Kansas City’s Medical Marvels

For two decades, Ingram’s Top Doctors have defined excellence in health care


By Dennis Boone



     Sometimes, it’s worth looking back to see how far you’ve come.

     So it is with this, the 19th annual installment of Ingram’s Top Doctors. We introduced these awards in 1999 to recognize the exceptional levels of care provided by a physician corps serving a metropolitan area that has grown to nearly 3 million people.

     Extrapolated from national figures, this region quite likely boasts more than 9,000 doctors of various kinds, from primary-care physicians and family-medicine practitioners to the most sophisticated medical specialists in cancer care, stroke and diabetes treatment, cardiovascular disease and other fields.

     So as we stop to take a look back, consider this: If only the top 5 percent of that universe could qualify as Top Doctors—those whose levels of competency, care and compassion set standards for their organizations—one might expect nearly 500 physicians to have attained this status in 19 years.

     But Top Doctors is considerably more exclusive than that: Fewer than half that number, in fact, have been recognized over the years. So membership in this club truly isn’t just out of the ordinary, it can be out of the extraordinary.

     We started this program with one overarching criterion for membership: If it were you in need of treatment, or a member of your family, to whom would you turn for the highest level of care?

     For two decades, the physician community and hospital administrators have answered that question with resounding endorsements of those who have been recognized as Ingram’s Top Doctors. Their judgment, and the skills of the physicians honored, are tools that all of us can employ to improve the quality of life—and lives—in this region.

     A Kansas City native, Craig Anderson has spent the better part of three decades as a general surgeon—the specialists called on to repair a huge range of potential maladies that patients can experience. That encompasses the digestive system, endocrine system, breast surgery, soft-tissue and skin maladies; it’s rarely the same work two days in a row.

     And, as Anderson says, his work takes place at the intersection between the physical and the psychological. “I believe I was drawn into medicine because of the desire to care for people and to help them meet very personal challenges,” he said. The interest in surgery in particular, he said, was because “general surgeons manage a wide variety of conditions involving the abdomen, chest, endocrine system and many other conditions.”

     He earned his medical degree from the University of Kansas School of Medicine in 1985, then moved over to Saint Luke’s Hospital for both his internship and his residency, wrapping that tour up in 1990. Anderson is board-certified in general surgery by the American Board of Surgery.

     When it was time to settle down and build a career, he says, home won out. “My wife (who is also a physician) and I are from around the Kansas City area and we wanted to stay close to our family,” Anderson said.  

     He’s on the staff of Olathe Health’s Midwest Surgical Associates, a practice founded more than 60 years ago, and a local pioneer in the use of minimally invasive surgeries. Those procedures can be done with incisions that, by comparison with techniques when the practice started, are comparatively tiny, which allows patients to heal more quickly and reduces the cost and pain of recovery.

      Over the course of nearly 30 years, it’s difficult to pick out any one patient whose outcome has produced a lasting impressing, but Anderson routinely feels the impact he has on patients’ lives. “Certainly weekly, if not almost daily, I get a simple smile or thank you that lets me know I have done a good job and my patient’s life is better because of it,” he says.

It wasn’t a childhood memory of a caring physician, or the influence of a doctor or nurse in the family. Nope, Scott Chapman became a cardiologist by taking a rare path for a caregiver: He had a degree in electrical engineering, and was working as a field engineer for a medical device company, work that exposed him to clinical trials in intensive-care units and operating rooms. 

     “It was there that I realized that I was made for medicine which involves a combination of science, technology and making a direct impact in people’s lives,” he says. Cardiology followed naturally, he said, via the electrophysiology involved. “The cardiovascular system uses several engineering and hemodynamic principles with which I could easily relate,” he says. 

     He made Kansas City his home, he says, because “my wife and I were drawn to the variety of opportunities for family activities, good schools, Midwestern values, and overall business environment,” Chapman says. “As a native of northeast Iowa, we found the Kansas City winters to be much more mild, which we looked at as a bonus.”

     In working with North Kansas City Hospital’s Meritas Health Cardiology practice, Chapman works in a world where change is both revolutionary, and a constant. “The field of cardiology enjoys a rapid changes and improvements exhibited by new procedures, improvements in existing devices or procedures, new medications and improvements in electronic medical records systems,” he says. 

     But he’s able to bring those new tools to bear on cases that literally are matters of life and death. One example of that, he remembers, involved a man with severe cardiomyopathy, requiting implantation of a defibrillator. 

