A craving for challenges

Gregorio A. Sicard loves the edge of vascular surgery

With a Dominican heritage, a childhood spent in Puerto Rico and a primarily American education, it’s no surprise Gregorio A. Sicard, M.D., craves variety, both in his professional and personal life.

Gregorio Sicard, M.D., reviews vascular patient Geraldine Gehr's chart during a routine checkup.
Gregorio Sicard, M.D., reviews vascular patient Geraldine Gehr’s chart during a routine checkup. “Greg’s been instrumental in developing vascular surgery from the very beginning, and his exuberance for the field and his love for life are infectious,” says former fellow Michael Freeman, M.D.

Having spent more than 30 years at the School of Medicine and Barnes-Jewish Hospital, Sicard has been at the Medical Campus longer than almost any other surgery faculty member. But his life is anything but stagnant.

With a range of hobbies, a wife of 40 years, four children, two grandchildren (and one on the way) and a wide array of responsibilities at the School of Medicine, Sicard has filled his life with the two things he loves most: diversity and community.

As the vice chairman of the Department of Surgery and chief of the Division of General Surgery and the Section of Vascular Surgery, Sicard’s dedication makes him a superb clinician, leader and friend, explains Timothy J. Eberlein, M.D., the Bixby Professor and chair of the surgery department.

“Greg, in my view, embodies all of the wonderful qualities of Washington University,” says Eberlein, whose first appointment as head of surgery was to choose Sicard to lead the Division of General Surgery. “He’s the busiest surgeon in the department, but he always thinks of the institution and tries to do the right thing without having a hidden agenda.

“He is very smart and devoted and has a can-do, selfless attitude that helps him get along with everybody. My only complaint is that there’s only one of him.”

His father’s footsteps

The son of the town surgeon in a small, rural community outside Ponce, Puerto Rico, Sicard never imagined he’d follow in his father’s footsteps.

The extended Sicard family.
The extended Sicard family.

Back then, surgeons made house calls, knew everyone in town and treated almost every type of disease. Sicard was fascinated with his father’s work, but the irregular and unending hours weren’t appealing.

His parents divorced when Sicard was 5, and his mother moved to New York. With his father’s unpredictable and demanding surgery schedule, Sicard was raised primarily by his paternal grandmother and aunt.

Even as a young boy, Sicard was determined to choose a lifestyle that would allow him to spend more time with his family. So, when he and his brother went to boarding school at St. Louis Chaminade College Preparatory School, a sister institution of a Catholic school in Ponce, Sicard focused his high-school studies on chemistry.

He then became a biochemistry major at Saint Louis University and, after graduating in 1965, he settled into a job at Sigma Chemical Co. in St. Louis.

While at Sigma, Sicard had a surprising revelation: He didn’t mind working long hours as long as he enjoyed his work. Suddenly, medicine no longer seemed like an implausible option.

From the first surgery he watched at age 6 to his studies and career in chemistry, Sicard was always fascinated by the clinical application of basic science. When his father sensed his shifting interests and offered to support him through medical school, Sicard couldn’t resist.

“My father felt education was the most important thing in the world,” Sicard explains. “He used to say that whatever he gave me education-wise, no one could take away. I’ve tried to pass on that same message to my children.”

Sicard not only followed his father into medicine, he also followed him into surgery. But times — and medicine — have changed, and the community Sicard serves is quite different than his father’s.

Unlike the small, rural town of his youth, Sicard thrives on the excitement and diversity afforded by an academic medical institution like the University.

“It’s fun to be a part of an institution like this, where there are so many great people and such medical excellence,” Sicard says. “With the progression of medicine and surgery, we now have the tools and innovation to make a huge impact.

“This institution has always effectively translated great research into clinical advances, which is key for making such contributions to the field. I’m very grateful to be part of something that’s unique.”

A hunger for variety

In his long tenure at the School of Medicine and Barnes-Jewish Hospital, Sicard has seen — and taken part in — the evolution of surgery. As he progressed through surgical training and the beginning of his career, the field began to shift from surgery generalists, who performed almost every type of procedure, to increasingly focused sub-specialists.

Gregorio A. Sicard

University titles: Professor of surgery and of radiology, chief of the Section of Vascular Surgery, chief of the Division of General Surgery, vice chairman of the Department of Surgery.

