Honoring Our Legacy of Surgical Leaders: Robert Sade, M.D. Leads Ethics Forum For 25 Years

May 30, 2024
Robert Sade MD

Robert M. Sade, M.D., Distinguished University Professor, has enjoyed two substantial professional careers over nearly 60 years: first, pediatric cardiac surgery and later, bioethics. When he transitioned from his career as a surgeon to a late-life career as an ethicist in the 1990s, he had the support of the Department of Surgery and the College of Medicine in creating the Institute of Human Values in Health Care. Over the next 25 years, the Institute, with members from MUSC and many other universities in South Carolina, was highly productive. Institute members published over 250 scholarly papers in a variety of ethics, philosophy, and medical journals. In addition, it was responsible for producing and managing over 25 major conferences, the annual Thomas Pitts Lectureship in Medical Ethics, which highlighted leading philosophers of medicine and ethicists from this country and abroad.

Dr. Sade has also been highly active at the national level. Twenty-five years ago, he and his surgeon-ethicist colleague from the University of Toronto, Martin McKneally, MD, PhD, founded the Cardiothoracic Ethics Forum (the Forum), which he has chaired for the past 15 years. In January 2025, Dr. Sade will officially step down from that leadership role.  

The Forum is a joint committee of the American Association of Thoracic Surgeons (AATS) and the Society of Thoracic Surgery (STS) that has been responsible for ethics education in cardiothoracic surgery. Under his leadership, the Forum has provided over 60 ethics education sessions at the major cardiothoracic surgery societies’ annual meetings. Since 2000, the Forum’s members have published over 550 papers and have written and published over a dozen ethics policy position papers, most of which were adopted by both the STS and the AATS. The Forum has held a course on surgical ethics for the AATS Annual Meeting for the last ten years and has written the first set of ethics questions for the American Board of Thoracic Surgery certification examination and SESATS. Over the last ten years, the STS and AATS have provided the Forum with financial support for ethics education scholarships for surgeons, providing over 30 cardiothoracic surgeons, residents, and fellows with introductions to the basics of surgical ethics.  

A native of Newton, Massachusetts, Dr. Sade graduated from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. After graduating, he began general surgery training at the Harvard Surgical Service, Boston City Hospital. Toward the end of his general surgery training, he was offered a position in the Boston Children’s Hospital (BCH) general pediatric surgery training program, which allowed him to blend his two passions: surgery and caring for children.

However, before he started at BCH, he fulfilled a two-year obligation to serve in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War, including a year on the USS Constellation (CVA-64) aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin. Upon completing his military service, Dr. Sade had the opportunity to work in the cancer research laboratory of world-renowned cancer researcher Judah Folkman, M.D., at the Dana Farber Cancer Research Center. Dr. Sade acknowledges Dr. Folkman’s contributions to his present-day ethical philosophy and describes him as one of the most brilliant, kind, and honest human beings he’s known.

During his training at BCH, Dr. Sade also had the opportunity to work with Dr. Robert Gross, a pioneer of children’s surgery and a founder of the field of cardiac surgery, and Dr. Aldo Castaneda, a world-renowned cardiac surgeon. Dr. Sade was Dr. Castaneda’s first chief resident at BCH, and together, they embarked on creating a range of innovative approaches to children’s heart surgery, including developing a method of deep hypothermic circulatory arrest to allow access to the interior of a baby’s non-beating heart in a bloodless field.

While at BCH, Dr. Sade realized his life’s work: surgical correction of heart disease in children. After finishing his training, he remained on the Harvard faculty and BCH surgical staff. In 1975, he was recruited to MUSC, where he had the opportunity to create and lead the pediatric cardiac surgery program, the only such program in South Carolina. During Dr. Sade’s two decades of clinical work, research, and teaching at MUSC, he also served in many administrative roles, including President of the Faculty Senate, Medical Director of MUH, Assistant Dean (Admissions), and Associate Dean (Clinical Affairs) of the College of Medicine, among others.

Dr. Sade has served in many roles at the national level, including as President of the Southern Thoracic Surgical Association, and chair of the ethics committees of the Society of Thoracic Surgeons, the American Association for Thoracic Surgery, and the American Medical Association. He currently serves as Associate Editor of the Annals of Thoracic Surgery and as Associate Editor of the Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery. His long list of honors includes the Society of Thoracic Surgeons Distinguished Service Award, among many others.  

While he continues to write in the fields of bioethics and surgical ethics, his most prized legacy will be the surgical correction of heart disease in children — a legacy that continues through the Pediatric Heart Surgery Program at MUSC. “My first professional love, pediatric cardiac surgery, remains my greatest, and I feel fortunate to have been in a position to make a positive contribution to MUSC and to the field of pediatric cardiac surgery by establishing an endowment in the MUSC Foundation,” said Dr. Sade.

“MUSC has become one of the leading centers in the country for the treatment of congenital heart disease under the leadership of Scott Bradley, M.D. and Minoo Kavarana, M.D., who have elevated MUSC’s children’s heart program far above the level of excellence I was able to achieve over the two decades I headed the program,” said Dr. Sade.