Leading Surgical Oncologist Installed as Dillon Chair

Posted in GUMC Stories

MAY 18, 2015—Georgetown University officially installed Waddah B. Al-Refaie, MD, FACS (new window), as the John S. Dillon Chair in Surgical Oncology during a luncheon investiture ceremony May 11. Family members, mentors, colleagues and friends from around the world gathered at Georgetown’s Hariri Building to honor Al-Refaie, along with the physician who bears the Chair’s name.

The late Kathrine Folger established the John S. Dillon Chair in Surgical Oncology in 1988 in gratitude for care she had received at Georgetown University Hospital. Dillon was a surgeon there and taught medical students at Georgetown University School of Medicine from1963 to 1996.

Dillon attended the investiture ceremony with his wife, Mary Frances, and several of their children and grandchildren. Lee Folger represented the Folger family.

In his welcoming remarks, Howard J. Federoff, MD, PhD, executive vice president for health sciences at Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC), said Al-Refaie “… brings enormous talent and dedication to his new role and all of us, myself included, look forward to seeing him help shape this future together.”

Big Shoes to Fill

Speakers reflected on Dillon’s enormous impact on his students’ surgical education – and to the surgical field broadly. “Where he really became critical to American surgery was as an American surgical educator,” said Stephen R.T. Evans, MD, chief medical officer for MedStar Health and himself one of Dillon’s surgical trainees.

Evans spoke fondly of Dillon’s weekly exercises – every Saturday morning at Georgetown, for four hours, over 30 years, Dillon assembled 3rd and 4th year medical students for a rigorous Socratic exercise in case presentation. And as Evans recalled, these were not “soft” exercises.

Evans drew a clear parallel between the younger and older surgeons. Filling Dillon’s shoes calls for “an individual committed, much like John was, to thinking much more about those around him who he has a commitment to train and educate – whether they are students, or residents, or junior faculty – than anybody else. And that is the link between Waddah Al-Refaie and John Dillon.”

Georgetown President John J. DeGioia, PhD, echoed this connection between past and present. “Dr. Dillon is one of the most distinguished members in the history of our medical center community,” he said. “His stature as a teacher earned the lifelong respect of all of his students.”

“This chair will deepen, for our department of surgery, and indeed for our entire medical center, our opportunities for research, for discovery – opportunities that will lead to new treatments, to new cures, to new individualized treatment plans, and patient care,” DeGioia said.

Robust national search

Lynt Johnson, MD, MBA, chairman of surgery at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, said the search and recruitment process that led to Al-Refaie’s appointment was a rigorous one that began with 75 applications from surgeons around the country. Al-Refaie came to Georgetown from the University of Minnesota, “where he quickly established himself as one of the rising stars of surgical oncology in the nation,” Johnson said.

At Minnesota, Al-Refaie had secured funding for surgical outcomes research – a precursor to the newly established MedStar-Georgetown Surgical Outcomes Research Center. “His research expertise is recognized nationally and internationally in the burgeoning field of disparities in cancer care for vulnerable populations and he has been awarded several internal and external grants to support his endeavors,” Johnson said.

“Something outstanding”

An early mentor of Al-Refaie, surgeon Hilal Al-Sayer, MD, president of the Kuwait Red Crescent Society, spoke warmly of his protégé, who approached Al-Sayer for advice soon after completing his medical training at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. (Al-Refaie is a native of Kuwait). “I had a lot of residents passing through my tenure when I was chief of surgery in my department, but Waddah was something different,” Al-Sayer said.

“In the ward rounds, he knew everything about his patients, even their lab results. And when there was a clinical/ pathological meeting, or a morbidity/mortality conference, and he had a case, he prepared it beautifully, and he had all the research done and answered all the questions. He is something outstanding,” he said.

VIDEO: Meet Dr. Al-Refaie (new window)

Al-Refaie (new window) expressed his gratitude for the appointment and provided an overview of the work ahead.

In his family, service to others was paramount, which is what led Al-Refaie to medicine, he said. His mother, an academician, and his father, a geologist, inspired his love of learning, though not in a prescriptive manner. “I remember my father telling me, ‘Son, follow your passion. We will support you,’” Al-Refaie said.

This credo, in turn, has provided the inspiration for his academic work. “We tell our junior faculty, residents and students; we tell our researchers, ‘Follow your passions, we will support you.’”

Al-Refaie articulated the three goals for surgical oncology at Georgetown:

  • Become a premier regional and international surgical oncology program,
  • Make significant contributions to the research mission of GUMC and MedStar Health in surgical oncology,
  • Train next generation of academic surgeons.

He emphasized the need for a robust surgical outcomes portfolio. “In the U.S., there are over 2 million cancer patients, and up to 40 percent will need surgery. We need to help surgeons help their patients do a better job in terms of access, quality and outcomes,” Al-Refaie said.

“We’re positioning ourselves to be leaders, not followers.”

VIDEO: Watch Dr. Al-Refaie’s investiture ceremony (new window)

By Todd Bentsen
GUMC Communications