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Sibling Surgeons Share Special Bonds over Their Career Choices

Jennifer Bagley, MA

January 9, 2023

Sibling Surgeons Share Special Bonds over Their Career Choices

While some research has examined the role of sibling relational influence on career exploration and decision-making, the road to cardiothoracic surgery was winding and somewhat separate for the Chen brothers—more coincidence than science in their “how did we get here” story. 

Drs. Ed Chen and Fred Chen 

Edward P. Chen, MD, FACS, FAHA, division chief of cardiovascular and thoracic surgery at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, NC, and Frederick Y. Chen, MD, PhD, FACS, chief of cardiac surgery at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, MA, are 3 years apart in age and shared similar memories of a “very grounded, down-to-earth childhood” in Athens, GA. They described riding bikes on wooded trails, messing around in the creeks, playing catch— “all that kind of fun stuff that kids did back in the 1970s when there were no devices,” said Dr. Ed Chen. 

The Chen brothers explained that in addition to free play, their parents emphasized the importance of obtaining a good education. As young boys, they attended public schools in Georgia, where they studied hard and achieved good grades. They were not required to attend summer school or take extra classes after school—which, according to Dr. Fred Chen, are common practices in Asian-American communities throughout the US. For this, Drs. Ed and Fred Chen, who are Taiwanese American, are grateful for not being made to completely focus on schoolwork. 

“There was not that sort of incredible pressure cooker type of feeling that you hear about in certain families. Instead, our childhood was more balanced,” said Dr. Ed Chen.

So how did the Chen brothers go from easy-going, quiet childhoods to high-profile, high-impact careers as cardiothoracic surgeons?

For Dr. Ed Chen, it was the television show The Body Human—a series of specials in the late 1970s and early 1980s that he watched as a young boy. “In one show, the focus was the circulatory system where they were able to use cameras to display the beating heart and red blood cells in the vessels. As a result, I became very fascinated with circulatory physiology,” he said. 

The passion that Dr. Fred Chen had for surgery evolved from an initial interest in engineering and learning about Robert Jarvik—widely known as the inventor of the first permanently implantable artificial heart, the Jarvik-7. And, in the early 1980s, when William DeVries, MD, a Duke-trained cardiac surgeon from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, performed the first implantation of the Jarvik-7 in patient Barney Clark, the interest of the young Dr. Fred Chen was piqued. 

“I always considered myself an engineer,” he said. “But when I heard this story, I thought, ‘Gee, wouldn’t it be interesting to be both guys in one.’ For the longest time, I wasn’t quite sure if I was going to be a pure engineer or a cardiac surgeon. I did know, though, that I wouldn’t be a doctor if I wasn’t going to be a cardiac surgeon. That much was clear. Ultimately, I decided that I would be both.”

Dr. Fred Chen added that he inherently recognized surgery as one of the most challenging aspects of medicine—if not the most challenging—and since he is someone who “always wants to do the hardest thing,” that realization sealed the deal for him. 

Although no one in their primary family worked in the field of medicine, there was some influence in the extended family. The brothers had several cousins in Taiwan who were studying to be doctors, as well two uncles who were physicians. When the young brothers visited Taiwan during summer vacation, they were able to see their cousins and uncle in their clinics and practices. 

“We never felt pressure to pursue a career in the medical field, but we understood that medicine was a worthwhile endeavor,” said Dr. Ed Chen. “This is what I remember always wanting to do. No one goes into surgery if they’re forced to do it. The field is just too demanding.”

Dr. Ed Chen attended medical school at Duke University, and a few years later, Dr. Fred Chen went to Harvard Medical School in Boston, MA.

While surgery is known to be a highly competitive specialty, the Chen brothers said they’ve never been anything but supportive of each other. Through the years and their careers, they’ve certainly achieved individual professional successes, but also have felt elevated by each other’s accomplishments.

The brothers credit the happy household in which they grew up and their compassionate and encouraging parents who “were always fair and never made either of us feel inadequate.”

