Ingram’s Announces Its 2016 Class of Kansas City’s Top Doctors
For 18 years now, Ingram’s has scoured the halls of major medical centers and the corners of community hospitals, private practice groups and medical conglomerates, all in a quest to identify physicians who meet one incredibly high threshold of performance. And that is, if a member of your family faced a life-threatening condition and you had to choose from among this region’s top physicians for his or her treatment, who would get your call?
Medicine doesn’t get any more personal than that. And medical competency doesn’t get any more sophisticated than it does with Ingram’s Top Doctors honorees, physicians whose career works meet that same threshold every day. This year, we have representatives from the fields of cardiology and cancer care, neonatology and reproductive medicine, ophthalmology and urology.
Despite their varied backgrounds, specialties and organizations, all share an unrelenting commitment to serving the medical needs of their patients, and in doing so, improving those lives. They help make the Kansas City region’s level of medical care as good as any you’ll find in this country.
Selection of these 10 outstanding physicians came no easier this year than it did with any of the 17 cohorts that came before them. That’s one reason why we know the region is blessed with talent beyond its relative population size. But by every standard
of comparison with their predecessors, these new members of Ingram’s Top Doctors club have earned their places of respect. Please join us in saluting them for what they’ve given to all of us.
Reproductive Resource Center
“Never let an opportunity to teach slide.” Celeste Brabec’s father, one of the first doctors to venture into an emerging field called interventional radiology, lived by that precept. And learn young Celeste did. “Every situation became an opportunity to learn—yard and garden work were a biology lesson, cooking a lesson in chemistry and physics, driving and working on a car an engineering lesson, travel a lesson in geography, geology and meteorology,” she recalls. “He taught me to look at the world around me with wonder, and his impact led me to follow his footsteps into a career in medicine.”
And into a niche focused on the instant where life itself is created—reproductive endocrinology. In laymen’s terms, she treats infertility, and she’s a daily witness to something wondrous. “The realization that small compounds called hormones were responsible for the miracle of life, growth, puberty, pregnancy and menopause made me fall in love with reproductive endocrinology,” she said. “I have a large family of my own that I adore,” she says, so “giving my patients the opportunity to experience a small slice of that for themselves makes this career a perfect fit.”
A native of Omaha, she earned her medical degree at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, then came residency in Omaha and a fellowship at Harvard. She came to Kansas City in 1999 and rose to medical director of the center in 2010. “When I started my career in this field, very few options existed for couples struggling with infertility,” she said. “Only one medication was FDA-approved for treatment.” Today, multiple effective options successfully treat infertility patients, and with much higher success rates. “Seeing the evolution in our field has been amazing,” Brabec says, especially with technology that she says advances almost weekly. Factors that her grateful patients could add to the blessings she’s helped bring into their lives. “Not a day goes by,” Brabec says, “that I don’t hear from a patient whose life I have touched. Their great joy and thankfulness makes what I do worthwhile.”
University of Kansas Hospital
Gravity works just as well in South Dakota as anywhere else, which may be why the apple didn’t fall far from the tree at the Duchene household in Sioux Falls. “My father was a seventh-grade science teacher, and greatly influenced my interest in the biological sciences,” says David Duchene, a urologist at the University of Kansas Hospital. With that head start in his learning, and “with more exposure to all the advances and technology of human medicine, I decided to pursue medicine as a career,” he says.
He’s director of minimally-invasive urological surgery and kidney-stone disease for the hospital, and on the campus abutting Kansas City’s Midtown area, Duchene is also an assistant professor of urology at the University of Kansas Medical Center.
He earned his undergraduate degree (biology, naturally) from Creighton University, then headed to Dallas and Southwestern Medical Center, part of the University of Texas, for his medical degree, internship in general surgery and urology residency, because he thought the field offered “a great combination of surgery and clinical patient care.” Then came additional training in laparoscopic and robotic urological surgery and stone disease in Iowa City. Draw lines between those destinations—factoring in his wife’s Fort Worth origins—and you’ll find something close to a midpoint. “My wife and I knew that we wanted to raise our three children in an area where the focus on family remains strong,” says Duchene, who came to Kansas City more than a decade ago. “We couldn’t be happier with our choice of location.”
Duchene has developed a reputation as a skilled operator using technologies that are advancing rapidly. His specialty is a leader among surgical fields in the adoption of laparoscopy, robotic surgery and thermal ablation technology. “I specialize in minimally invasive urological surgery, so urology has offered an ever-changing and exciting career,” he says.
