Get to Know Incoming ECMS President Stacey Watt, M.D.

By Tammie Smeltz

I had the honor and privilege of sitting down to enjoy a cup of pumpkin cinnamon coffee with Stacey Watt, M.D., interim chair and clinical professor of anesthesiology at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University at Buffalo, who will be installed as the Erie County Medical Society’s (ECMS) seventh female physician president. Dr. Watt is a pillar in the Western New York medical community and an advocate for physicians throughout the state. Her energy is contagious.

In the following conversation, we discuss her career as an anesthesiologist, her athletic history, her plans as the incoming president of ECMS and her advice for young female physicians.

What drove you to study medicine?

My pathway was akin to many other individuals. It was never a straight line. I attended undergraduate school at the University of Florida and was interested in engineering. I was always interested in science and math. Being inquisitive, I thought engineering would be a nice fit. While I was studying at the University of Florida, my grandfather became very ill. He was admitted to the hospital many times. I would visit him both at home and in the hospital. My grandfather had a very rough course. He was struggling. I was very active in his healthcare. I often met with his physicians, nurses and other members of his care team. At times, he did not receive the best care.

I will never forget one of his hospital admissions. I was visiting him at night. He was sleeping at the time, while I was in the corner of his room reading. His physician came in the room and didn’t even realize I was there. He did not say hello or introduce himself to my grandfather. He moved my grandfather’s covers, pushed rather strongly on his abdomen and immediately left the room. My grandfather pulled the covers back up. He was a little distraught and tearful. He turned to me and said, “You should do better.” I took this to mean “You could do better.” This is what inspired me to study the field of medicine. After this experience, I started shadowing physicians and thinking about a career in medicine. I realized that I could do this! I could make the change. I could work in the field of medicine and help patients like my grandfather.

Now that we know why you decided to practice medicine, why did you choose the field of anesthesiology?

I found anesthesia through a back channel as well. While completing my family practice residency, I ended up doing a rotation in anesthesia. I had an opportunity to work one-on-one with two of the most amazing, engaged anesthesiologists. They were very thoughtful in their process and showed me the best way to take care of patients and administer anesthesia. Working as an anesthesiologist reminds me of my athletic career. The surgical team, anesthesiology team, nurses, administration and everyone in the operating room come together with the patient as the focus. Nothing matters in the operating room except coming together to help someone. That’s what is magical and special about the operating room. This is what drew me to the practice of anesthesia. It is like the core of a sporting event, and especially track and field, where you do your individual best all the time. Anesthesia is not cookie-cutter medicine. You must be completely focused on the patient and the administration of anesthesia must be spot on. Anesthesia is a craft and a skill. If I am not “on my game,” the team may not perform well but, more importantly, the patient could have a terrible outcome.

This is what reminded me of my background in athletics. Anesthesia was a natural fit for me. It was lock-and-key.

An anesthesiologist is the guardian of the patient in the operating room. They make sure the surgeon can perform the surgery the way they need to. We are the caretakers of the patient and ensure their safety throughout the procedure. We control their post-operative pain, nausea and vomiting. We ensure they are stable as they make their way to the recovery room.  We also make sure the transition to the recovery room or ICU is as smooth as possible.

I am confident in the operating room because of my size, my history as a discus athlete and my experience as a power lifter. I can project my voice easily. I have a presence in the operating room. I am fortunate to have always had flawless communication with the surgeons I work with. Good communication in the operating room is critical and probably more important in that location than anywhere else in the hospital.

Your athletic history is fascinating. Tell us about your achievements.

 I started my athletic career at Grand Island High School. I was No. 1 in the nation in high school discus throwers and number three in the nation for shot putters. I was invited to compete in the Olympic trials when I was a junior in high school. I did not have the means to attend, but it was an honor even to have been invited. I was recruited by the University of Florida on a full athletic scholarship to throw discuss for them. I was very fortunate to have that opportunity because my family did not have access to a lot of resources. It was nice to have the ability to attend a good college without a financial hit to my family.  I had a great career at the University of Florida, I competed for the United States at the Pan-American Games, as well as the U.S. Olympic Festival. I was a two-time NCAA All-American in the discus event and that is a huge part of my life. It never goes away. That part of your persona lives on. I will always identify as an athlete.

My discus record, under my maiden name Stacey Schroeder, is still standing in New York State. Schroeder 172 is my record, and it still stands today. It has stood since 1992. I am looking forward to having it fall. I embrace that. I watch every year because I want to be here to see it fall. Also, records were made to be broken. Someone needs to take this on, and I want to be here to celebrate her! I hope to be physically present when my record falls. That would be the greatest honor for me. I hope that whoever breaks my record will then pass the torch to the next woman. Records were made to challenge you. They give you something to strive for and a reason to push forward and believe in yourself.

