By Kathy Day
Count on Dr. Brent Eastman to put his own mark on each challenge he tackles.
The soon-to-be-retired chief medical officer and corporate senior vice president of Scripps Health recently stepped into the top leadership spot of the American College of Surgeons, which will mark its centennial under his guidance.
When he gave his presidential address at the very formal convocation in September – “full of pomp and circumstance” — he said he did three things never done before.
The audience consisted of 1,377 new fellows who, according to the ACS website, qualify for membership based on “the surgeon’s education and training, professional qualifications, surgical competence, and ethical conduct (which) have passed a rigorous evaluation.”
While preparing for his presentation, Eastman surveyed all of the new fellows so he could tell them who they are. What he learned via a SurveyMonkey poll is that average age of the fellows was 41, they had been practicing for four years or more, 300 were women and 232 new international fellows represented 49 countries; the rest are residents of the U.S. and Canada.
And when he started his speech titled “The Next Hundred Years,” the internationally- recognized trauma surgeon asked them to take a minute and introduce themselves to their colleagues to their right and left.
The leaders of the organization seated behind him were taken by surprise as murmurs of introduction took over the room, but he had a point to make.
“One of the two of you may be president of the American College of Surgeons in about 31 years – or it might be you,” he said last week as he talked about his presentation.
The third thing was to have a friend, Father Rick Frechette, who runs an orphanage in Haiti, deliver the invocation that had traditionally been done by a surgeon.
Eastman and his wife, Sarita, had known Frechette and supported his orphanage and pediatric hospital for years, and also saw him when Freschette led a team from Scripps and others from the American College of Surgeons to care for victims of the 2010 earthquake.
Part of Eastman’s message to the audience was about “collective intelligence,” noting that a key part of harnessing the power of people to solve a problem as a group involves emotional intelligence, which has a high correlation with women.
He used the discussion to emphasize that the key to “having a successful team, in and out of the operating room, isn’t just about having smart people – it’s about having people who work well together.”
Eastman has built his career on that philosophy and has been surrounded by successful women, including his wife, a well known developmental behavioral pediatrician and an author. Her first book was about her mother, Anita Figueredo – one of San Diego’s first female surgeons and her husband’s first partner – and, more recently, she wrote “Good Company,” a history of Scripps Health.
They met while responding to a “code blue” while he was on assignment at the Veterans Administration Hospital in San Francisco during his fourth year at the University of California at San Francisco, where she was also a medical student.
Three weeks later they were engaged. They came to San Diego to cover Sarita’s parents’ practice – her father was a pediatrician – while they went on a sabbatical and stayed, taking jobs at Scripps.
As he learned more about trauma surgery and the medical system, he became more involved in finding ways to improve both. In 1984, he was a co-founder of the countywide trauma system that today is regarded as a model for the country and has advised communities around the world about setting up their own systems. And he has played a significant role in leading the reorganization of Scripps Health into a unified system aimed at providing better patient care throughout the county.
“Scripps Health has been the platform for all of my surgical endeavors, both clinically since 1972 and as chief medical officer since 1996,” he noted in an e-mail. “Scripps has fully supported me, from my role in the founding of the San Diego Trauma System in 1984 to my current position as President of the American College of Surgeons.”
A native of Wyoming who had rarely left the state until he headed for medical school in 1962, he said he had known from an early age that he wanted to be a physician.
When he was 8, he had recurring abdominal pain which led to him having his appendix removed. When it turned out to be “normal,” the doctor told his parents to take him to a psychiatrist. But when his family doctor referred him to a surgeon in Utah, they found a blockage in his kidney. The surgeons who operated on him “saved my childhood” and inspired him to become a doctor, he said.
But it was a horrendous train crash – the Great Evanston Train Wreck of 1951 – that set him on the path to be a trauma surgeon. A train filled with physicians and their wives returning from an American College of Surgeons meeting in San Francisco plowed into the back of another train, derailing cars of both trains and killing a number of passengers.
As he stood by watching with his father, a locomotive engineer with Union Pacific, many of those surgeons who were uninjured or had minor injuries managed their way out of the wreckage to come to the aid of others. Many, Eastman noted, applied techniques they had just learned during the medical conference they had attended.
Still passionate about Wyoming, the Eastmans own a home in Jackson Hole that looks up at the Tetons. They visit whenever they can, taking time out to flyfish on the Snake River that runs through their neighbors’ property and to relax with their large circle of friends.
While attending the University of Wyoming he worked as a river guide in Jackson Hole with a friend who still owns the company.
His hours, though, kept him from something he had always wanted to do: Hike to the top of “The Grand” – the highest peak in Grand Teton National Park.
So just before heading west for medical school, he and several friends decided to tackle the summit. No big deal, really, except that they did what was normally a two-day hike in one night – summiting at midnight and getting back down the mountain to their jobs on the river the next morning.
As busy as he was in his youth, Eastman will probably have even less time for recreation in the coming year. While he talked about the next 100 years of surgery during his recent address, he is more immediately focused on his work over the next 12 months as president of a society he’s been associated with since 1976 when he became a fellow. His predecessor said the chairman is the force of the college; the president is the face.
And that face will be seen around the world a lot in the year to come. He’s already been to Edinburgh, Scotland, where he met with his counterparts in the Royal College of Surgeons and observed a liver transplant, and to London, where he was a guest of the Royal College of Surgeons of England.
With a bag always packed and ready to go, he left on Oct. 18 for Ottawa, Canada, and his future itinerary includes the Philippines, Mexico, Greece, Egypt, New Zealand, Japan and Brazil.
Sarita travels with him, he said, and he hopes she’ll be writing “The Year of the President.”