First Female Surgeon Retires From Riley at IU Health




Dr. Karen West became the first female surgeon at Riley at IU Health 31 years ago. “It was a different time,” Dr. West said. “I was one of the first few women who had even completed the general surgery residency.” She explained that after her residency, she completed a pediatric surgery fellowship at the hospital, which allowed her to gain the trust and respect of nurses and physicians. “By the time I became Riley’s first practicing female surgeon, I truly felt like part of the team.”

Among her most memorable achievements, Dr. West cites the hospital’s first program for Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) to provide specialized life support for newborns with life-threatening heart and lung disease. She and Riley at IU Health neonatologist Dr. Bill Engle started the program in 1987 thanks to a $100,000 donation from a former patient’s grandparent. That donation purchased the first advanced equipment and provided training to physicians and nurses. Today, the program treats pediatric patients of all ages and also includes open-heart surgery. “This hospital is a phenomenal institution,” Dr. West said.

Dr. West is proud to see how Riley at IU Health has grown over her career – particularly the growth in numbers of female surgeons. She also noted that the rapid changes in healthcare have made it even more important to remember Riley’s backbone – respect and value as a team. Some of her favorite cases have revolved around the concept of team-based care, an approach that is quickly becoming the norm. Dr. West explained that a patient with a rare liver disease is now seen by multiple experts in one visit, including gastroenterology, general surgery, transplant, social work and dietetics. By treating patients as a group, physicians are able to broaden their understanding of how to treat a disease. “Plus, we can work on a treatment plan in one setting, rather than making families travel back and forth between specialists,” Dr. West added.

Despite all the advancements in medicine and technology, Dr. West said it is still the patients that stand out when she reflects on her career. “It’s always the kids,” Dr. West said. “It’s not just the kids who were able to walk out. It’s also the children we’ve lost.” She still hears from those patients’ parents. “That tells me that we’ve developed a sense of trust in each other at Riley,” she said. “It allows the parents to continue their mourning process by having someone they can call and talk to.”

Looking forward, Dr. West and her spouse are planning to relocate to her family’s farm in Bourbon, Indiana – a small town in northern Indiana’s Amish country. She said their plan has always been to go back home. “Once you’ve lived on a farm, it’s always part of you,” Dr. West said. “It’s an instant relaxation for me.”