Meet the Inaugural Recipient of the Denton A. Cooley Fellowship

Texas Heart Institute (THI) was proud to host the inaugural recipient of the Denton A. Cooley Fellowship this Spring. The fellowship, which is funded and administered by the AATS Foundation, provides an educational experience for North American cardiothoracic surgeons who are in their final year of residency or have recently completed their residency. The fellow spends up to four weeks studying at THI, learning from our team of world-renowned physicians and researchers.

Adam Protos, MD, was the inaugural recipient of this Honoring Our Mentors Fellowship Program. We had the opportunity to interview Dr. Protos about his fellowship experience and how he plans to incorporate his learnings from the two weeks he spent at THI in the Texas Medical Center.

Q: Dr. Protos, why did you apply to the fellowship?

A: As a young surgeon coming out of training, you’re acutely aware of how short your training has been. When you’re going through the training, it seems to really last, but in reality its just a grain of sand in terms of your career and how much there is to learn. Don’t get me wrong, I was very well trained, but I wanted to augment that experience to see how other people did things. I felt like it would be valuable for a new, young heart surgeon to go to a world-class institution like THI to learn from some of the best in the industry, and then to assimilate some of their wisdom in my own practice. The Denton A. Cooley Fellowship offered just that.

Q: How did you feel about being the first recipient?

A: I was surprised and happy to have been selected, but I also felt pressed to make sure I made the most out of the experience. I wanted to get every drop of experience out of my time at THI. Every little nuance or subtlety could help me be a better surgeon for my patients, and I didn’t want to miss a thing.

Q: What was the biggest surprise or insight from your time at THI? What learnings do you plan to incorporate in your own practice?

A: You aren’t quite sure what’s going to happen in a room with someone like Dr. Coselli or Drs. Lamelas or Sugarbaker. These are leaders in their field, expert surgeons who have perfected the traditional methods and are blazing new trails to improve cardiac operations. Do they approach cases differently? Ask different questions or have different tools? It was reaffirming to observe the similarities between their approaches and what I learned in my training.

Are there differences? Sure, but the differences were in the subtleties. The way they set up on OR, how they reinforce the proximal anastomosis of their dissection, or how they dissect the arch vessels. The differences in their techniques were subtle, but they were some of the biggest insights from my experience as I felt they really helped to elevate the quality of care for patients.

Also, all of the surgeons I observed were very in tune and in sync with their teams and the way they took care of their patients. Their smoothness and focus really stood out to me. These are a few of the things I plan to incorporate into my own practice going forward.

Q: What was one of the biggest takeaways from the fellowship?

A: One thing I became aware of after the conclusion of the experience was the invaluable nature of watching these master surgeons apply their clinical decision-making. Being able to be a part of those discussions enabled me to adopt some of that same wisdom in making decisions for my own patients, saving them, and myself, from some of the pitfalls of having to reinvent the wheel.

Q: What advice would you share with future Denton A. Cooley fellows?

A: First, take advantage. The biggest thing I was impressed by is how approachable everyone was; so put yourself out there, ask questions. Everyone I observed at their core wants to be good a doctor and surgeon, and they want to teach others how to do the same. They’re very forthcoming, so take advantage. That’s why they put this fellowship together.

Also, for those of us who didn’t train in the Texas Medical Center, you know about the history of Dr. Cooley and other cardiac pioneers, but the gravity of it can be lost on you. When you are touring the various locations and really observing the history, you see just how far we’ve come. It makes you realize, the people that came before us, we owe them a huge debt of gratitude because their work has enabled us to do operations that were just a fantasy 50 years ago.

A number of these master surgeons and pioneers of the industry are still here, working and teaching in places like THI, and they have a lot they can pass along to the next generation of physicians. So we should embrace the spirit of this fellowship and honor these great mentors. An experience like this is invaluable and temporary; it won’t be here forever, so take advantage.

We’re excited to follow Dr. Protos as he continues to grow in his career as a heart surgeon with St. Dominic’s Cardiovascular Surgery Associates in Jackson, MS.

If you are interested in learning more about the Denton A. Cooley Honoring Our Mentors Fellowship, you can visit our fellowship overview page.