Barbara Lee Bass, MD ‘79, FACS
Barbara Lee Bass, MD, FACS is the John F., Jr. and Carolyn Bookout Presidential Distinguished Chair, Department of Surgery, at Houston Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas, and professor of surgery at Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York. In addition to her clinical practice in gastrointestinal and endocrine surgery, Dr. Bass has led a funded laboratory program in gastrointestinal epithelial injury and repair. She has held leadership roles in the development of surgical quality initiatives at the national level, including serving as president of the American College of Surgeons.
In a career that spans nearly 40 years, surgeon Barbara Bass, MD ’79 has seen a lot of changes. She has seen the number of women in medical school grow, especially the number of women pursuing specialties like surgery. And she has seen the surgical field change from being one where physicians primarily used their own hands and simple instruments to one that uses robotics and image-guided technology.
One thing, however, hasn’t changed: the commitment Bass has to education. It stems from her own experience as a medical student at the University of Virginia. After initially anticipating that her future was in science, she found a new path while she was at UVA.
“Medical school is where I discovered that I loved being a doctor, and I wanted to participate in the care of patients as a physician, not just as a scientist. I was pretty set on becoming a pediatric geneticist and was influenced by a fabulous faculty member named Dr. Thaddeus Kelly. He was a pediatric geneticist, and it was in the early days of genetics. I went all around the state with him looking at children with phenotypic abnormalities. It was a wonderful experience,” says Bass. “Then I did my surgery rotation, and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh. I’m one of them!’ It really kind of claimed me, and I liked the discipline. So I decided to go into surgery, but always with the notion of a career in academic surgery and being engaged with the research that I’ve always had a passion for as well as being an educator.”
With no female surgeons on the school’s faculty at that time, Bass says other surgeons “adopted” her and became mentors, including Drs. Leslie Rudolph and Anthony Shaw. With their encouragement she met two of the most iconic women surgeons of the time – Drs. Kathy Anderson and Olga Jonasson. “There was a lot of serendipity and great mentorship along the way,” Bass says.
Having grown up in the DC suburbs of Northern Virginia, Bass says it was similar good fortune that brought her to UVA in the first place. “How lucky is it to live in a state with such a distinguished school to train you and educate you? It was a no-brainer for me, so I applied early decision to UVA and it was the only school to which I applied,” she says. “I was just drawn to the excellence of the place, and to this day, the foundational education I got from the School of Medicine is something I would put up against anyone’s medical school. There were so many amazing people. When I was there, Dr. Al Gilman was teaching there, and of course, he went on to be a Nobel laureate for the discovery of G-proteins. It was this lovely environment of discovery, and I just remember it so fondly.”
Today, Bass is on the other end of the academic spectrum. She lives in Houston, Texas, and chairs the Department of Surgery at Houston Methodist Hospital and is as a senior member of Houston Methodist Research Institute. She is also a professor of surgery at Weill Cornell Medical College.
Bass says she gets great satisfaction in training new surgeons and watching them grow. “We all want our successors to be more accomplished and better than we are, to be better contributors, and more capable. I just really believe in the next generation and the best thing we can do to help them is create environments where they can learn and blossom and do our best individually to interact with them and share our experiences, our knowledge with students, residents, junior faculty members … anyone coming along behind us,” she says. “You watch a young person grow from a crudely molded young surgeon to an accomplished, ready-to-practice surgeon. I just love that.”
But students and residents aren’t the only ones in need of surgical training these days, Bass says. As new technologies are introduced, surgeons in practice need a space to train, too, in a non-patient, simulation-based environment. Seeing that need, Bass founded the Methodist Institute for Technology Innovation and Education (MITIE).
“It’s an incredible new piece of the educational infrastructure. It’s a prototype facility – 35,000 square feet of beautiful simulation space that is specifically purpose-built to retool and retrain practicing healthcare providers in new technologies,” she explains. “So if you’re a surgeon in practice and you want to adopt a new laparoscopic technique or if you want to adopt a new computer-enabled method for brain surgery, we can craft an environment that doesn’t include patients but includes whatever simulation-based modality is most appropriate to get you that hands-on experience that will let you then more safely take that procedure to patients. It’s a really vital gap, and MITIE has been purpose-built to deliver on that gap and start to build that infrastructure.”
Since opening in 2011, MITIE has provided 14,000 surgeons in practice with retooling and retraining experiences. Overall, MITIE has served 45,000 healthcare providers, including nurses.
Bass says that it’s an exciting time for surgeons, and she’s a bit “jealous” of those starting their training now with the latest advances at their fingertips. To graduating students, her advice is simple: “I always tell anyone who goes into medicine that we really have such a rare privilege. How many people get to do what we do? Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it may seem interminable but it’s going to be a flash in the pan when it’s over and they’re going to be so proud,” she says. “What a career it is to go into, regardless of what discipline one is heading for. Not everyone is going to get to train where they thought they were going, but every single place is going to be able to make you into a surgeon, or a pediatrician, or an internist because of the way we certify programs. Take full advantage of the wisdom that is built into every program – the faculty, the clinicians, the nurses, the teams you’ll be part of – because it is such an exciting process.”
For Bass, these are exciting times, too. In 2017, she was installed as president of the American College of Surgeons, a prestigious career achievement. She says the experience has brought her full circle back to her beginnings at UVA. “The moment I received the call saying I was going to be president, I thought back to when I was at UVA and discovered that I was going to be a surgeon. Never in my lifetime did it cross my mind that I would be in a position to be asked to be president of the American College of Surgeons. The launching of one’s profession at a place like UVA is a fabulous opportunity and you never know where it will lead, so hang on to the reins and let that horse run. It’s wonderful to have roots in such a fine institution.”