Their parents, Chia-Ming Chen, PhD, and Shu-Hsien Lai Chen, EdD, now in their 80s, live in Atlanta, GA.

Not everyone has a sibling who works in the same field, and Drs. Ed and Fred Chen recognize this, describing a certain convenience and specialness to having a brother who shares similar experiences and fully understands the pressure, expectations, and public scrutiny that come along with a career as a surgeon. According to Dr. Ed Chen, it can be difficult for people outside the field of medicine to comprehend what surgeons go through in terms of the training, commitment, and hours worked, as well as the physical and mental strain. 

“In the middle part of my intern year, I was struggling. With the holidays coming up, I was really down. Fred came out to visit me, and we spent Christmas together in the Veterans Affairs Medical Center. That close-knit support from my brother meant a lot to me. In those tough times, we all need support and encouragement from people who care about us. That’s what we provide for each other,” he said.

The Chen brothers have not had many opportunities to directly work together, but the professional and personal respect between them is unmistakable. Dr. Fred Chen shared that he never hesitates to pick up the phone to call Ed when he needs advice or wants to talk through a tough case. “There are certain things that you may not be comfortable with when deciding the best course of care for a patient until someone you know and trust—like my brother—tells you, ‘You can do this.’ I mean, you can read about it in the books, but it’s not the same.” 

Drs. Erin Gillaspie and Devin Gillaspie

The “Gillaspie Girls”—as they are affectionately known—share the unique space occupied by a limited number of sibling-surgeon duos. But as women in the historically male-dominated field of surgery, their story is even more remarkable. 

Erin A. Gillaspie, MD, MPH, FACS, assistant professor and head of thoracic surgery robotics in the Department of Thoracic Surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, TN, and Devin B. Gillaspie, MD, assistant professor in the Division of Trauma and Critical Care Surgery at The University of Tennessee in Knoxville, described an “idyllic” childhood growing up in Mississauga in Ontario, Canada, with loving and nurturing parents. 

Just about every day, the girls spent time playing outside, riding their purple bikes outfitted with streamers and visiting the local candy shop and bookstore. Their mom also regularly brought young Erin and Devin to the library where she would read them “beautiful books with women heroines” like Meg Murry from A Wrinkle in Time and Anne of Green Gables.

“When our mom went back to work, she purposely chose to work for women CEOs so that Devin and I grew up knowing that women could do anything. We could be anything,” said Dr. Erin Gillaspie.

The Gillaspie childhood also was “messy,” but in a good way, according to the sisters. With a dad who was a “sort of mad scientist and loved to build things,” the girls were encouraged to constantly ask questions and do crazy experiments. In fact, Erin bought her first microscope when she was in first grade, and her dad would help her make slides out of things they found in the backyard. 

“We had such a wonderful, rich childhood—growing up in an environment where intelligence was prized and curiosity was encouraged, and we were loved unconditionally,” said Dr. Erin Gillaspie. “There was never a time when we doubted our ability to accomplish our goals or overcome a hurdle, which was brilliant.”

It was in those early years that Dr. Erin Gillaspie fell in love with the possibility of a career in surgery. While their grandfather was battling mesothelioma, she regularly saw the large scar on his side as they worked together in the garden. This is when her passion for medicine materialized. 

“I remember seeing his scar and I’d ask, ‘Papa, why did they cut you in half?’ Unfortunately, just like cancer often does, it came back, and he didn’t have any more treatment options. Even at the end of his life, when he barely had any energy, he would pull me up onto his knee with all his might and share his Jell-O with me,” she said, adding that watching her Papa fight the disease “left an indelible mark” on her soul. 

In her teen years, Dr. Erin Gillaspie’s fascination with the medical field continued. After the family moved from Canada to Florida, their mom took a job at a hospital. In order to spend more time with her, the sisters—who were just 13 and 11 years old at the time—started volunteering at the hospital. The girls were lucky enough to receive an offer from a surgeon that they could not refuse: Do you want to watch a surgery?

