Whipple wonder

He’s an expert on the intricate.

Steven J. Hughes, M.D., was named chief of general surgery in the UF College of Medicine four years ago.

While he performs a variety of surgeries daily — and a little more than 100 pancreatic surgeries a year — there is one procedure that is considered his specialty.

It also happens to be particularly difficult.

Dr. Steven J. Hughes, UF Health Chief of Surgery
Dr. Steven J. Hughes, UF Health Chief of Surgery

The Whipple procedure, named after Allen Whipple, the first doctor to perform it in 1935, is used to treat certain cases of pancreatic cancer by removing part of the pancreas — an organ located in an area of the body where one wrong move could prove fatal. The removal of the pancreatic tumor must be done amid the blood vessels that go to the liver, stomach and small intestine — a network whose navigation requires an unusual amount of skill and dexterity.

“It’s a very complex area of anatomy,” Hughes said.

The Whipple procedure is one of the most common and successful operations to remove pancreatic cancer.

But because the surgery involves removing portions of the pancreas, bile duct and small intestine, as well as the gallbladder, then reconstructing the intestinal tract, it also has a high risk of complications.

“We know that we can remove certain things and safely do so, but push it and you can cause the complication rate to skyrocket,” Hughes said. “So we are walking a fine line between providing a hope for cure and causing harm.”

Hughes was the first at UF Health to perform the procedure in 2010. Now, Hughes also helps train other physicians. His teaching process is heavily influenced by his drive to improve health care and provide patient-centered care to all patients, he said.

“I like that UF always wants and tries to do the right thing for patients,” Hughes said. “This culture really supports my desire to always try to put myself in the patient’s position, and to develop a treatment plan that matches their particular situation and priorities.”

Although he has years of experience, Hughes is mindful of how much there is left to learn. Each surgery, regardless of how routine a procedure may be, has something that sets it apart from the previous one. No two surgeries are ever alike, he said. “It’s one of the reasons I went into surgery,” Hughes said. “It’s always something different.”