Bernie Park ’85 is Deputy Chief of Thoracic Surgery at Memorial Hospital for Cancer and Allied Diseases and Professor of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York. His specialty is the surgical treatment of thoracic disease, such as lung cancer, esophageal cancer, benign esophageal disorders, thymic tumors, and chest wall diseases. Park is one of the pioneers of minimally invasive, robotic thoracic surgery and has trained and mentored surgeons at several leading academic institutions, including the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Duke University Medical Center, and the University of Pennsylvania. Park is a frequent invited lecturer and visiting professor, both nationally and internationally.
During his last year of middle school, Park’s parents asked him if he would consider boarding school. They felt the three best schools were Andover, Exeter, and Hotchkiss. “As soon as I visited Hotchkiss, I knew it was the right place for me,” he says. Park flourished at Hotchkiss, continuing a strong interest in mathematics and science. There were a number of faculty members who were great mentors to him. “In the sciences, Jim Morrill in Biology and Joe Merrill in Chemistry really made high-level science fun.” However, it was in a subject that was not his strongest that Park feels his Hotchkiss experience perhaps influenced him the most. “Robert Hawkins, Geoff Marchant, and Blair Torrey helped me develop the skills to analyze literature and communicate clearly and effectively that made my subsequent path possible.”
Park went on to Georgetown (Alpha Sigma Nu Jesuit Honor Society; Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society) for premedical studies. After receiving a B.S. in chemistry, Park entered the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine to obtain his medical degree and was exposed to a variety of specialties, but ultimately chose surgery. He graduated in 1993 and was awarded the Merck Award for Outstanding Scholarship. Park then pursued general surgery training at The New York Hospital−Cornell Medical Center. During his residency, he spent two years as a research fellow in the Surgery Branch of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Bethesda, where he performed basic science research working on developing targeted viral therapy for cancer. “My years in the lab were much like my time in Prep English – learning how to read and write properly, but this time in scientific terms.” Next, Park returned to New York and finished general surgery and went on to fellowship training in thoracic surgery at New York Presbyterian Hospital-Cornell and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC).
At the completion of his training Park was recruited to the faculty of the MSKCC Thoracic Service, one of the busiest centers in the world. His clinical care duties include seeing patients twice a week and operating two to three times a week. In a tradition that began at Hotchkiss, teaching is a large part of his routine. MSKCC is host to countless medical students, residents, fellows, and visiting observers. “I really enjoy teaching and inspiring the trainees to pursue a career in thoracic surgery – it is the best part of my job,” he says. While at MSKCC, Park was among the first in the world and the first in North America to develop and report the technique of complex, robotic-assisted lung resection. He has authored or co-authored more than 80 papers in peer-reviewed journals and ten book chapters and is a member of numerous national and international medical societies. Park is a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons and is the current President of the New York Society of Thoracic Surgeons, the oldest thoracic surgical society in the United States.
According to Park, there have been three major advances in the field of thoracic surgery and thoracic cancer care in the last decade. The first is the major expansion and development of minimally invasive surgery. “It is well-established that being able to perform major chest procedures without having to spread the ribs affords great advantages to the patient in terms of reduced complications and faster recovery.” Park believes that telerobotic technology will only further advance the field. “Three-dimensional, binocular vision coupled with wristed instrumentation allow the surgeon to offer increasingly complex operations to patients with less trauma and to patients unable to tolerate traditional open surgery in the past.”
The second advance has been in lung cancer screening. Lung cancer, diagnosed in more than 200,000 people a year in the U.S., remains difficult to cure because most patients are diagnosed at an advanced stage. “Early detection is the key, and we now have a modality that has been proven to reduce lung cancer mortality by 20 percent in a high-risk population,” says Park, who is head of the Lung Cancer Screening Program at MSKCC. The third, and perhaps the most exciting advance in thoracic cancer care, is the development of molecular profiling and targeted therapy. “We have an entire program devoted to discovering the genetic mutations that drive oncogenesis and can be subsequently targeted for treatment.” But the challenges are many, despite the advances in technology and improvements in procedures. “Every human is unique and different. You can prepare thoroughly and do your best, but there is always an element of unpredictability.”
Park’s family life is busy as well; he and his wife, Alicia, have three children − Abby (12); Lenny (9); and Bobby (7). Alicia works full-time as Vice President of Communications and Marketing at Englewood Medical Center in New Jersey. Park credits the ability to juggle his career and family responsibilities with lessons learned long ago in Lakeville. “At times being at Hotchkiss was tough. You were living away from home for the first time, having to coordinate your own schedule and take responsibility for the whole of your life. The academics were challenging. But I look back fondly on my time at Hotchkiss today, because it truly prepared me to succeed.”
For students considering a medical career, Park gives the following advice: “Make sure it inspires you – that you feel passionate about it. Do your homework. Find an early mentor and experience as many of the pros and cons so that you can make the most informed decision possible. If a career in medicine is right for you, it can be one that leads to a lifetime of fulfillment and productivity.” Leaving behind a legacy is important to Park. “I think that your legacy is not about what you have or have not been able to acquire. It is about what you have done and whom you have influenced that continue to bear fruit in the future.”