“Absolutely,” said Dr. Erin Gillaspie. “So, they put us in scrubs and told us if you’re going to pass out, hit the wall, not the patient. We had the biggest smiles on our faces. It was a total knee replacement with saws buzzing and bone fragments flying. We were enthralled. It was the most extraordinary thing.”

After that, young Erin asked permission to start regularly volunteering in the operating rooms, helping with room turnover, and in between, she’d get to watch surgeries. Eventually, she observed her first lung operation. “In that moment, I said, ‘This is what I’m going to do with my life. I’m going to be a lung surgeon so I can take care of people like my Papa and give little kids the gift of getting to know their grandparents,” she shared.

For Dr. Devin Gillaspie, the realization that surgery was her future was not as direct. With an interest in bacteria, she studied microbiology for her undergraduate degree and later worked in a bacterial pathogenesis and immunology laboratory. Dr. Devin Gillaspie loved it, so naturally she thought she was going to be an infectious disease doctor. 

But during her surgery clerkship at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine in FL, she worked with surgeons who were “great at teaching and involving the medical students.” Dr. Devin Gillaspie was a lucky beneficiary of some of these hands-on lessons. During one operation, she was given the opportunity to make an incision and open the abdomen. 

“I said, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is really great.’ I was so amazed that as a med student, I was allowed to do that. But also, having my hands in an abdomen was such a cool experience. I called Erin and told her, ‘I’m going to do surgery instead,’” said Dr. Devin Gillaspie. 

Both sisters agreed that they were fortunate from very early on—even before high school—to have wonderful mentors who were generous with invitations to learn alongside them in clinics and operating rooms. And from the “second we hit the doors of medical school, we had wonderful mentors at the resident and attending levels who just wanted us to love what they do as much as they did,” Dr. Erin Gillaspie said.

In her second year of fellowship at Vanderbilt University, Dr. Devin Gillaspie was able to work on some cases with her sister. There is one case—their first together—that she will never forget. When Dr. Devin Gillaspie learned that she would be performing a video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery (VATS) for a hemothorax, she called Dr. Erin Gillaspie, whose “happy place is the chest.” When the team suggested that they “call thoracic,” Dr. Devin Gillaspie said, “I’ve already done that and requested a particular surgeon to help me out.”

“When I told the patient that my sister—who is a cardiothoracic surgeon and specializes in cases like his—would be helping me out in the OR, he was so excited, especially after he learned that he was the first person we’d ever worked on together,” said Dr. Devin Gillaspie. “One of the trauma faculty members hustled down to the OR to make sure he captured a photo of us operating together. He said, ‘Here’s your photo for your parents.’”

Dr. Erin Gillaspie joked that even though the sisters are not twins, they should have been, and that came to light more than ever during this operation. “We have the same mannerisms, and we think the same way. We didn’t have to talk to each other because we just knew what the other person was thinking. We were extremely choreographed and in the zone.” 

Although women remain significantly underrepresented in surgery, the sisters are passionately involved in helping to share the joy of their profession with medical students and residents. 

“We have to attract women to surgery in an intentional and meaningful way,” Dr. Erin Gillaspie said. “We try to inspire as many people as possible to choose this wonderful field because we truly have the best job in the world. The future is so bright.”

Drs. Jonathan Dort and Sean Dort

“Abbreviated.” That’s how Jonathan M. Dort, MD, FACS, and Sean D. Dort, MD, FACS, describe their childhood. The identical twin brothers graduated high school at 14 years old and college at 17. 

While they had an affinity for science and math, no one expected them to speed through the school curriculum as quickly as they did. Their parents made sure the brothers understood how important it was to get a good education, but they never pushed them into fast-tracking through school. 

“We just moved at our own pace and the next thing you know, we were at the end of the curriculum,” said Dr. Sean Dort, chief of surgery and trauma medical director at St. Rose Dominican Hospitals in Henderson, NV.

