Featured Thoracic Surgeons: Monthly Features

Today’s Women in CT Surgery

Here we will feature women who represent the wide breadth of practicing thoracic surgeons in our field today.  We look forward to highlighting new women on a monthly basis, showing the great strides in patient care, research, humanitarian work, patient advocacy, and leadership being accomplished by women in our field.  We take pride in showcasing the fantastic women in CT Surgery, setting phenomenal examples both in and out of the operating room.

This month’s featured surgeons:

Drs. Melissa Levack and Cherie Erkmen

Melissa Levack, MD

“Throughout my journey to become a cardiac surgeon, I had frequent personal checkpoints along the way to make sure I was honest with myself about my goals in life. As a medical student I asked myself if surgery was the correct career choice for me if I wanted to have a family. As a general surgery resident, I asked myself if I was “good enough” to do cardiothoracic surgery training. And as a chief cardiac surgery resident, I asked myself if a career in academic medicine, was what I really wanted to do, in order to achieve my ambitions both personally and professionally. My advice to young women is to be honest with yourself along every step of your journey. This is a very demanding profession and there will be peaks and valleys. Each path is unique for everyone and there is no one size fits all. Find the group of patients that you want to work with who will inspire you to become a better doctor and will give you hope in the face of adversity. And pay it forward to young women who are learning about the field and questioning their own choices. Cardiac surgery is an amazing and rewarding profession and I am proud to be part of this community.”

Melissa Levack MD, is an Assistant Professor of Cardiac Surgery at Vanderbilt University. She received her Doctor of Medicine at Emory, and she completed her general surgical training at Massachusetts General Hospital and her Cardiothoracic surgical training at the Cleveland Clinic.  She is early in her career, yet already well-recognized as a leading force in our specialty.  She is a great role model, who has been recognized by all members of the multidisciplinary care team for her leadership abilities.

As highlighted in her anonymous nomination from a scrub nurse:

I had the great pleasure of scrubbing-in and assisting Dr. Levack as a Scrub Nurse during her Cardiothoracic Surgery residency (including her chief year in 2017) at Cleveland Clinic. She really represents that amazing combination of ‘compassionate bedside manner’, ‘technical skill’, ‘operative leadership’, and ‘high-pressure poise’ that sets an example for all current and future cardiac surgeons, regardless of gender. Additionally, her manner of teaching junior residents and really explaining both the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of certain operative technique during complex cases was very unique. She commanded a high level of respect through strong discipline, demonstrated expertise and end-to-end follow-up. I had the pleasure of following on some of her rounds and no matter how many hours she had been without sleep, she always put forth a presence that provided warmth and comfort during her patients’ darkest and most hopeful hours. I also was able to attend a few of her lectures and she again had a certain command of the room (where there were world-renowned cardiac surgeons listening) that was impressive – when questioned, she was well-spoken and factual – never combative. But I will always remember Dr. Levack most for her poise during some of our toughest cases, where things were going downhill. Dr. Levack always had a mindset of being a leader knowing that both her team and most importantly, her patient on that table, was counting on her stewardship to do whatever it took to improve the situation. She was stern, without being agitated; she was commanding, without being dictatorial; she was completely invested, without losing objectivity. Her operative style and excellence is sorely missed at The Clinic


Cherie Erkmen MD

“When I entered medical school, I was sure I was going to be a surgeon. I was equally sure that I was NOT going to be a thoracic surgeon. Having just lost my father to lung cancer, I found comfort and diversion in medical school, so long as I did not have to think about lung cancer. Even in surgical residency, I entertained every subspecialty except thoracic surgery. Dr. Larry Cohn attracted me to cardiac surgery and his lab. Serendipitously, I started working with lymph node imaging of the chest and sought Dr. Yolanda Colson and Dr. Michael Jaklitsch for advice. Suddenly, everything fell into place. I remember Dr. Cohn saying, “What the F—! Now we’re doing lung cancer?” But, he still supported me. For many years I avoided the pain of a lung cancer diagnosis, a lung cancer surgery. Now, as a thoracic surgeon, I embrace it every day and guide other families through this difficult time. 

With the support of trusted mentors, I have a robust clinical practice, unique research and meaningful teaching opportunities. I am thrilled to have a growing community of mentors, mentees and colleagues who share in making thoracic surgery progressive and inclusive. I am forever indebted to my extraordinary husband, son and daughter for supporting me to live my passion.

Cherie Erkmen MD is a Thoracic Surgeon and Professor of Thoracic Medicine and Surgery and Temple University.  She was named as a Philadelphia Top Doctor in 2019.  She is also the Director of the Lung Screening Program and the Thoracic Residency Program, and she carries the additional title of Professor in the Center for Asian Health. She has experience with the surgical treatment of lung cancer, chest wall tumors, gastrointestinal and pancreatic cancers, and other lung and pleural diseases, with expertise in minimally invasive surgery.

As highlighted in her anonymous nomination:

“Dr. Erkmen is a true role model for her residents and fellows. Not only is she an amazing surgeon but she always takes time to teach on the wards and in the operating room. Her dedication to her patients and learners and passion for her job are palpable. Not only that, but she is a dedicated mother and sports fan! She is truly well rounded.

For our full list of Past Features, click here.

If you’d like to submit a nomination for a surgeon feature, you can do so below or at this link.

Featured Surgeon Nomination Form

Please use this form to nominate women thoracic surgeons for a feature on the WTS website. Qualified nominees may be practicing surgeons in adult cardiac, congenital cardiac, or general thoracic surgery. Your nominations are greatly appreciated!
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