     Still, the man’s condition ultimately worsened, and Chapman referred him for heart transplantation. “I had developed a rather deep bond with both the patient and his wife,” he recalls, “and it was a time of celebration for all three of us when he made an excellent recovery after his heart transplantation.”

     Advanced arthritis is unusual for someone in their 20s, but one young woman’s case stands out for Scott Cook for other reasons. The Down syndrome patient also had deformities and ligament damage and couldn’t walk, he remembers—but she wanted to be able to dance. 

    “She was visibly happy when she came back for her six-week check-up,” says the orthopedic surgeon with Orthopaedic & Sports Medicine and the Kansas City Orthopaedic Institute. But “when she came back for her four-month check-up, she was absolutely radiating joy.  She had been dancing with her friends!” She gave him a hug and a hand-written card that simply said, “Dr. Cook, Thank you for my new knee. I love it.” “That card,” he says, “has hung on the wall of my office ever since.” 

     That story and that card are powerful validations of his choice to become a doctor, one he made for reasons he still doesn’t understand, when he was just 7 years old. 

     “Neither of my parents are doctors, nor are any of my extended family members,” he says. “I did not experience first-hand any sort of medical crisis as a child. The only thing that I can come up with is that my parents had a very good friend who was a cardiologist and a very dynamic individual.” 

     That, and a first-hand look at orthopedic surgery after tearing a knee ligament while playing high school football in his native Texas, had him hooked. The memory of the care he received and what he learned about human mechanics proved irresistible. 

     “To me, there is absolutely nothing like seeing a patient arriving to the hospital in a wheelchair and then walking out,” he says. “It never gets old.” 

     He specializes in repairing other failed surgical procedures, giving patients an opportunity to reclaim an active life. Every day, he says, “I have the privilege of meeting new people and playing an important role in getting them back to an active lifestyle.” Ingram’s publisher Joe Sweeney is one of Cook’s patients and he had a hand in replacing both of Sweeney’s hips in 2016, for which he remains grateful. 

     “I am very blessed to say that I know, without a doubt, that I get to do exactly what God designed me to do on a daily basis,” Cook says.

     “Every day in the emergency department is an adventure,” says Milton Fowler, whose work at Children’s Mercy takes on an additional complexity because he’s not just dealing with small patients, but stressed parents. “You have the sick and not-so-sick, the injured and the traumatized, the overdosed and the acute psychiatric-flare,” he says. “And then you have the worried mom or dad, and the best thing or the most rewarding thing that I can do is give them an answer to why their child is in pain and what the answer will be to allow their child to just be a kid again.” 

     He was inspired to become a doctor by his mother, a nurse—and by youth in Omaha, where severe allergies and multiple ear, nose and throat issues made him a regular at local hospitals. 

     Those experiences, he says, “led me to my interest in helping others combat illnesses. I wanted to be the person that allowed others to enjoy life without pain or illness.” He started at Children’s Mercy 23 years ago with his fellowship in pediatric medicine, building on his emergency medicine. “The excitement of the emergency room is like a surge of adrenaline,” he says. “I love to find organization amongst the chaos; but more than that it is an honor and a privilege to be able to use my skills to affect the lives of children.”  

     In addition to his ER role, he serves as senior medical director for outreach and regional practices, and he’s an associate professor of pediatrics for the UMKC School of Medicine. 

     The regional focus has placed him squarely within the hospital’s efforts to extend its reach regionally. “In the pediatric age group, painless procedures is the goal, and being able to use telemedicine as a convenient way to reach patients and consultants is the wave of the future,” Fowler says. 

     So is a continuous-improvement philosophy. “Patient safety and analyzing processes to prevent adverse events is a major highlight of emergency medicine today,” he says. “In the future, patients need to be given the right treatment that is safe and has a predictable outcome that is based on evidence the first time.”

     Young Stephanie Graff had an idol in health care, a sister 16 years her senior who was a nurse. “Every time I would say, ‘I want to be a nurse,’ she would say, ‘Stephanie, you can be a doctor,’” Graff remembers. “I guess it stuck. Having someone believe you can be the biggest version of your dream is powerful.”

     So is a mentoring influence like the high school teacher who had advised her on the importance of enthusiastic reading and its impact on career choices. “The science, pharmacology, and biology of cancer rivets me,” Graff says. “I love reading about my job. Breast oncology in particular has a very strong human element that I find to be the best part. I get to connect with my patients personally. It is absolutely the perfect fit for me.” 

