Minnesota surgeon Dr. Henry Buchwald has been called the father of metabolic surgery. He has saved lives, pioneered procedures and advocated for a field that was once considered marginal.
But despite all the accolades, Buchwald is adamant that he would have accomplished little without the support of his colleagues and his passion for his work.
He began his career as an extern at the University of Minnesota, and he’s never left. In fact, at 87, he still works at the U, in a small office in the Phillips-Wagensteen Building.
“I can do what I do, I enjoy doing it, and I hope I’m still contributing,” Buchwald said.
The world’s most renowned surgery association thinks so. Recently, Buchwald was the recipient of an international medical award from the American College of Surgeons.
“I was very honored,” he said of the Jacobson Innovation Award, which he received surrounded by family members at a ceremony in Chicago. The award, named for Dr. Julius H. Jacobson II, honors those who have made innovative contributions to the field of surgery.
A metabolic surgeon operates on a normal organ system to achieve a health gain, in contrast to typical surgery, which deals with organs that have gone bad, said Buchwald.
Buchwald’s specialties, including bariatric (weight loss) surgery, were once dismissed as fringe fields. Today, they are widely performed and recognized because of Buchwald’s work, said Dr. Marshall Schwartz, a friend of more than 50 years who nominated him for the award.
“His contributions to metabolic surgery ... had a huge impact on this field,” Schwartz said.
It’s important to Buchwald that the recognition is shared with others.
“This award is for many, many people who have tried to get an understanding and an acceptance of what we call metabolic surgery,” Buchwald said.
Buchwald was 6 when he and his family fled Austria to escape the Nazis. They lived on Long Island, N.Y.; not even the local school system knew he was there.
“I didn’t speak English, so I spent my first year, at age 6, unloading fishing boats and bringing home fish for dinner, learning the colorful language of the fishermen,” he said.
Once he was in school, Buchwald enjoyed everything from science to literature, a pattern that continued when he went on to Columbia University in New York, then on to the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, where he had to decide what to specialize in.
“One night, my wife and I, we went down to Lake Otsego. And I said, ‘You know, I gotta make a decision. What am I going to do in life?’ ” Buchwald said. “I made these long lists, and all the rational decisions said go into internal medicine. I asked my wife, Emily, I said, ‘What should I do,’ and she said, ‘Follow your heart.’ And within one heartbeat, I threw away the lists and said, ‘Surgery.’ So I’ve always said, maybe I didn’t pick surgery, but surgery picked me, it felt like home to me.”
After medical school and a stint in the Air Force, he learned about a program at the U that would allow him to practice surgery and do research. He jumped at the chance, and he’s been here ever since.
In his years in Minnesota, Buchwald has conducted million-dollar studies with funding from the National Institutes of Health, and he’s saved the lives of people like Sheila Sorensen. Sorensen, of Idaho, had familial hyperlipidemia, a high-cholesterol disease that can develop into coronary artery disease. Sorensen underwent a successful partial ileal bypass, also known as the Buchwald procedure, which surgically lowers cholesterol.
“I’m here because of him,” Sorensen said.
She has gone on to get her pilot’s license, sky-dive, run marathons, ski and serve in the Idaho legislature — all things that would have been impossible before her surgery.
Buchwald says his accomplishments would be impossible without his love for the field. It frustrates him when people settle for jobs that don’t make them happy.
“The idea is that from Monday to Friday, they’re unhappy. So take joy in your work. Do it to the best of your ability, whatever that is,” he said. “You’re going to spend more time at work than you are going to really spend with your spouse, sleeping, eating. So find work that you’re going to have joy in.”