Retro Riley: First practicing female surgeon

Riley 100 |

03/07/2024

Dr. Karen West Riley First Practicing Pediatric Surgeon History

As we celebrate Women’s History Month in March, it is only fitting to recognize one of Riley Hospital for Children’s most accomplished physicians and surgeons. But she didn’t start out planning to be a doctor.

Karen West completed her undergraduate studies in computer and electrical engineering at Purdue University, before taking a job with McDonnell Douglas as a flight test acquisition engineer for three years. She would later turn her attention to medicine, graduating from the Indiana University School of Medicine and completing her general surgery residency and obstetrics/gynecology residency at Methodist Hospital.

Under the leadership of Dr. Jay Grosfeld, Riley’s first surgeon-in-chief, the surgery department established a pediatric training program in 1982, and their first fellow was Dr. West. She would go on to become Riley Hospital’s first female surgeon in 1984.

“It was a different time,” she said. “I was one of the first few women who had even completed the general surgery residency.”

After her residency, she completed a pediatric surgery fellowship at Riley 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.”

Dr. Frederick Rescorla, later head of surgery, recalled Dr. West as “very relaxed, calm, a technically superb surgeon.” Jackie Buttram, a Riley operating room nurse from 1979 to 2005, described her as “compassionate and a great teacher,” as well as a great mentor to her residents. “Dr. West was a wonderful role model and leader. I feel privileged to have worked with her.”

In 1995, Dr. West performed an emergency procedure to separate twins about 90 minutes after their birth, the first such surgery at Riley to separate conjoined twins. Their bladders and intestines were joined, leading to potentially fatal complications, but the surgery was successful. In 2001, she assisted in separating twins who were joined from the bottom of the sternum to the belly button and shared an umbilical cord and liver. The highly complex surgery was carried out by a 17-member team of Riley doctors and nurses.

Karen West Bill Engle operating room surgery

Early in her career, Dr. West teamed up with neonatologist Dr. Bill Engle (pictured), nurse manager Susan Gunn and NICU manager Becky Burks to start the extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) service at Riley Hospital for Children’s NICU in 1987. The program provides specialized life support for patients with life-threatening heart and lung disease. A $100,000 donation from a former patient’s grandparent provided the first advanced equipment and training to physicians and nurses. Dr. West served as the ECMO program’s surgical director. Today, Riley Hospital’s ECMO program treats pediatric patients of all ages. Dr. Laura Haneline, professor of pediatrics and division chief of neonatal-perinatal medicine, recalls that over 28 years, “Bill and Karen built a state-of-the-art ECMO program with national distinction. They assisted in expanding this lifesaving technology to older pediatric and cardiac patients at Riley. Without their foundational work, the Riley ECMO Program would not be what it is today.” Today, Riley Hospital is designated as a Platinum Level Center of Excellence by the Extracorporeal Life Support Organization (ELSO).

Dr. West was nominated for three Trustee Teaching Awards and was chosen as the 2004 Indianapolis Business Journal Physician Medical Hero. She was awarded a 2010 Outstanding Woman Faculty Member award by the IUPUI Office for Women (pictured). She retired in 2015 as professor emeritus of the Division of Pediatric Surgery. For Dr. West, it was her patients, not advancements in medicine and technology, that stood out when she reflected on her career. “It’s always the kids,” she said. #Riley100

--Compiled by the Riley Hospital Historic Preservation Committee, photos courtesy IUPUI University Library Special Collections and Archives