     But it’s one that requires, well, lots of additional reading, given the pace of change. “Oncology is advancing at a remarkable pace,” she says. “New technology advances like Da Vinci robotic surgery, TruBeam radiation oncology, and diagnostic advances like genetic and genomic profiling have all improved patient care.” Drug development, too, is ever-evolving, she says, and in her work at the cancer institute, she’s been part of research efforts to bring new oncology drugs brought to market. 

     Working with patients, assisting in their recovery, engaging in research—all of it has its rewards. “I feel lucky to have validating moments nearly every day,” Graff says. “Hugs from survivors fill my day as we celebrate life beyond breast cancer. Some of the most meaningful moments in my life have been goodbyes with patients at end of life when I try to communicate exactly what that person has meant to me.”

     And a few patients, she says, truly stand out, because they “taught me personal strength, the power of love, and overcoming adversity through positivity and humor. How can I be frustrated with minor setbacks or problems when spending my time with persons as resilient as my cancer patients?

     “I am lucky to have been a part of their life.”  

     It was a defining moment in Michael Liston’s life: As a medical intern, working with a supervising resident, he crossed paths with an older woman in the emergency room, suffering from an acute shortness of breath. “We looked at her, sitting bolt upright in bed, and the resident dutifully noted she was probably in heart failure. He showed me an X-ray, and she was clearly in cardiac failure.” 

     They administered medication, and 30 minutes later, “the difference was night and day,” Liston remembers. “She was laying back in bed, comfortable and breathing fine. It was such an acute turn-around, such a drastic change in status. At that moment, I knew what I wanted to do.”

     That, of course, was a reinforcement of what he’d seen growing up, with his mother’s work as a nurse and an uncle who was a doctor. After pondering psychology, he realized that his interests in science, particularly biology and chemistry, were calling him to another direction.

     He earned his medical degree at UMKC, did his internship, residency and fellowship at the University of Kansas Hospital, settling on cardiology as his field. There was never a question he’d be practicing the craft in his hometown.

     “I’ve met enough physicians who have moved here from other places who tell me how wonderful it is in KC,” says Liston, chief medical officer for Saint Mary’s. “We’re in the flatlands, not close to mountains or oceans, but the cost of living is wonderful, the people are wonderful. I do travel some, but there’s not a more comfortable place to work.” 

     During the course of his career, cardiology has moved from the early forms of heart catheterization into dramatically different and enhanced techniques. New treatments and medications have increased life spans, decreased risk for death and stroke, and improved recovery times. “Where we used to have diagnoses of death within five years, we’re now seeing pat-ients live 10 to 20 years and beyond,” Liston says. “It’s not like a linear acceleration into the future, it’s almost exponential.”

     Mom was a nurse, and Dad was on the board of the hospital in her hometown of Hays, Kan., so it was no stretch that Lisa Hays would end up becoming a health-care provider in her own right.

     But seriously: How many endocrinologists do you know that have competed collegiately in hammer throw, discus and shot put? 

     “I was always a jock, which is the way I went into endocrinology,” says Hays, of Shawnee Mission Health’s Endocrinology & Diabetes Associates. “When I went to medical school, I thought about orthopedics and sports medicine, but was really interested in the physiology, the endocrine system, and some exercise physiology as well. When I heard my first lecture on endocrinology and osteoporosis, I remember being fascinated by the physiology of it.” 

     Some of that reaction was personal: Her grandfather suffered from Type I diabetes, and died when her own father was 16. She completed all her training at KU, including her track and field duties, medical school, residency and fellowship, and with sisters living here with family, it was a no-brainer to make her career in KC. 

     Given that one of the greatest emerging population health threats is Type II diabetes related to the obesity epidemic in America, she’s in one of the hottest fields in medicine. “Right now, in diabetes, some amazing advances are being made, especially in the treatment of Type I,” which primarily attacks juveniles, she said. “There’s emerging tech that basically will manage patients’ glucose levels for them, automatically.”

     And with Type II, “there are so many emerging medications that are really showing promise and helping with weight loss, helping reduce cardiovascular disease and death.” What she really loves, Hays said, is being able to provide chronic, ongoing care for patients, either in the hospital or as outpatients. “Some days, it can be a burden” to deal with unfavorable outcomes, she says, but overall, the work she does “brings quality to your life. The things of substance that we’re all looking for in life.”

     Mom was a nurse, and Dad was on the board of the hospital in her hometown of Hays, Kan., so it was no stretch that Lisa Hays would end up becoming a health-care provider in her own right.

     But seriously: How many endocrinologists do you know that have competed collegiately in hammer throw, discus and shot put? 

