePalma Team,” was born in New York, where he remained throughout his surgical residency. He served in the U.S. Air Force as a flight surgeon, and later worked at Case Western Reserve, where “it became apparent that he had a love not only for research, but also for surgical education,” said K. Vaziri, M.D., assistant professor of Surgery and representative from the DePalma Team.

In 1982, DePalma became chair of the GW Department of Surgery, where he instituted the mandatory research year(s) for residents — a requirement that remains today. “Not only did he improve the quality of people coming to this program, but he also improved the fellowships that our chief residents obtained [and] improved their ability to become academic surgeons in the future,” said Vaziri. “As a result, we can now proudly point to the research production and publications of all of our residents, as well as follow their academic careers.”

Through the years, DePalma’s research has focused on atherosclerosis, vasculogenic impotence, Venous disease, and the role of iron and iron stores in atherosclerosis. He demonstrated atherosclerotic plaque regression in response to lowered serum cholesterol, identified that continued cigarette smoking was a major factor in post-operative aortic graft occlusion, and remains an active contributor to the field, currently serving as the National Director of Surgery at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Joseph Giordano, M.D., 1992-2010

The next and final team was named for the department’s immediate past chair, Joseph Giordano, M.D. Giordano’s interest in vascular surgery was piqued at the U.S. Army Institute of Research at Walter Reed, “where he worked with some of the pioneers in the field of vascular surgery, [a field] that had so rapidly developed as a very tragic, but nonetheless useful, result of the Vietnam War,” said Stanley Knoll, M.D., clinical professor of Surgery and Team Giordano member.

While chair, Giordano developed the GW trauma center and led the trauma team that saved the life of President Ronald Reagan. “Then, what he did was something that could not be measured in terms of its importance,” continued Knoll. “He built on the presentations you have seen.” Giordano expanded the clinical training and excellence that was set up by Dr. Blades and continued by Dr. Adkins, and also advanced the research initiatives of Dr. DePalma. Most significantly, said Knoll, Giordano is remembered for leading the department — which was recently ranked 12th of 256 residencies nationwide — to educational superiority.

Giordano’s impact was further honored by the announcement of a new award in his name. The Joseph M. Giordano Award will recognize a humanistic surgeon or resident who demonstrates integrity, excellence, compassion, altruism, respect, empathy, and service — or “the virtues held and honored by Dr. Giordano,” said Christy Teal, M.D., director of the GW Breast Care Center, associate director of Surgery, and chair of the award committee.

Ultimately, it is Giordano’s humanistic spirit that inspired the creation of the award, said Teal. Throughout his life, Giordano has been consistently dedicated to humanitarian activities that began with missions in Haiti and Honduras as a medical student and resident, and continues with projects in Guatemala to this day. “Dr. Giordano has always manifested humanitarian spirit in the ways in which he deals with people,” said Teal. “He looks for the good in everyone, and makes individuals feel good about themselves and those around them. He is a true consensus builder, which proved to be an exceptional attribute to his leadership style. Dr. Giordano is indeed a humanist.”

Though Giordano’s is a tough act to follow, Sidawy is prepared to do so with respect for the past and confidence in the future. Among his priorities, he intends to grow the faculty, establish programs of excellence among the divisions, and incorporate clinical, education, and research aspects into each division. In addition to reorganization, he announced plans to create new divisions, including one dedicated to surgical education.

“This department has an excellent history of accomplishments, and I intend to build on it,” he concluded. “I feel quite fortunate and proud to be given the opportunity to lead this department [and] to work with an excellent group of surgeons.”