Blessings: Surgeon reflects on 30-year career

Blessed is how Mike Stanton, MD, describes his life.

Looking back on his 30-year career as a general surgeon, Stanton is continuing to find joy in his work. “It is just a privilege to be able to work on the human body and to be involved in peoples’ lives when they are in need,” said Stanton. “The human body has always been fascinating to me. It is so complex; there’s so much we still don’t know about it.”

While his interest in medicine was peaked in elementary school when he read a book about the Mayo brothers, he opted for dental school in Memphis after he met and married his wife, Denise. “I got scared. I was worried about surviving in medical school with a family,” Stanton said.

However, he soon found himself drawn to the medical aspects of dentistry and found a mentor in William F. “Chubby” Andrews, a Memphis surgeon he met at a Bible study. Andrews eventually helped him get a job as a scrub assistant. “I assisted with heart surgery, orthopedics, ENT, general surgery and others,” said Stanton. “He was just a prince of a guy.”

Through Andrews, Stanton began to realize that “you could be a surgeon and still have a family.”

After returning to Conway, Dr. Mike Stanton founded what is now Conway Regional Surgical Associates and began a surgical practice that has spanned 26 years in the City of Colleges.

Eventually Stanton left dental school, took the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) exam and enrolled in medical school at UAMS. It was there that he met two other surgeons, Drs. Dale Morris and Cliff Parnell, who would become his partners after he completed his medical training nine years later.

He was part of the surgical practice in Little Rock for four years. “I learned so much; the most important thing was how they both really cared about people,” said Stanton.

It was his love of family that eventually brought him back to his hometown.

“Conway was growing and the hospital was growing, and at that point we had four children and we started thinking that Conway would be a better place to raise our family,” Stanton said. It was in Conway that he founded what is now Conway Regional Surgical Associates and began a surgical practice that has spanned 26 years in the City of Colleges.

At the time, general surgeons also performed vascular and thoracic surgery. Currently general surgery includes thyroid, breast, colon, gallbladder procedures and treating such conditions as hernias, diverticulitis (inflamed pouches in the intestines) bumps and other issues. Stanton is also sought after for vasectomy reversals. “I have had patients from every state, Canada and Great Britain,” he said. “The procedure started off as a mission to help families and it has become a huge part of my practice and life.”

Innovative care for cancer

During his lengthy career, Dr. Stanton has seen his share of innovative procedures.

“The biggest thing during my career has been the advance of laparoscopic surgery. That’s been very helpful for the patient because the recovery time is usually much shorter,” he said.

He added, “We have come a long way in learning about different types of cancer and how to treat them. It’s a team approach now involving a medical oncologist and sometimes a radiation oncologist. We have just learned so much more about how to treat patients.”

For instance, a diagnosis of breast cancer no longer means that chemotherapy is an automatic protocol. “We’ve got more genetic studies we can do. We’ve got more targeted treatments,” Stanton said. “Some women progress better with chemo before surgery, which is something that we never did in the past.”

In the future, he expects the use of robotic surgical technology to continue to grow in certain specialties.

Stanton says future surgeons will also rely more and more on multidisciplinary approaches, often working with a team of other medical specialists.

“There are nuances to treatment that involve several physicians. We get better outcomes as we learn more about disease processes,” he said.

While breakthroughs have been made in cancer care, it does involve some of the most difficult times for patients and physicians.

“Obviously some of it is heartbreaking,” said Stanton. “It is important to be honest with patients, I don’t tell someone you’ve got this long to live. That’s God’s business.” He recalled instances in which a patient was given a short life expectancy and is still alive.

“I love to be able to work with patients and help improve their quality of life and, sometimes, extend their lives,” he said.

Got to have faith

Stanton turns to his spiritual life during the difficult times.

“My spiritual life is the most important thing to me. I think God puts us where we need to be,” he said. “It’s a sobering thing to have surgery. I try to pray with patients when I can and I have never had anybody say ‘I wish you hadn’t done that.’ ”

His faith has also given him deeper appreciation of the Conway Regional staff in that “every person you work around has a significant role at the hospital. None of us are more important than the other, and all of us need to be doing our best to achieve the best quality for the patient.”

Stanton believes he is where God wants him to be. “It’s been a huge blessing to me. Not many people get to do what I have done in the town they grew up in. I have operated on countless people who have been big influences in my life.”

Stanton strives to serve the community as a surgeon and a community leader. In support of health care in Conway, he will become chief of the medical staff at Conway Regional in January and is also a co-chair of the Conway Regional Health Foundation’s upcoming capital campaign.

A University of Central Arkansas graduate, he served on the UCA Board of Trustees from 2002 through 2009 and is currently fulfilling a term on the state Department of Higher Education Coordinating Board, which oversees four and two-year public universities. “I just want to be available. If I can’t help as a surgeon then I want to get them the information they need in another area,” he said.

Takeaway for the public

His vast experience as a surgeon has convinced Stanton of the importance of leading a healthy lifestyle.

“In terms of my particular practice, we see a lot more diverticulitis; some of that is genetics but some of it is related to diet,” Stanton said. “After I started my practice, most of the people we would see with diverticulitis were in their 70s. As I got farther along, I started noticing people in their 50s, then their 40s, 30s and I now have operated on a few people in their 20s. I think it has to be the food that we eat. It is so refined. We just don’t get the fiber in our diet that we used to.”

Diverticulitis occurs when a person’s intestines become inflamed or infected. If left untreated, it can lead to abscessing, perforation or tearing of the inside of the intestine wall, blockage of the intestine and the formation of fistulas that spread infections to other organs.

While aging is a cause of diverticulitis, being overweight, smoking cigarettes, lack of exercise, eating red meat but not enough fiber and taking certain drugs such as steroids, opioids and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories like Ibuprofen or Naproxen are also risk factors.

“Obesity is a problem in our culture that complicates a lot of things. It’s not like some rocket science thing; it’s real. We need to eat better.”

Family blessing

As he continues to look back on his practice, he finds another blessing.

“My wife, Denise; it’s been very important to have her. At times it has been much harder on her than me,” he said, recalling their eight boys, ages 18 to 38 years. “Only one is medical, he’s a nurse anesthetist at Conway Regional,” he said. “One’s a musician, another is an architect, a computer guy; one works in the Governor’s Office.” Two are still in college and one is a senior in high school. All of them were home schooled by Denise.

“Every day is a gift. Every breath is a gift.”