     “I was always a jock, which is the way I went into endocrinology,” says Hays, of Shawnee Mission Health’s Endocrinology & Diabetes Associates. “When I went to medical school, I thought about orthopedics and sports medicine, but was really interested in the physiology, the endocrine system, and some exercise physiology as well. When I heard my first lecture on endocrinology and osteoporosis, I remember being fascinated by the physiology of it.” 

     Some of that reaction was personal: Her grandfather suffered from Type I diabetes, and died when her own father was 16. She completed all her training at KU, including her track and field duties, medical school, residency and fellowship, and with sisters living here with family, it was a no-brainer to make her career in KC. 

     Given that one of the greatest emerging population health threats is Type II diabetes related to the obesity epidemic in America, she’s in one of the hottest fields in medicine. “Right now, in diabetes, some amazing advances are being made, especially in the treatment of Type I,” which primarily attacks juveniles, she said. “There’s emerging tech that basically will manage patients’ glucose levels for them, automatically.”

     Long before he enrolled at Mashad University in Iran to pursue his medical degree, Moytaba Olyaee knew where he wanted to go in life. “When I was a young boy growing up, I saw how the power of medicine could change lives,” he says. “I saw how it helped the old extend their lives. I saw how it helped cure people afflicted with disease. I knew this was to be my calling at a young age.”

     And it would make him the first in his family to go in to medicine. That he’s practicing it here, and serving as director of the system’s division of gastroenterology/hepatology, can be attributed to two factors. One was by chance; he had family here, attending the University of Kansas. The other was that old Kansas City magic that hooks so many executives once they get here. 

     “As time progressed, I fell in love with Midwest culture and values and enjoyed the quality of life in Kansas City,” he said. “The medical field in Kansas has an excellent track record in medical education and patient care.” 

     So why gastroenterology? “This is one of the few specialties that would give me the opportunity to apply the art of medicine in a broad and fast-growing field,” he said, “while being able to perform several cutting-edge procedures in patients with acute and chronic conditions and diseases.” 

     And those cutting-edge techniques are rapidly changing. GI, he said, “is a rapidly growing, technology-driven specialty. Advances in technology have revolutionized our field and have given us the opportunity to better serve our patients. Both diagnosis and treatment of patient has significantly improved by incorporating cutting-edge technology to patient care.” 

     Every day, he says, he gets to interact with patients who have cancer or liver failure. “Every day, every patient, every time is the chance to help a patient in need,” Olyaee says. “Whether it is resolving a patient’s pain, or helping them to get a liver transplant, I find it to be so refreshing and humbling. Positively impacting my patients every day reminds why I am in this field, and it gives me the energy and drive to continue to work.”

     Timothy Pluard had a good thing going in St. Louis. He was clinical director of breast oncology at Washington University/Siteman Cancer Center in St. Louis,” and “I wasn’t looking to leave,” he remembers. “In fact, we were in the middle of building the proverbial dream house we always wanted.” 

     Then came an irresistible opportunity. Saint Luke’s was looking for a medical director at its cancer center, and Pluard saw in that an opportunity to create something of his own. “I was really drawn to Saint Luke’s because of the system’s commitment to quality and excellence of patient care in an academic environment, with the UMKC affiliation. 

     It was a great opportunity to build a program. My wife and I were overwhelmed at how open and welcoming Kansas City was. It’s been a fantastic place, professionally and personally.” A native of Chicago, he was the first in his family to become a doctor, getting to medical school after starting in computer engineering. A wise mentor suggested medical school, telling him that if it didn’t work out, IT wold always be there as a fallback.

     But med school took, and oncology made sense because “it seemed to be the field which was going to see the most change,” he said. “It was the most dynamic field within internal medicine for the lifespan of my career, and that’s actually come to fruition.” 

     The rate of change, discovery and advancements in oncology has outpaced any other area of medicine, he says. “We now have tools and technology—the whole human genome project was transformative for oncology, and has unleashed new opportunities and improvements in therapy.” 

     But, he says, “we’re in the first inning of this game—genomic medicine. Our technologies are going to improve, and the cost is going to decline.” And he’s glad to play a part in that. 

     “I genuinely believe,” he says, “that I’ve been blessed with doing what I was supposed to be doing on this earth. I love what I do, and very few people get to say that.”

     As a youngster, Thomas Samuelson might have known the emergency-room staff at his local hospital on a first-names basis. “I lacerated my liver in a sledding accident and had a head injury from a bike accident, both of which required surgery,” he recalls. “Experiencing how my physicians were able to help me gave me an early appreciation for the medical field and the impact physicians can have on the lives of their patients.”

