Dr Kurt Newman: surgeon inspired by being a patient

Profile: Some of Dr Kurt Newman's surgical success stories may sound like plots made for a TV medical drama. But his new role as chief executive of Children's National Medical Centre in the US offers fresh challenges with new realities.

Illustration by Chris Burke for The National
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Dr Kurt Newman was a newly qualified attending surgeon at the Children's National Medical Center (CNMC) in Washington when a colleague handed him her beeper and went to get her hair done.

Almost simultaneously, a 14-year-old girl was shot in the chest at a nearby playground and rushed to the centre's emergency room, where Dr Newman had to make a quick decision.

"This girl was dying, which is the classic indication to open someone's chest," he recalls. That is what he did.

After plugging a hole in the girl's heart with his finger, Dr Newman helped a cardiac surgeon to repair the damage.

Against all the odds, she survived and, even more improbable, walked out of the hospital soon after. Last year, more than two decades after the horrific incident, that patient emailed Dr Newman, now 60, out of the blue to thank him again and to tell him about her life.

"That's one of the bittersweet things of becoming a CEO, and not developing those new relationships with families, because they're so satisfying," says Dr Newman, who five months ago was promoted from CNMC's surgeon-in-chief to chief executive.

"Being the president and CEO of a hospital is not anything I had ever aspired to be," he said. "Being chief of surgery was the job that I had aspired to."

But before Dr Newman could secure his dream job - and help to create the CNMC's Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation - he had to scrub in with the juniors.

His political science and history major from the University of North Carolina was certainly not enough. And although he was gripped by "very appealing and dramatic" medical TV programmes from the 1960s, including Dr Kildare and Ben Casey, it was a summer job as a hospital orderly in college that triggered his passion for "the human side of medicine".

Ultimately, becoming a patient when he was in his 20s sealed his fate as a surgeon-to-be.

"I had to have my thyroid removed," he said, recalling how caring his doctor was. "It turned out to be cancer, and the impact of that experience with that surgeon changed my view of surgery."

It took about a decade of education, including medical school plus residency and fellowship programmes, before Dr Newman was hired as a staff paediatric surgeon at CNMC at age 32. "I came in and it just felt like a family," he says.

Little did he know, then, how true that would become. Alison, a neonatal intensive care nurse, caught his eye in the hospital's corridors. "I was interested in her, but she wasn't interested in me. It took me a little while." They began dating, were married in 1992 and went on to raise two sons.

As years passed, Dr Newman delved into medical research while taking on leadership roles in the world of paediatric surgery. A decade ago, he achieved his dream of becoming the hospital's surgeon-in-chief and set out to "make it the best surgery programme in the world".

"We had a ways to go."

Which is where Joseph Robert, and the Government of Abu Dhabi, came in.

Robert, who died of brain cancer in December, was the founding chairman of the US-UAE Business Council, which promoted bilateral commercial opportunities. After giving CNMC US$25 million (Dh91.8m) to help create Dr Newman's vision of a state-of-the-art surgery programme, Robert challenged him to make it the best globally.

Together, in 2008, the men conceptualised an institute for paediatric surgical innovation. "I had been very incremental in thinking we just need to add this here, and add this there," recalls Dr Newman.

"The challenge Joe had given me was … to think 10, 15 years [from] now. What would surgery on a child look like?"

The vision depicted doctors providing more precise, less invasive and ultimately pain-free surgeries for children. Through his connections, Robert then shared their ideas with officials in the UAE's capital, eventually leading to a $150m donation in 2009 - one of the largest contributions for paediatric medical research.

Dr Newman says he regards the funding as less of a "gift" and more of an "investment", part of which outfitted the 6,000-square-metre Sheikh Zayed facility. Its design aims to enhance interdisciplinary collaboration among surgeons, geneticists, specialists in pain medicine and bio-engineers who tinker with robotics.

"It's all in one space, with big white boards like you'd see out in Silicon Valley and coffee stations strategically placed so people collect, create conversation and get away from cubicles or offices where people are divided," says Dr Newman.

Most of the grant will train employees with fellowships, including medical residents from the UAE, as well as create programmes and launch international conferences to share research discoveries.

In Abu Dhabi, Dr Newman and others from CNMC have been meeting with specialists at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City and Corniche Hospital, as well as the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi, to tackle local problems such as asthma and obesity, and to help to implement mass screening of cardiac disease among infants.

"One of the exciting things about working with the health authority here, and doctors and hospitals, is that you can really implement programmes across a broad range of the population and see the positive benefits of that," says Dr Newman. "Many times, it's a lot more difficult in a place like the United States to have that comprehensive approach."

The Sheikh Zayed institute has also created a mobile-phone app that provides information about concussions, which parents can pull up on a sports field if their child has suffered a blow to the head.

Another app - conceived by a nurse - is being developed to score sick children at risk of cardiac arrest, and to prevent future attacks.

Dr Peter Kim, who took over running the institute from Dr Newman, says his chief's penchant for detail extends past precision skills in surgery to areas such as ensuring the hospital's stairways are repainted in a timely manner. "He knows all the employees' names," adds Dr Kim, "and always tries to motivate people".

Even though Dr Newman is still new to the top job at CNMC, he has a bold vision for its future. "I think we achieved our goal to create the best surgery programme for children in the world, by having the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation be the engine for change," he says. "So now I want to do that for our whole hospital. We have some ambitious goals."

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