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Doerr led expansion of RGH surgery programs

When Ralph Doerr M.D. was 15 years old, he landed a job at a Bridgeport, Conn., hospital as a porter. While sudsing and rinsing the hospital’s walls, he discovered that he liked being in a medical setting.

  "And every job I had following that was always in the hospital," says Doerr, who worked for a decade as chief of surgery at Rochester General Hospital before retiring in December. "It was where I was most comfortable."

  As the first person in his family to finish high school, Doerr relied on his instincts when considering a medical career. Assisting in a surgery in 1971 helped crystallize his plans.

  "It was the one field where I could combine science, which I really enjoyed, with helping people," Doerr says. He still covers general surgery calls at RGH.

  During his tenure as chief of surgery, Doerr advocated for growth and change. He helped lay the foundation for the hospital’s nationally rated robotic surgery program for urologic, gynecologic and colorectal cancer treatment, and he recruited a leader for the bariatric surgery program.

 Under Doerr’s watch, the number of employed clinical surgeons at RGH rose from three to 13. In 2005, he helped establish a general surgery office at RGH’s Newark-Wayne Community Hospital, which he initially staffed while maintaining a full slate of clinical and administrative duties at RGH.

  Doerr also oversaw the expansion of RGH’s Breast Center, which now has three breast surgeons and a clinical breast navigator, a nursing professional who coordinates efforts to meet patients’ medical, educational and support needs.

  At RGH, Doerr was known for fostering collaboration. When the surgical intensive-care unit set out to reduce the number of catheter-related bloodstream infections, a multidisciplinary team drew up a plan that ultimately surpassed national benchmarks. The bloodstream infection rate at RGH has remained at zero for 19 months.

  As he looks back on 40 years in medicine, Doerr is amazed at how far medical technology has come. Invasive open surgery, for instance, has made way for laparoscopy, in which probes, cameras and surgical instruments are inserted into the abdomen through small incisions. The surgical technique’s advantages include smaller incisions, shorter hospital stays and less post-operative pain.

  "And as we’ve found in the cancer area, there is at least no detriment to the patient by doing a surgery laparoscopically," Doerr says.

  Chemotherapy’s precision also has improved markedly since Doerr’s time as chief of surgical oncology at SUNY Buffalo and Buffalo-based Kaleida Health, where he worked before coming to RGH. Now surgeons "can realistically say that we can cure at least half of the patients that come into our care," he says.

  As he looks back on his career, Doerr is particularly proud of his involvement in the National Disaster Medical System, operated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Last year he treated earthquake victims in Haiti as a member of the program’s response team.

  Teaching at Rochester Institute of Technology and SUNY Buffalo also has brought satisfaction to his life.

  "There’s nothing more enjoyable than taking someone (and) teaching them an operation that they will then use in their career to help other patients," he says.

  When RGH interim chief of surgery Ralph Pennino M.D. met Doerr in 2001, he noticed his eagerness to lead by example. When Doerr decided that more RGH physicians should be on in-house call, "he didn’t just mandate that; he actually lived it" by staying at the hospital and heading to the call room whenever he needed some shuteye, Pennino says.

  "He always took care of the patient and made sure the patient got the appropriate care."                                                    

Sheila Livadas is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

3/18/11 (c) 2011 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail [email protected].

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