The safest possible hands
by MainGate Staff
In 2021, AUB appointed Dr. Raymond Sawaya as the Raja N. Khuri Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and vice president for medical affairs. The move was surprising for many reasons, perhaps most of all that Sawaya said yes. Having spent three decades at MD Andersen Cancer Center in Texas, building what may well be the best cancer neurosurgery service in the world, Sawaya could have retired into a life of research, travel, and lecturing. Instead, he accepted a challenge, wrapped in a crisis, in a country struggling to stay afloat.
“I’m at peace with what I accomplished at MD Andersen,” he says. “I’m at AUB to help the situation. When would people want me to come, when things are great? You don’t want me unless things are a mess. That’s when I’m needed.”
Sawaya’s multiple talents equip him for a range of roles. In 2016, the association of neurological surgeons called him a “triple threat”: surgeon, researcher, and teacher. His mentorship is so thorough that when he decided to step down from MD Andersen, six of his faculty, whom he had trained, applied for his job, and they all qualified. Patients and families under his care know they are in the safest possible hands. His expertise as a cancer clinician and innovator brought him to the halls of the White House. Yet he wears his accolades lightly, carrying himself with what seems to be effortless grace.
“He seems to be an effortless surgeon as well,” says Dr. Daniel Yoshor, chair of the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Pennsylvania Health System, who trained under Sawaya. “But his smoothness is analogous to a surface that’s been polished from thousands of strokes of the cloth. He operates the way Yo-Yo Ma plays the cello.”
Yoshor adds, “What sets Raymond Sawaya apart is his uncommon skill at identifying talent and creating a culture and environment where that talent can thrive. I consider him a role model to this day. I refer to him often as I mentor others, as to what we all should aspire to—confident, generous, honest leadership.”
When articulating his vision for the work at AUB, Sawaya speaks of his concern for the staff he oversees, the research needed, and the high standards of medical care to maintain. But the phrase he repeats like a mantra is the need to “recognize and reward excellence.” He knows more than many what it takes to have a vision and to bring it into fruition. It’s what he did at MD Anderson when he expanded the department from 5 to 100 employees and 20 faculty. He credits hard work but also being able to recruit and having the resources to grow.
“It’s clear at AUB that the first order of business is to take care of the work force, not only the doctors, although they are the engine, but the nurses, technicians, and support staff,” he says. “Currently, they are hurting and need understanding and support. I am working to identify the needs and wherever possible to implement support and help. Secondly, we need to address any lack of alignment among all those in positions to make a difference. There are internal tensions because of the severe financial condition of the country and its consequences. We need to integrate our efforts and bring people together for the common good and common goals.”
Sawaya has long studied leadership, but his interest in medicine came from his father. Early in life he began accompanying his physician father into people’s homes. “That’s where I learned that illness is not limited to the single patient,” he says. “It’s a whole family experience.” When he was ready for his own medical training, he was fortunate to intern with the famed Dr. Fouad Haddad, chair of neurosurgery at AUB, who also opened doors for him in the United States.
“You can see, AUB has always been part of my psyche,” he says. “When I left Beirut to train as a neurosurgeon, I had every intention of going back. After 47 years, the tug came, and I’m back home.”
The question is, what happens now? Sawaya says the measure of his work will be seeing change: “Is there progress? If I’m sitting there spinning my wheels, and there’s no improvement, what am I doing? I want to see progress, impact, the ability to make it better, cooperatively, respectfully, for the overall culture of the place.” He has had at least one strong affirmation so far: “Understanding over the last few months the extent of how excellent this university and faculty are gives me yet another reason to do everything in my power to help the institution at this critical time.”