Alumnus spotlight: Jennifer S. Lawton, M.D.

In recent decades, cardiac medicine has made great strides. With the percentage of patients surviving heart attacks and thriving in the wake of heart disease, there’s no question how far the field has come.
Over the course of those advancements, however, are studies showing more women dying of heart disease than all cancers combined, and females making up just 5% of the field of cardiology. VCU School of Medicine alumna Dr. Jennifer S. Lawton, the Richard Bennett Darnall Professor of Surgery at Johns Hopkins, has taken up the cause for bringing equality to cardiac medicine.

Dr. Jennifer S. Lawton

It’s a story that proves the importance of female perspectives and leadership. As the first woman to serve as chief of Johns Hopkins’ Division of Cardiac Surgery and an avid researcher whose expertise spans more than two dozen areas of cardiology, Lawton balances a desire to save and improve lives with the need for advancing female-centric cardiac medicine.

Lawton balances a desire to save and improve lives with the need for advancing female-centric cardiac medicine.

Though she had an early affinity for math and science, it was tragedy that sparked her initial interest. After losing a grandparent to bypass surgery, Lawton immediately began studying heart disease, a mission that drove her to Allegheny College and eventually to Drexel University College of Medicine, where she earned her medical degree.

Initially, she wanted to be a pediatrician. “But once I took anatomy,” she said, “that completely changed.” Instead, she keyed in on surgery, a passion that brought her to VCU, where she says she was drawn to the leadership of then-chair of surgery Andrew Wechsler, M.D. During her residency, Lawton was invited by VCU’s cardiac surgeons to sit in “as often as I liked.” Add to that two years’ worth of laboratory-based research and, she said, “I knew this was where I wanted to be.” She’d found her home in academic medicine.

In the years that followed, Lawton became a prolific researcher and an avid leader. As professor of surgery and chief of the cardiac surgery division, as well as director of the Cardiac Surgery Research Laboratory and program director for the cardiothoracic fellowship training program, she has 81 peer-reviewed publications, seven book chapters and 18 abstracts. She’s delivered more than 50 invited lectures while serving as a member of more than a dozen associations and societies. Her honors include a fellowship with the American Heart Association and serving as an invited attendee for the American Association for Thoracic Surgery Leadership Academy for Division Chiefs/Potential Chiefs. In May 2018, she returned to VCU as the Brooks-Lower Visiting Professor.

As a surgeon, Lawton remains patient-centered, connecting not only with the medical needs of each patient, but also with the lives of each patient. As a researcher, her work examines myocyte volume regulation, ATP-sensitive potassium channels and myocardial protection.

Over the course of her career, however, she has also taken aim at macro-level issues, including an imbalance between male- and female-centric practices. After becoming a cardiac surgeon, Lawton says it became apparent to her that, while women’s health has made great strides across countless areas of medicine, her field had so far overlooked the implications of heart disease for women. As a result, it was ignoring or mistreating the needs of female patients. As late as the 1970s, “People thought that cardiovascular disease was a disease only in men,” she said. As a result, between the years of 1984 and 2013, more women than men died of cardiovascular diseases.

“You see at NFL football games the players wearing pink to support breast cancer. And I totally love that,” Lawton said. “But most people don’t realize that more women die of cardiovascular disease than all cancers combined, so we should also be wearing red.”

Retrospective studies show longer times to hospital admission and testing, she says. Women also tend to be referred for surgery less often.

“Is that bias?” she asked. “Is it referral bias? Is it a lack of knowledge about the disease? We need to figure this out.”

As a result, her research cues in on female heart disease and gender differences, as she’s spent much of her career raising awareness of heart disease as the leading cause of death for adult women in the U.S. But there are other gender-related issues that she aims to correct. For instance, the number of women working in the field of cardiology, she said, is around 20%. In the field of cardiac surgery, that number is more like 5%.

“There is a quote that says, ‘If you don’t see it, you can’t be it,’” she said. “And 50% of the people getting Ph.D.’s and M.D.’s these days are women, so we’re missing half of that talent if we aren’t recruiting them into cardiac surgery. If they don’t see women leaders in the field, they cannot perceive that it’s a viable goal.”

To upend that dilemma, Lawton’s exemplary leadership has spanned numerous roles. She has served as chair of the surgery study section of the American Heart Association, vice chair of the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education residency review committee and president of Women in Thoracic Surgery.

In the meantime, she hasn’t lost sight of the moral impetus that brought her to surgery.

“I like cardiac surgery because you can perform an operation and cure someone of a disease, giving them a longer life,” she said. “That’s a pretty amazing thing to give a person.”