Saint Luke’s Health System
We’re pretty sure this is a first: Aaron Grantham, a cardiologist for Saint Luke’s Cardiovascular Consultants, is not only a Top Doctor this year, he’s the son of a Top Doctor—Jared Grantham, Class of 2000. And the family may not be done. “My oldest, Connor, is a third-generation KU Med student,” says Aaron. Daughter Emily just started on her Ph.D. in neuroscience at the University of Texas. Dillon, a freshman at KU, has already declared his intention to attend medical school. “The little guy, Aidan, now 14, say he wants to be a doctor,” Dad says. “I guess it has become part of the genome in our family. I do tell them that they had better love it: The sacrifices are real and the times are changing, but if you love it, you won’t be able to resist the calling and the rewards will be well worth it.”
Aaron Grantham saw those rewards first-hand through his father. “He is my hero and was my inspiration growing up,” Grantham says. “My mother has a picture that I drew in first or second grade of a doctor in scrubs with the caption ‘I want to be a doctor like my Dad.’” Some doubts set in during high school, but his college fraternity brothers taught him how to study and inspired him to pursue that childhood dream. Grantham also cites a long list of mentors who, he says, he’ll never be able to repay.
His path to cardiology started with the med school degree and internal medicine training at KU, then he earned his way into a Mayo Clinic fellowship in cardiology and interventional cardiology. Out of school at age 35, he returned to Kansas City. His field, he says, is “a fast-paced, high-tech, evidence-driven subspecialty where innovation and iteration happen at a blinding pace” and he relishes the opportunity to keep learning new things, adopt new techniques, and create solutions to intractable problems.
That he decided to stay in his hometown is a blessing to many, like the patient who, a dozen years ago, suffered from a blocked coronary artery. Other doctors shied away, but Grantham opened it, and the man returned later—eyes brimming with tears—to thank him for giving him his life back. This, Grantham long ago decided, would remain his home: “I’ve never lived anywhere else for more than five years, and I’m quite proud of that,” he says.
University of Kansas Hospital
The card comes every year, around the anniversary of that Super Bowl Sunday. There’s a note thanking Dhanunjaya Lakkireddy for what he did that day to give life back to a man on the threshold of losing it. When the cardiologist met him, that patient had been rushed up from Wichita during an electrical storm, his heart stopping several times along the way, and an implantable defibrillator had delivered the shocks to keep it going. “He had already been shocked 65 times by then, and was in pretty bad shape,” Lakkireddy recalls. For four hours, doctor and team labored to calm that heart, and when Lakkireddy walked into the waiting area, the man’s wife could express her gratitude only with tears of joy.
Moments like that—they are not infrequent—are “what make me wake up every morning and come to work,” Lakkireddy says. “In no other profession can people pay you with dividends like this.” A native of Hyderabad, India, he knew as a middle-schooler that he’d become a doctor, the first in his family. But he’s not just a cardiologist; he’s also director of the Center for Excellence in AF and Complex Arrhythmias at the University of Kansas Hospital, and teaches at the medical school.
Cardiology, he says, “is one of the most rewarding specialties in medicine. The ability to diagnose, manage and prevent disease and be able to appreciate the benefits immediately is quite satisfying.” It’s also one of the most prolific branches of the art and science of medicine, as heart disease is the nation’s No. 1 killer. After finishing his training at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, he had plenty of options, but “the opportunity at KU was perfect, with a tremendous potential to expand their complex arrhythmia ablation program and bring high quality research, education and cutting edge technology to the greater Midwest,” he said. “The vision of the KU administration to create a world-class cardiac arrhythmia program was in line with my personal goals and those of my partners.” And now, thanks to technology, he says, even from Kansas City, “we can now monitor and adjust treatment for patients with cardiac devices remotely from anywhere in the world.”
Research Medical Center
His work history and educational path reads like a foot-high pile of travel brochures: A native of the former British colony of Rhodesia—now Zimbabwe—Graham Lee completed his medical schooling in his home state, did his radiology residency at the prestigious Groote Schur Hospital in South Africa, served three fellowships in the U.S. (two at Yale University School of Medicine, one at New York University Medical Center), and soon after that set down roots in Kansas City.
One particular appeal of this place: The rolling plains weren’t unlike the topography from his Rhodesian upbringing. The place had something else going for it, too: “I chose Kansas City for my family because it had good schools and a nice, friendly family environment,” he says.
His parents’ interests in biology had steered him toward an interest in the life sciences, and after earning his medical degree, Lee realized that he wanted to immerse himself in the diagnostic aspects of medicine. He did precisely that: He has crafted a reputation as one of the top neuro-interventional radiologists in the market, and his acumen in stroke treatment, in fact, was the impetus for his recruitment to Research from another local hospital.