This month you will be installed as the seventh female physician president of ECMS in 202 years! What are your plans as the incoming president?

Everyone has hopes for their presidency. What will be your footprint in the sand? What will be your mark upon the organization? The medical society has worked very hard over the last year to bring medical students into the society. It’s important for medical students to learn about the history and be engaged in their local medical society. We must pay attention to the individuals coming up through the ranks and teach them the history of where we have been and all the spectacular physicians who have come through Erie County. We must educate them about everything the medical society has done for the Western New York community. Otherwise, the community, as well as the physicians, will miss out.

As president, I will teach the next generation what it’s like to be an advocate, to be present and to have your voice heard. Everyone is so busy right now working as hard as possible. No one is looking up to notice the change that is happening across the nation in healthcare. Medical societies are closing across the nation. This is a disservice to the physicians among us. If we do not pay attention, if we don’t speak up, our voices will no longer be heard. We are giving our decision-making power to individuals who may not have a medical background. We must share our voices with our legislators. It is that one call that may tip the scale!

It is physicians who care about the patient and about medicine. It is more than an art and more than science. It is about caring for our community. If we do not go forth and really make sure our voice is heard clearly and strongly, our future will be uncertain. My biggest hope as president is to push forward that vision and make sure that our voices do not dim and, in fact, get stronger. My goal is to encourage the next generation of physicians to carry out our history and enhance medicine in our community by serving patients and furthering the field of medicine. If we have more feet in the sand as we move forward, physicians in Western New York will rise to an even greater level. We have had so many great innovators in the Western New York community. We have physicians who have changed the field of medicine. This should be celebrated, continued and honored. This is my greatest hope. We honor those who came before us as we look forward and continue to build. It is imperative that we embrace our young physicians and mentor them, tell them what we have been through, share not only our stories but our vision and challenges, educate them about what is ahead so they have the tools in their belt to tackle what is in front of them. We must prepare them and continue moving forward ourselves. We can always do more. We can always do better.

Tell us a little about your family and what you enjoy doing when you are not practicing medicine.

My husband, George, and I have two daughters named Alex and Audrey. I am incredibly proud of my children. One is a junior at Grand Island High School and one is a freshman at Buffalo Seminary. Neither of my children wanted to do track and field. One is a power lifter and the other plays field hockey and lacrosse. I feel it is important for young females to be part of a team. Not only does participating in sports teach you about yourself, but it also teaches you how to engage and interact with people. It teaches you how to handle stress and how to meet challenges head on, as well as to fight through and deal with setbacks. I learned all of this on the field, and I wanted this desperately for my girls. I encourage every parent to get their children out there on the field. Not only is participating in sports good for you physically and mentally, but it also has amazing social benefits. It makes such a difference.

Health and fitness are still very important in my life. I will always be a power lifter. I learned power lifting in Florida, and I still enjoy it. I coach high school athletics and enjoy mentoring young athletes. Shot put and discus does not just involve throwing. The sport relies on many forms of athleticism including speed, agility, swiftness and strength. When you watch ESPN, you never see women’s power sports as the lead story. But over the last ten years, there have been many amazing, powerful women athletes. I love that women are more comfortable in these types of events. I still maintain the physique and frame I developed from this sport. I love that part of me. It is who I am.

Do you have any advice for young female physicians?

The biggest advice I can give them is to be active and be engaged. I hear a lot of advice about guarding your time and being mindful of not stretching yourself too thin, but I would like to challenge others to take on things they may not think they are capable of or qualified to do. Give it a go! Say yes to opportunities that come your way. It demonstrates leadership and may even lead to additional hidden opportunities. Don’t wait for an opportunity to come to you wrapped up in a bow. I would not want our young female physicians to miss out. It is important for health and wellness to be mindful of your time, but when you want to try something, go for it. Don’t wait. This is the coach in me talking!

Thank you for being a MLMIC policyholder. What do you enjoy about being with MLMIC?

I like the engagement that MLMIC provides. They are always there for me. My group has been insured with MLMIC for quite some time. MLMIC provides me with a level of security. I know that I have someone on my team who is going to help me through difficult situations that are out of my control. I am not a legal expert. I am not in the courtroom. I do not have that skillset, but it is nice to know my teammate does. I see them as my teammate. When things are challenging for me, I know they are on my side. That is important to me.

 Is there anything else you would like to share?

My hope is that I make a difference and create positive change. I am hoping that those coming behind me can take it even further. I am grateful for all the fantastic women who came before me and allowed me to follow in their footsteps. I am looking forward to mentoring and working with the next generation of female physicians. I am excited to be on that path with them.