For the most part, the brothers felt supported by their teachers and classmates who were at least 4 years older than they were. Though, they recalled often being asked, “Are you old enough to be here?” 

Drs. Jonathan and Sean Dort felt fortunate to share this experience with each other. “It helped not doing it alone and not feeling completely isolated,” said Dr. Jonathan Dort. 

Besides those accelerated academic years, they describe their youth—half of which was spent in New York City and half in south Florida—as relatively normal and low drama. The brothers come from a working-class family, with a mom who stayed home and focused on the boys and a dad who worked various service-oriented jobs. 

“We come from a long line of barbers, plumbers, and candy store owners, and our father was the first in the family to go to college,” said Dr. Jonathan Dort, director of surgical education and program director of the general surgery residency for the Inova Health System in Falls Church, VA.

While in college at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, the brothers worked as laboratory technicians at the North Ridge Cancer Center, which offered them their first glimpse into the medical field. The rest is history.

After earning their undergraduate degrees, the twins went to medical school, going their separate ways for the first time. Dr. Jonathan Dort attended the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine in Florida, and Dr. Sean Dort earned his medical degree from the Morsani College of Medicine at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

“At 17 years old, I marched off to Tampa and moved into a tiny apartment off the main street. There I was, walking to med school every day. I was unaware of just how strange that was,” shared Dr. Sean Dort. 

During his first year of medical school, he ruptured his appendix and became very sick. After Dr. Sean Dort healed from his operation, the surgeon asked him “to come see things from his side of the table.” He accepted this invitation and was allowed as a first-year medical student to shadow the surgeon and observe his surgeries. “After working with and watching him for a short time, I was sold,” Dr. Sean Dort said.

The craziness of being such a young medical student hit 17-year-old Dr. Jonathan Dort when he was “dissecting cadavers and all that other intense work” during his first semester. And after working in the busy trauma center at the University of Miami, he said he was “hooked” on surgery. 

“I had thought about internal medicine, and I did that rotation first. Without much exaggeration, 12 weeks later, my patient list was the exact same one I started with. I am wired to fix a problem on a shorter timeline. So, here I was in the trauma center, sewing up bullet holes and helping critically injured patients—many near death—and watching them walk out the door a few days later. There’s such a different dynamic to that than the treatment of chronic disease,” said Dr. Jonathan Dort. 

Given the high-pressure nature of surgery, surgeons tend to be competitive-minded. In many ways, there’s competition throughout medical school, residency, and later in finding the ideal job. But over the years, for the Dort brothers, it’s been a relationship of trying to support rather than compete. 

“When you’re in that environment of medical school or residency, you’re in total survival mode. Knowing that it was such a huge mountain to climb, we were supportive of each other and just trying to work through the common challenges and experiences,” said Dr. Jonathan Dort, adding how special it is to always have someone there and never feel alone.

His brother agreed that having a surgeon sibling definitely has its advantages. “It’s a 24/7 hotline of very wise advice about everything and anything,” explained Dr. Sean Dort. “It’s unfair in a way that I have someone who does what I do, who sees things the way I do, and I can reach any time of the day or night to say, ‘Hey, what do you think about this?’ We’ve been bouncing stuff off each other for almost 40 years.” 

The future of surgery is exciting, according to the Dort brothers, especially when it comes to teaching the young surgeons-to-be. Dr. Jonathan Dort, who is the program director of the Inova general surgery residency, loves teaching so much he advises surgeons who think they’re experiencing burnout to find a teaching role. 

“I love taking care of patients. I love operating. I love everything I do as a surgeon, but nothing rivals how much I love the mentorship relationship I have with the residents. It’s so refreshing to see the enthusiasm,” he said. “When they show up at the door, they’re 50% excited, 50% terrified. They go through 5 years of highs and lows, and then they’re surgeons. To go on that journey with them and then watch all the things they go out and accomplish—that’s the best thing for me.” 


Jennifer Bagley is the Editor-in-Chief of the Bulletin and Senior Manager in the ACS Division of Integrated Communications in Chicago, IL.