Family: Wife, Kathleen; children, Jane, Melissa, Gregorio Jr. and Michael; grandchildren, Madeleine and Gabriella.

Education: B.S., Saint Louis University, 1965; M.D., University of Puerto Rico, 1972

Hobbies: Reading, pingpong, watching sports and golf.

Staying on the edge of surgical innovation has helped Sicard feed his hunger for variety.

At the end of his general surgery residency, physicians at the Medical Campus began performing one of the most innovative surgical procedures of the time: organ transplantation.

“Transplant caught my attention because it was so new; there was a lot of opportunity to make a real contribution to the field,” Sicard explains. “I’ve also always enjoyed people and the family atmosphere, and because transplant patients are chronically ill, you get to know them and their families really well.”

He also liked the fact that transplant surgeons still performed other surgical procedures and, in particular, that transplantation went hand-in-hand with his other primary surgical interest, vascular disease.

By 1983, it had become clear that both transplant and vascular surgery had grown into separate, full-blown specialties. So Sicard and his mentor and then-colleague Charlie Anderson, M.D., divided the two. Anderson led the transplant service; Sicard led vascular surgery, which fits his personality perfectly.

“Vascular surgery is exciting because not only are there a lot of different types of operations, but there’s also often unexpected things that happen during a given procedure,” Sicard says. “You have to be innovative, think fast and make quick decisions.”

Since 1983, which coincidentally also was the first year certification in vascular surgery became available, the vascular surgery service has grown under Sicard’s leadership, from performing fewer than 300 cases per year to almost 2,500 cases.

Never content without new challenges, Sicard started to feel restless about a decade ago. But a fortuitously timed encounter in Argentina with fellow Hispanic surgeon Juan C. Parodi, M.D., re-energized him.

Instead of opening a patient’s abdomen to fix a diseased and weakened blood vessel, Parodi had developed a way to repair the vessel via two small incisions in the groin.

He showed a video of the procedure to Sicard, who immediately knew that this would revolutionize vascular surgery. Sicard convinced Parodi to join his St. Louis team, and Parodi soon became a professor of surgery in the School of Medicine.

Together, they’ve built one of the largest minimally invasive vascular surgery groups in the country.

“It’s been a wonderful ride,” Sicard says. “The word ‘surgery’ used to sound scary and painful; now we’re able to do the same things with minimal pain. It’s been very exciting to see that progression in the field and know we now have the tools and innovations to make such a big impact.”

Maintaining his division’s status and reputation isn’t easy, but it’s yet another challenge Sicard eagerly embraces. Training new generations of surgeons and dealing with his administrative duties as head of vascular and general surgery provide him with a satisfying sense of community.

Sicard’s national peers most recently recognized his collegial and effective leadership qualities by choosing him as the next president of the Society of Vascular Surgery.

“Greg is not only the consummate surgeon, he also is a wonderful mentor,” says Michael Freeman, M.D., a former fellow of Sicard’s and now chief of the Division of Vascular Surgery at the University of Tennessee. “He’s been instrumental in developing vascular surgery from the very beginning, and his exuberance for the field and his love for life are infectious.”

While innovations in surgery keep Sicard active in the operating room, there’s also plenty to keep him busy outside the office. In addition to his own personal pastimes — including an insatiable love of fiction, a monthly poker game, watching sports and learning golf — three of his four children have settled in St. Louis.

Unfortunate timing and unavoidable travel kept Sicard from witnessing the birth of his two first children, Jane and Melissa, but he vowed to make it up to them.

And he has. Not only was he in the room for the birth of each daughter’s first child, he and his wife, Kathleen, spend their free time helping care for the two girls, both who are now 6.

“I’ve learned that in everything you do, you should do the best you can,” Sicard says. “But you can’t always be the champion, so it’s also important to have fun, be happy and continue trying to improve.”

Leave a Comment

Comments and respectful dialogue are encouraged, but content will be moderated. Please, no personal attacks, obscenity or profanity, selling of commercial products, or endorsements of political candidates or positions. We reserve the right to remove any inappropriate comments. We also cannot address individual medical concerns or provide medical advice in this forum.