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Surgeon helps restore cancer patients’ functionality

Nov. 15, 2018, 11:02 AM

Sarah Rohde, MD (photo by Susan Urmy)

by Matt Batcheldor

Sarah Rohde long had an interest in treating cancer, and her research during her undergraduate and medical school years at the University of Virginia underscored that. What she didn’t expect was to become a surgeon.

But the first time she stepped into an operating room, she knew. “It was that obvious to me,” she said.

Rohde, MD, assistant professor of Otolaryngology, came to Vanderbilt for a surgical internship and otolaryngology residency in 2009 and segued into a fellowship in head and neck surgical oncology and reconstructive microvascular surgery the following year. She has been at Vanderbilt ever since.

She specializes in treating cancers in the head, neck and thyroid. A large part of her practice is microvascular free flap reconstruction, or using other parts of the body to reconstruct tissue removed through surgery. For example, jaws can be reconstructed with portions of bones from the arm, leg or shoulder blade.

“They are very rewarding operations,” she said. “You are hoping to give back function that the cancer has taken away from them, and it is amazing what people’s bodies are able to do. They are able to relearn to talk or swallow or adjust to new ways of breathing or speech.”

Rohde appreciates the collaborative and educational aspects of working in an academic medical center. She considered going into private practice, but she found such fulfillment in caring for patients at Vanderbilt that she never left. She credits her mentor, James Netterville, MD, the Mark C. Smith Professor of Head and Neck Surgery, professor of Otolaryngology and associate director at the Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center.

“During her second year, even as a very junior resident, it was obvious to me that she was very gifted,” Netterville said. “I told her that God had blessed her with the gift of tremendous common sense and extraordinary surgical skills. It has been a great blessing to me to mentor her and observe her ascend to national and international respect as a head and neck, thyroid and reconstructive surgeon.”

Treating cancer is a challenging profession that isn’t for everyone. For Rohde, one of the most rewarding aspects of it is developing relationships with patients.

“Especially in head and neck cancer, we follow our patients after surgery, because one of the most important things is the physical examination of their airway and their throat and mouth,” she said. “I will see my patients over the course of those five years maybe 20 times, so you really get to know them.”

Her research includes working with the Department of Anesthesiology to develop a better predictor of which patients are at risk for prolonged hospitalization, in order to customize better care and streamline inpatient care.

Rohde’s work takes her across the country and the globe. On a national level, she works with the Endocrine Committee of the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery.

And her international work includes yearly surgical teaching trips to Kenya. Her 11 overseas teaching trips concentrate on thyroid surgery and microvascular reconstruction surgery.

Back at home, she is involved in other aspects of Vanderbilt. She is one of the first co-chairs of the Early Career Physician Council, founded in 2016 to create a dialogue between early career faculty and leadership. “I think that’s important because it has given a voice to young physicians, especially giving us access to the leaders of the hospital, whom we wouldn’t normally know or have access to,” she said.

“Sarah is remarkable,” said Ron Eavey, MD, Guy M. Maness Professor and chair of Otolaryngology and director of the Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center. “She was elected into the Faculty Senate almost immediately out of fellowship; that must be a land speed record. She is extremely appreciated by the residents. She is currently matriculating for her Master of Management in Healthcare Management (MMHC) degree at Vanderbilt University. And she is a great mom and wife and human being. Oh, and by the way, she is a great surgeon. We are very fortunate that she is on our Vanderbilt team.”

In addition, Rohde is on the admissions committee for the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, and is a portfolio coach, working closely with students to set goals and build their resume for residency.

“I really like what I do,” she said. “It can be hard at times, but it’s very rewarding. Besides the necessity of being in an academic center for what I practice, I love my involvement with the medical students, fellows and residents. They really add a lot to my practice and training them is very satisfying. Meanwhile, I’m passing it forward.”

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