Craig R. Smith, MD for his excellence as surgeon and educator, and with an array of leadership qualities, plays two central roles in one of the nation’s top medical centers, Surgeon-in-Chief at New York Presbyterian Hospital and Chair of the Department of Surgery at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. His dedication to the advancement of medical science has extended the lives of so very many history makers, including that of President Bill Clinton and Fay Zola, mother of LiLY’s Founder, who lived almost twenty years…to age 97…after complicated bypass surgery. She was one of thousands of people who have spoken his name many times over.
As educator and Chair of Columbia University’s School of Medicine, Dr. Smith is deeply involved in student learning and promotes rigorous medical training that prepares graduates for a medical career that often involves intensive life-and-death situations. From his own experience, he knows that such training is more than worth it as students go on to engage in demanding as well as deeply gratifying work that services humankind. Later on, when they are in surgery with a complicated situation, he believes in the military perspective, “They won’t have to rise to the occasion; they will fall to the level of their training.” He also knows much about what it takes for students to choose this career. He explains that “medicine is a service profession to which students are attracted by a variety of life experiences, including illness in themselves or others, exposure to family members in service professions, and excitement about translational science. Service to others is a slow gestating proclivity that is not suddenly born during the senior year in response to the appearance of recruiters on campus.”
Dr. Smith’s own path follows this trajectory as he entered medical school. With both a grandfather and grandmother who were practicing physicians, serving others through doctoring was not new to his birth family. But, he was also personally affected by, as fate would have it, his own earlier health issues and hospitalizations. Born in Cleveland, as a dedicated athlete in early life (lacrosse and football), he suffered multiple fractured bones, including arms, fingers, ankles, nose and more. (It is no surprise that in medical school he was first interested in orthopedics.) In addition, during a stint working in a steel mill, during his college years, the young Smith suffered a very serious accident that hospitalized him for some time. There, he remembers, is where he learned what a bad hospital experience can feel like.
While making up his mind about applying to medical school, Smith wound up working as a telephone lineman in Vermont for a year, perhaps a foreshadowing of a career connecting valves and arteries and such. Dr. Smith earned his MD degree at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio (Phi Beta Kappa), and fulfilled an internship in general surgery and residency and was a Vascular Surgery Fellow at the University of Rochester Medical Center/Strong Memorial Hospital (1977-1982). After, he completed his cardiothoracic surgery residency at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in 1984, he immediately joined the faculty of the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.
Dr. Smith was Director of Cardiopulmonary Transplantation at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center during 1986-1996 and was appointed Chief of the Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery in 1996. He became a full professor of surgery in 1998, and in 2010 became Chair, Department of Surgery. From 2011-2012, he also served as President of the American Association for Thoracic Surgery (AATS), with its mission of promoting scholarship, innovation, and leadership in thoracic and cardiovascular surgery. AATS is internationally respected and its membership includes clinical researchers and scientists from around the world.
On Smith’s watch, New York-Presbyterian’s cardiothoracic surgery department has become known as one of the best in the nation; it now performs more than 1,500 open-heart procedures a year. (Smith himself, a busy man, performs 350.) He has pioneered less invasive heart surgery techniques using lasers, and was part of a team that invented a coronary bypass technique using a tiny camera that doesn’t require doctors to cut open the chest. In recent years, he’s gone to great lengths to expand the department.
His clinical specialties include medical support for pre- and postoperative transplant recipients, use of bio-artificial liver support devices, and alternative immunosuppressive strategies. His research interests focus on mitral valve repair, transmyocardial laser revascularization, long-term heart and lung transplantation outcomes, preoperative risk factors for stroke after coronary artery bypass surgery, and adaptation in cardiac transplantation. He is co-Principal Investigator for the multicenter PARTNER aortic transcatheter valve trial.
Dr. Smith, in awe of the computing power that enables precise imaging and the use of robotics, is inspired by growing technology and its possibilities. He was an early adapter for the use of robotic heart surgery methods. “It’s a lot of fun to be involved in new technology…When you really don’t know quite how it works, you’re still figuring it out, and making it up as you go along,” he said. “That’s the best time!”
Among his many distinctions, Dr. Smith was named Practitioner of the Year for 2004 by the Society of Practitioners at Columbia University Medical Center. And, he was recipient of the American Heart Association’s “Heart of New York” award for achievement in cardiovascular science and medicine in 2007. With numerous publications to his name, his practice and his scientific legacy is going strong. At the same time, Dr. Smith greatly values his family, and foremost his wife Trish, who, aside from following a career in law herself, has shared in his life and in parenting their three much beloved daughters, who are all creating their own legacies, with four wonderful grandchildren in the mix.