Neurosurgeon Geoff Blatt recalls making a presentation at a medical conference, posting images of a case that had simply confounded physicians. Lee was in the audience, and interrupted to make a suggestion. “He pointed out some small nuances that no one else had ever noticed, and immediately went to the correct diagnosis,” Blatt said. “As I got to know Graham, I was convinced that he needed to be at ‘my institution.’” Not long afterward, Lee was hanging his scrubs at Research, where he’s considered a “go-to guy,” in Blatt’s vernacular, for the toughest cases.
The biggest change Lee has seen in medicine during his career is the application of computing power to radiology procedures. “I can read images in multiple planes and in much greater detail now than when I first entered the field,” he says.
Truman Medical Centers
Sometimes, validation that your work makes a real difference is as close as your mailbox. For Thomas McCormack, an orthopedic surgeon based at Truman Medical-Center Lakewood, one example of that came with a letter that included a photo of senior citizens who had just met while waiting for their turns on a zip-line in Branson. Their small talk turned to knee-replacement surgery and the doctor who had done such a great job—and they quickly realized that McCormack had done each of their total knee replacements.
Not surprising; he’s performed hundreds of those and other surgeries. He specializes in gender-specific knee replacements, often for Baby Boomers. Given that there are 76.4 million of them in a prime joint-replacement age group, his long-term business prospects seem quite good.
This Kansas City native, raised with nine siblings, can tell you a thing or two about dental health, as well. In between two stints at Mizzou, he spent four years at UMKC’s School of Dentistry, where he earned his degree as a doctor of dental surgery. Sandwiched around that, he made dean’s list for three years while earning his bachelor’s in biochemistry at MU, then went back to Columbia after dental school, graduating cum laude from the medical program.
What brought him to orthopedics after positioning himself for a career in dental surgery? “Selfishly, I love to work with people who are injured or hurting, not necessarily sick,” McCormack says. “It is very satisfying to help my patients through their injuries and disability. It is rewarding to help them to return to their normal activities and lifestyle, and to be a part of these successful outcomes.”
In the two decades since he started his professional practice, he says advances in the palliative side have been the most impressive changes in his field. “Pain control—analgesia, combined with mini-invasive techniques,” he said, “make for quick recoveries, less pain, and happy patients.”
His work, including a stretch of more than five years with a zero percent post-operative infection rate, is credited with helping TMC-Lakewood become the region’s first hospital to earn the Joint Commission’s Gold Seal of Approval for hip and knee replacement programs.
Children’s Mercy Hospital
Have you ever had typhoid fever? Any idea what that feels like? Girish Shirali can tell you—he was 7 years old when it caught up to him in his native India. “I remember even now how weak I was; I was out of school for a month,” Shirali recalls. But his uncle—a pediatrician—successfully treated him, and “I guess that was when I decided I wanted to be a doctor—in fact, a pediatrician,” says Shirali. And he’s making a mark on pediatrics in Kansas City, as division director of cardiology at Children’s Mercy Hospital, co-director of the Ward Family Heart Center there, and professor at UMKC’s School of Medicine. After immigrating and retaking his residency in the U.S. (University of Texas Medical School in Houston), “I realized the intuitive draw that pediatric cardiology had for me,” he said. “Initially it appealed to me for a variety of reasons. For one thing, findings on physical examination, such as blue babies and heart murmurs, are striking. We see a wide range of abnormalities, typically in the way that the heart forms during development, that directly affect how it functions.”
Even though the field is comparatively new, it’s been marked by transformative changes in outcomes and prognoses, Shirali said. Unlike his med-school days, “today, we take even the most advanced treatment options for granted. Our surgical and interventional options have very good outcomes. As a result, the vast majority of our patients are surviving and thriving into adulthood and beyond.”
He’s been at Children’s Mercy for five years, hooked instantly on a recruiting visit here. “What I saw at Children’s Mercy simply blew me away,” he says. “At work, the combination of a patient- and family-centered culture, the emphasis on building multi-specialty teams, and the strong desire to build a center that would be a national leader—all of those were great attractions for me. The city itself took my wife and me by surprise as well. We found a vibrant and diverse community, one where the spirit of philanthropy is strong and the museums, arts, jazz, great BBQ and steaks make for a terrific combination.”
Durrie Vision Centers
It was, says Jason Stahl, the kind of childhood setting you don’t see much of anymore: A small town (Freeman, S.D., pop. 1,500), a grandfatherly physician in the corner office on Main Street, the doctor’s wife managing the office and scheduling patients. It sticks in his mind because that was his childhood, and those were his grandparents. “I grew up learning work ethic on the farm, and was blessed to have a grandfather who was a general practitioner; that’s where my interest in medicine came from,” says Stahl, and opthalmologic surgeon for Durrie Vision. “My family was very encouraging of me to pursue my interest in medicine, and it had been my goal as long as I can remember—I spent a lot of time in that office.”
