by Eleanor Ericson, RN and Lisa Hyde-Barrett, RN

In life there are many people that you come in contact with and a few that leave a lasting impression on you. Whether personally or professionally, these influencers can guide your life’s journey in ways that you never planned. Wherever you encounter them – in your youth or adulthood – they can become people whose qualities and approach to life you admire and want to emulate.

It has been two years since one of the pioneers in the treatment of malignant mesothelioma left this world. We would like to reflect upon what Dr. David Sugarbaker has taught us. He was known throughout the world as a world class thoracic surgeon, a teacher, and a man who was willing to push the envelope for greatness and a true leader. As nurses we were fortunate to know and work alongside him. As professionals his teachings were limitless. We would like to share a few things this man has taught us.

He taught us to listen to patients, despite what numbers and physical appearance might show, not ignoring the patient’s feelings and thoughts. Patient’s sometimes feel as if something is not right, and these intuitions cannot be ignored.

Hope was always in the equation. He knew that patients facing a rare disease need to have this in order to move forward. The odds can be stacked against you, but he encouraged all to keep an open mind. Every Tuesday during his new patient orientation he spoke about patients’ feelings – how these feelings should not go unacknowledged, and how they should be shared with support teams. He also shared that this is a family illness and we all need to take care of each other. We are sure these thoughts about family illness was where support teams were born.

Dr. Sugarbaker also knew how to treat each patient individually. He taught us that although the disease has symptoms that are similar, each patient’s disease is unique like someone’s own fingerprints. We were encouraged to find out about each patient, we asked questions about what brought them to seek medical attention, where are they from, what were their risks. All of this information became fascinating to us. We became passionate about these patients, and our business of the first aftercare for mesothelioma patients was initiated.

Overall the most important lesson to us of Dr. Sugarbaker’s legacy was to try to provide excellent care to these patients, and advocate for the patient and families when they were unsure of what direction to go. Dr. Sugarbaker is remembered by hundreds of doctors that he trained and inspired, as well as the thousands of patients and families that he touched. Today many professionals who care for mesothelioma patients have taken these lessons and incorporated them in their practice. 

To have made a difference is what we all strive for in our lives. Dr. David Sugarbaker made a difference.