     And in that way, a doctor was born. An orthopedic surgeon, to be precise. “Orthopedics is unique in that most of our patients are impaired or limited, due to a musculoskeletal condition, rather than being sick,” Samuelson says. “Our medical and surgical treatments allow us to provide dramatic improvement in their function and quality of life.” 

     Always a tinkerer who has enjoyed learning how things work and fixing them, “orthopedic surgery allows me to combine this hobby with my interest in medicine,” he says. “The musculoskeletal system is very mechanical, and I enjoy using my knowledge of anatomy and the procedures I have learned, to maintain that system, which we work with every day. 

     As with all medical practices, orthopedics has seen dramatic advances in technology and the tools available to practitioners. “Despite all the advances in technology and procedures we can perform, the most important part of what we can do is basic medicine,” Samuelson says. “The art of medicine is being able to listen to the patient, perform a quality examination and then use that information to determine what can be done to improve their quality of life.”  

     His sub-specialty is orthopedic sports medicine, which allows him to treat a wide variety of athletic injuries and conditions that take people out of their sport and other activities. 

     “It’s rewarding to work with all of those athletes as they rehabilitate and return to their previous level of function,” Samuelson says. “Watching them return to the field or to their activities is very gratifying.”

     For Peter Tadros, cardiology is both professional and personal. When he was growing up in his native Texas, his brother Mark had congenital heart disease that required surgery at age 4 and again at 8, at the hands of the world-renowned surgeon Denton Cooley. Those procedures would prolong his life, but only until college. “His struggle was what made me want to lock onto a medical career,” Tadros says. “I didn’t know if I could do it, but I had strong desire to see if I could make a difference.” 

     After Rice University, Tadros headed to St. Louis along with his wife for his cardiology training at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, then to Kansas City, his wife’s hometown. These days, he finds himself wowed by the technological advances in interventional cardiology, particularly with transcatheterization valve replacement and other procedures that allow surgery without opening a patient’s chest. Those, he says, often produce next-day hospital dismissals, rather than the week- long stays and 6-month rehabilitations of yore. He’s also been part of  research efforts that produced a co-authored piece in the New England Journal of Medicine.  

     A favorite patient outcome involves a man who was quite sick and had to be shocked 37 times to keep him alive, but after surgery, he recovered, is doing well, and even sent Tadros a thank you note with a photo from Royals fantasy camp.
“He was this close to not making it,” Tadros marvels, “but the ability to bring someone back from the brink, that’s why I do what I do.”

     Not all outcomes are so positive, of course, and when the worst happens, he says, “it’s hard. It’s very hard. And it never gets easier to walk out there and see a family with hope in their eyes and have to tell them it’s not founded.” Helping them grieve, sometimes praying with them, is a part of his work. But he also draws on something personal, from his youth. “I’m reminded of growing up and seeing what my brother went through,” Tadros says. “I try to tap into that, not see things from the physician side, but from the patient side. It’s hard being on the patient’s side, it really is,” he says, “but it helps to understand them.”

     Vocal performance, not medicine, was the plan for Jamie Wagner during her first years at Truman State University, and like a lot of students, she took a part-time job to help make it happen. Turns out, the job was working at the hospital in Kirksville. 

     “A doctor I met there was astounded that I wasn’t in a medical track,” she remembers. But “watching how she impacted the lives of her patients affected me spiritually and emotionally.” So she pivoted academically, picked up her degree in health science, and went to medical school. 

     She initially considered anesthesia, “but I realized I wanted to have a longer-term relationship with patients, and I didn’t like chronic medicine—I loved acute-care medicine, and was in love with the technical aspects of surgery. The combination was a perfect fit,” she says.  

     Surgery, she said, “feels like it was my calling in life; God has a purpose for everybody, and this has been mine.” She did her residency at the prestigious M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, and breast surgery as part of that. “I loved the research that goes on with breast cancer,” she says. “I feel like what I’m doing matters and that I’m making a difference because it’s very unique to women because of the social aspects. But it touches not just the patients, but their support systems—children, spouses, partners, parents, siblings. Because of that psychosocial aspect, the approach has to be completely different.” 

     Her work touches people in so many different ways, she says, and “that’s what’s truly humbling and why I get up every day. What I do, it’s hard. As perfect as I try to be, unfortunately, we do have failures—a recurrence with a patient, or loss of life. That’s hard to deal with. But every day, I have successes with patients, seeing them get back to their lives. A few weeks ago, I saw a patient who was pregnant during diagnosis, and to see her still have an opportunity to have a healthy baby, nurse the child and complete all her treatments—it’s incredibly rewarding that I can offer that.”