He picked up his degree from the University of South Dakota School of Medicine, then did a three-year ophthalmology residency at Texas A&M’s Scott & White Hospital before moving to Kansas City. “Going into med school, I assumed I would be a primary-care type, in family practice or internal medicine,” Stahl says.
But so much of medicine is about treating pathologies to return people to their normal lifestyles, and he came to realize that loss of vision was among the biggest factors separating people from the life they want to live. About that same time, a new procedure called Lasik surgery was being introduced, and the ability to correct vision for patients could make their lives better than ever before. “So I decided this was what I was going to do,” he said.
His field is changing rapidly as new surgical procedures emerge. Now, instead of vision surgery to correct for simply near-sightedness, modern procedures and lens-replacement surgery can eliminate a patient’s need for glasses altogether. “I’m so amazed, thinking back from 24 years ago to where we are now, at our ability to treat these refractive errors, to achieve 20/20 vision or greater, and to do it just as safe as wearing contacts, with greater patient satisfaction,” he says. “It’s fun to take care of a patient, perform a procedure and within minutes, they’re seeing better than they ever had, without glasses or contacts, to have that freedom to get up in the morning and just go.” The last set of eyes to proof this profile, in fact, enjoys a lens installed by Dr. Stahl.
Olathe Health System
Stephen Smalley’s medical career is like a set of train tracks: His clinical side as a radiologist runs parallel to his interests as a cancer researcher. So he treats the macro with his lab work, and the micro with individual patients. “I have been very active in medical research throughout my career,” he says, and “I have deeply enjoyed participating in scientific research in many ways.” That means collaborations with others, here and around the world. Some of his research ideas bore no fruit, but in others, he says, “I’ve been fortunate enough to facilitate very significant new therapies or insight into cancer treatment,” including cures for common and uncommon malignancies, and improved palliative care. “Knowing that the advances I made would be extended to people worldwide has been intensely gratifying,” he says, as has knowing that the new insights and therapies he’s helped develop will drive further advances in cancer therapy.
He was just 5, he said, when he decided to go into medicine, inspired by the pediatrician treating his chronic ear infections. He went through three residency/fellowship programs at the Mayo Clinic before settling on radiation oncology, which blended the aspects of medicine he most enjoyed. “Radiation oncology allows me to get to know, understand and forge a therapeutic relationship with people struggling with cancer and their families,” he said, and it was unique in that regard.
And it touches people in powerful ways. Even as a fellow at Mayo, he saw that. One of his first patients was a woman visibly suffering from bone cancer. He admits to being distraught at the sight but began treatments, and she soon was thanking him for relieving her pain. “I was awestruck: ‘Wow!’” he recalls. “I said at that moment, ‘this is what I want to do with my career.’ What a privilege it is to be able to help people in such a situation.”
His national reputation means he could work anywhere—his children, in fact, once pressed him about why they weren’t being raised in California. “My answer was, ‘because this is where we want to live, where our families live, and where people are brave and strong,’” Smalley said. “I’m not sure that satisfied them, but it was the truth.”
Sunflower Neonatology Associates
It’s almost impossible for anyone who hasn’t seen or held one to comprehend just how tiny—and delicate—a human life can be if birth comes prematurely. Kathleen Weatherstone understands all too well. “A lot of people think neonatology is standard newborn care,” says Weatherstone, who founded her practice in 2004. “But our patients vary from 500 grams to 5,000 grams, and that’s a big spectrum of gestational ages and sizes.” For those not versed in Euroweights, that’s as little as a single pound—a far cry from the 7½-pound average for a newborn in America.
Every day of her career, Weatherstone confronts the challenge of nudging extremely ill or premature infants just a little closer to viability. The emotional weight of that kind of work can accumulate. While most who go into medicine practiced at the start of a patient’s life are rewarded with Rockwellian images of fawning mother and healthy infant, Weatherstone and her staff of eight fight a more difficult battle. “It can be very challenging,” she says. “But I consider it a privilege—it really is a privilege to be able to help families and be with patients when things go well.” But they don’t always go well. And then, she says. “it’s also a privilege to be able help them when the outcomes aren’t what we hoped. That’s a skill, too, that as physicians we must develop to be able to help them.”
A Kansas City native, Weatherstone had her horizons broadened in high school when her family moved to New Jersey. She came back here for medical school at KU, did her pediatric residency in Virginia and her fellowship in neonatal-perinatal medicine in Ohio, then returned to Kansas City to start work in her field.
She was drawn into that practice area, she said, because “I felt like children just handle their disease very well, and I was fascinated with that. Neonatology was particularly interesting to me because of the growth and development of the newborn and fetus.” The team atmosphere in NICU, working with physicians to care for babies and their families, the critical-care aspects and the collaborations with other neonatologists to find what’s best for baby and mother—“I found all of that very fascinating,” she says.