They are redefining the old adage, “Like father, like son”
As the chairman of the Department of Surgery and the director of surgical education for Overlook Medical Center, Paul Starker, MD, is accustomed to having a full calendar. But there was one date last fall, in particular, that kept grabbing Dr. Starker’s attention – not just because he was slated to perform a complex Whipple surgery that morning but also because, during that procedure, the eyes that would meet his across the surgical table would be both brand new and utterly familiar. It was on that day that he and his son, Lee, collaborated as colleagues in surgery for the very first time. “I fully expected to be amazed by his skills,” Paul says with pride.
Lee Starker, MD, PhD, a surgical oncologist, is a newer addition to the Overlook family; he returned last fall to his New Jersey roots, having completed his surgical residency at Yale-New Haven Hospital in Connecticut and receiving his PhD from Uppsala University in Sweden before traveling to Houston for his surgical oncology fellowship training at MD Anderson Cancer Center. It marked a homecoming of sorts to Overlook, too; during summers home from college, Lee worked in the hospital’s operating rooms as a scrub technician, to make sure he wanted to pursue a career as a surgeon. “I’m excited to be back, and to be part of a program that has positioned itself to help patients with complex surgical problems,” says Lee.
For Paul, seeing his son in surgical scrubs at the hospital has brought back memories of a much younger Lee. “He was always fixing things. I would bring home scrubs for him when he was a little kid and cut down the legs so he wouldn’t trip.”
That little kid has developed into an accomplished physician in his own right. “It has been gratifying to watch him develop into a superb young surgeon,” Paul says of Lee. “I came up in the field during a different time, into a different atmosphere.”
One thing that has remained the same, no matter the decade, is the need for surgeons to be as prepared as possible going into the OR. “My passion is quality. It’s what I live and practice,” Paul says, citing Overlook’s long-standing association with the American College of Surgeons’ National Surgical Quality Improvement Program®, the nation’s leading outcomes-based program to measure and improve the quality of surgical care. “As surgeons, we need to be emulating the safety of the airline industry. One of the reasons airlines are so safe is because pilots are on board. As surgeons, we need to board the plane with our patients. We have to have more of a philosophy about not ‘taking off’ until all of the items are checked. I use this in rounds all the time. I ask, ‘If you were a pilot on this airplane, would you take off and fly out over the Atlantic?’”
Lee appreciates all of the lessons his father has shared. His favorite: “Plan your act, act your plan, but always be ready to think on your feet because not every surgery will work out exactly as you planned. Always have a plan B.” It’s a lesson he heeds every time he scrubs in for surgery, says Lee.
And what lesson has the father learned from the son? “My wife, Alie, has always told all of us to enjoy the journey. Lee and all of my kids, actually, have shown me how to do that,” says Paul. At Overlook, it is clear that both father and son are enjoying the journey they are now taking together.