PHYSICIAN SPOTLIGHT: Betsy Tuttle-Newhall, MD
It takes a measure of courage to venture down a path so few have tread before. But for J.E. “Betsy” Tuttle-Newhall, MD, forging a career as a female surgeon has been about following her own professional passions — while also pioneering new paths for those that would follow her.
“When you don’t have many mentors, you look ahead of you and say, ‘Is it possible?’” said Tuttle-Newhall, professor of surgery and division chief of abdominal transplant surgery at Saint Louis University School of Medicine.
“In the past, it was difficult for women both to get into surgery and to stay in,” she said. “The question’s really relevant: ‘Are we there yet?’ In terms of equity in access, training and leadership positions in surgery.
“Some say yes, when you compare today to the past. Then some of us say no – not just for women, but for other minorities as well.”
The discussion of gender and minority equity in surgery is among topics set to be highlighted at this month’s meeting of the Association of Women Surgeons, an international association for which Tuttle-Newhall currently serves as president.
Tuttle-Newhall has been involved with AWS since the late 1980s; a decade later, the group had gained enough momentum to have its own governor position on the American College of Surgeons.
“Surgery, as a field, needs to continue to shed its historically unfriendly image to women-in-training in order to move into a new and productive era in the new millennium,” Tuttle-Newhall said. “The Association of Women Surgeons is working hard through its efforts with the American College of Surgeons to address any issue that may be perceived as barriers to anyone who wants to become a surgeon.”
In her own career, such barriers have included subtle slights from male colleagues about the financial cost of her six-week maternity leave. During her training, she was at times directed to a specialty in breast surgery or actively discouraged from a career in surgery altogether. Other male mentors, however, offered support and encouragement.
“People make assumptions about everybody – not just women,” she said. “But I was the first female surgery attending at Duke to have children, the first to get tenure and the longest-standing woman on faculty there in surgery. It was a good experience.”
Tuttle-Newhall left her position at Duke to take on the challenge of reinvigorating the transplant program at SLU as its division chief.
“They have a wonderful medicine program at SLU including a very strong hepatology program. They treat more liver patients here than almost anywhere else in the country,” she said. “But over the past three or four years, there had been some fundamental changes in federal guidelines for how a transplant program should be run. The program here, similar to others around the country, simply hadn’t kept up very well with the lightning-fast changes in the regulatory environment for transplant.”
Since coming on board in 2009, Tuttle-Newhall has in many ways recreated the process she’d led others through as a consultant on organ transplantation for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services since 2005. In 2007, she was project director for the Transplant Growth and Management Collective, a peer-assist program through the Health Resources and Services Administration.
“We had been going around helping transplant centers,” she said. “So when I came here, I followed the rules I’d set out for everybody else around the country.”
That process started with the challenge of building the right transplant team at SLU.
“We had to make some changes, and some were very painful,” she said. “Putting new people in positions and taking old people out of those positions was very hard for them, hard for me and hard for the institution. But you have to do the right thing for the patient.”
Her new team includes new surgeons and coordinators, as well as the addition of a new transplant administrator and infrastructure. Her partners in transplant surgery, Mark Dy-Liacco, MD, and Peter Horton, MD, each perform full laparoscopic kidney retrievals for living donors, complex hepatobiliary surgery and minimally invasive liver surgery. Meanwhile, she and Horton both have pediatric experience and support the transplant programs at Cardinal Glennon Medical Center.
“We are aggressive about trying to match folks on the transplant list and get them off dialysis, and about providing the best service possible to our patients with liver failure,” Tuttle-Newhall said. “It’s our goal to build a top-tier transplant program to serve our patient population.”
A national lecturer, Tuttle-Newhall is the author of more than 85 publications that include abstracts, research articles, book chapters and books. Her primary areas of research include immunotherapy for transplant recipients; the critical care of immunosuppressed transplant patients; organ allocation policies and the governance structures of academic medical centers.
Tuttle-Newhall trained in abdominal transplant surgery during a fellowship at Duke, where she stayed on to join the faculty and enjoyed a 15-year tenure. She had also completed a fellowship in surgical critical care at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Her residency training included a year at the University of West Virginia. She completed her residency in surgery through Harvard Medical School at New England Deaconess Hospital, where she was chief resident in surgery. Her six years in Boston also included a year at Children’s Hospital.
A native of North Carolina, Tuttle-Newhall was raised in the small town of Madison, where her mother served as the state’s first female mayor. She completed her undergraduate studies in biology at Wake Forest University, followed by medical school at Wake Forest’s Bowman Gray School of Medicine.
Tuttle-Newhall is married to SLU urologist Phil Newhall, MD. They have two children, Gracie, 11, and Tom, 8.
When she’s not working – or helping with second-grade spelling words or fifth-grade math homework – Tuttle-Newhall enjoys walking, golfing and travel. She also unwinds on an annual retreat for meditation and yoga.
She and her family are part of Union Avenue Christian Church and have become involved with its ministry programs, including inner-city outreach.