Medical 05


David J Sugarbaker MD

August 5, 1953 ~ August 29, 2018 (age 65)

Dr. David John Sugarbaker born August 5, 1953 passed away on Wednesday August 29, 2018 in Houston, Texas.  David was a loving husband and devoted father of six and grandfather of four. He was Chief of the Division of General Thoracic Surgery and the Director of the Baylor College of Medicine Lung Institute at CHI St. Luke's Health–Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center in Houston and an internationally recognized thoracic surgeon specializing in the treatment of mesothelioma, the surgical management of malignant pleural mesothelioma, and treatment of complex thoracic cancers.

Dr. Sugarbaker grew up in Jefferson City, Missouri, the eighth of ten children of Dutch American descent to Everett Dornbush Sugarbaker (1910-2001), a cancer surgeon, and Geneva Ione Van Dyke, (1911-2015), a registered nurse. A family man from birth, he loved his six sisters and three brothers so very much and they were a huge part of his life always.

When he was young, Dave spent his time learning from his father in the operating room and visiting patients outside of town, initiating his interest in medicine and human biology. He also ran the family's 15-acre apple orchard, a massive endeavor through which he demonstrated the power of a sweaty brow and an almost other-worldly kind of perseverance and dedication. For the rest of his life, he had a special love of apples of all kinds.  

Despite having been dubbed a mediocre student in high school ("264 out of a class of 460"), Dave wound up at Wheaton College in Illinois and received his Bachelor of Science degree cum laude. Throughout his career as a teacher, mentor and parent, he would often use that as a testament to the power of hard work and the importance of seeing and seizing the opportunities that life brings you.

Dave went on to graduate at the top of his class from Cornell University Medical School as a member of the Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Society.  Shortly after, he married the love of his life and best friend, Linda Sterk from Grand Rapids Michigan, a registered nurse who attended Cornell Nursing School.

A natural born leader and motivator, Dr. Sugarbaker completed a residency in general surgery at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and one in cardiothoracic surgery at Toronto General Hospital where he served as chief resident. He then became chief resident in cardiac surgery at Toronto General Hospital and a resident in pediatric cardiac surgery at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Canada.

At age 35, Dr. Sugarbaker returned to the Brigham and Women's Hospital as Chief of the newly formed Division of Thoracic Surgery, where he served for 27 years. A master of organizational development with an entrepreneurial spirit, David built the program into one of the top in the world, creating a blueprint of progress and success for other programs to follow.

In 1992, Dr. Sugarbaker developed the first general thoracic surgical training track in the U.S. and went on to train over 80 residents, placing about two-thirds of his graduates into leading academic positions. He he was the Richard E. Wilson Chair Professor of Surgical Oncology at Harvard Medical School and a valued mentor and friend to countless physicians, supporting them throughout their careers around the world. According to Jacques Fontaine, a thoracic surgeon who trained under Dr. Sugarbaker, "His legacy will endure through the accomplishments of all the prominent thoracic surgeons he has trained. 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".

With his brilliant and creative mind, Dr. Sugarbaker personally developed several unique instruments for lung operations.  He was an early enthusiast and practitioner of minimally invasive techniques and a pioneer in Video-Assisted Thoracic Surgery (VATS). Dr. Sugarbaker also founded and led the Surgery Committee for the National Cooperative Clinical Trials Group, now the Alliance for Clinical Trials. His accomplishments include the first lung transplant and first heart-lung transplant in Massachusetts, as well as New England’s first triple organ transplant and the first transplantation of four organs from a single donor.

In 2002, Dr. Sugarbaker founded the International Mesothelioma Program (IMP) with the central goal of finding a cure for the disease. This was a great passion of his as a champion of hope. He developed the techniques of cytoreductive surgery and was the first to introduce the goal of macroscopic complete resection. He also defined, perfected and taught a new surgery known as the extra-pleural pneumonectomy (EPP), which has subsequently been globally adopted. The program remains the largest of its kind and attracts patients from all over the world.  Recognized for his efforts, Dr. Sugarbaker received the Pioneer Award from Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation in 2012.


In 2014, Dr. Sugarbaker arrived in Houston, Texas to bring his skills and talents to the Baylor College of Medicine community.  He founded the Baylor College of Medicine Lung Institute, was the first Chief of the new Division of General Thoracic Surgery in the Michael DeBakey Department of Surgery, and established the Mesothelioma Treatment Center (MTC). Dr. Sugarbaker loved his years in Texas and considered the Baylor medical community as his family. Over the course of his career, Dr. Sugarbaker published over 300 scholarly articles and authored Adult Chest Surgery, the definitive text book in his field. 

Although his role as physician, teacher, and mentor was important to him, David's family was his first priority.  In fact, his prominence as a surgeon paled in comparison to his love and devotion as a father, husband and friend.  He raised four boys and two girls: Rena, David, Deborah, Peter, Nathanael and Evert, whom he guided and loved with all his heart. As a spiritual man who grew up in the Southern Baptist church, a strong faith in God was what he considered to be the most important thing to pass down. Through the years he was a true seeker, constantly expanding his conceptions and connection to his Creator, and encouraging others along the path. His favorite quotes were "Expect good things" and "Bring everyone with you."

David really had an uncanny knack to live in two worlds simultaneously--the world of academic medicine, where he saw the sickest of sick and those given no hope, and a world where he taught his children and their friends how to build stone walls, cook old family recipes, raise koi in a pond that he dug out himself, plant an orchard, and give a proper handshake. For Dr. Sugarbaker there was a life lesson in everything, which he picked up with his keen insight and shared in his natural way. His fantastic sense of humor and bright shining spirit will remain an intact legacy through his children who will pass it to the next generation. He was an adored "Pop Pop" to his three granddaughters, Annika, Geneva & Grace, and his namesake, Dave Sugarbaker.

David loved summers spent at the family cottage in Lake Ozark, Missouri and collecting rare antiquities from around the world. He relished evenings at home in his study which was full of historical relics, beautiful artwork, and books by Winston Churchill and about the history of war. He was as comfortable in a white coat or 3-piece suit with his pocket-watch, as he was in old fishing clothes. An avid collector, Dr. Sugarbaker loved to take one or two of his children along to an auction on a crisp autumn New England afternoon just to check out the pieces. Over 30 years, he acquired quite a collection of clocks. He tinkered with the mechanics of each timepiece sometimes winding them to relax after a long day. 


During his illness, his signature charisma, magnetism, humor, positive attitude, and generosity of spirit remained intact. The staff looked forward to visiting his room because Dr. Sugarbaker was so full of life despite the circumstance. He would engage everyone, asking them how their day was going, what niche they wanted to find in their career, or sometimes just a simple "I love you man." He had great respect and gratitude for those who took care of him during that difficult time.

Dr. Sugarbaker loved classic country music, Mozart, and Handel's Messiah played at high volume, throwing big holiday parties, family gatherings with roaring fireplace fires, conversation and games of chess, always making sure everyone was connecting and having a good time. Dr. Sugarbaker had a magnetic energy that let you feel his strong presence. He loved people--sharing ideas, laughing, and creating. He was extremely fiery and his love of life and learning was infectious.

As his daughter Debbie wrote to him upon his passing, voicing for his entire family: "Dearest, dearest Dad. I am so grateful to have been in your crew. You were the motor for our boat, the captain of our ship, and your absence in this physical world is a huge loss for our family, the medical community you impacted so greatly, and all the people and families you changed through your work. I am already aching for you - your hugs and our laughs. May your soul soar in peace to the highest heavens."

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