A tour of duty as a medical officer in the U.S. Navy presented an Illinois spinal surgeon with the business model that would make his practice a success and shaped his style for interacting with patients.
It is said that patience is a virtue. But when Fred Sweet, MD, a spine surgeon and co-founder of the Rockford Spine Center in Rockford, Ill., first attended medical school, it was his lack of patience that helped him forge his career as a successful and innovative surgeon.
“I thought I wanted to do something with infectious disease, but I really became frustrated with not being able to do something to fix patients right now,” Sweet recalls, laughing. “I guess I was impatient.”
Once he did his surgical rotation it became clear that was his niche. And he loved it.
“I didn’t care how many hours I spent doing it,” he says. “That was better than being unhappy doing something I didn’t like.”
Today, his innovative surgical technique to treat scoliosis and spinal deformities, together with his work as lead investigator into a new method of significantly decreasing surgical infections, has placed him near the top of his field.
Sweet did a tour of duty in the United States Navy as a medical officer aboard the U.S.S. Coronado during the first Gulf War. He credits his time aboard ship as having a significantly positive impact on his medical career.
“When you’re on a ship, treating sailors that might get sick or injured, you don’t have a lot of technologic resources at your disposal to make a diagnosis,” Sweet explains. “So, a lot of my style is really based on sitting and talking to patients and kind of intellectually deducing what the most likely problem is, and then doing physical exam. I think trying to figure out these complicated patients’ problems just by talking to them and examining them really kind of sharpened my skills, and then I tend to rely on that a lot more than just imaging studies or some kind of fancy test.”
The experience also presented Sweet with a business model that he would later employ when founding the Rockford Spine Center. He reasoned that the military is able to take groups of 17-, 18- and 19-year-olds who don’t want to be in the military and teach them how to get a specific job done. The same procedure manuals and “chain-of-command” approach turns out to be a good business model for taking something technologically complicated, like spine surgery, and turning it into an efficient procedure that gets done the same way every time. Now he applies it to the spine center.
“You can’t find really good employees all the time,” Sweet says. “But if you can find a pretty good employee, and you have good training manuals, and a good chain of command, it all comes together.”
While Sweet treats patients with a range of conditions, he is best known for his expertise in handling the most complex spinal surgeries. Shortly after completing his training he found himself performing surgeries where he was operating on both the front and the back of the spine — sometimes at the same time.
“That really took a lot out of the patients,” Sweet recalls.
He began exploring interbody fusion; working with cages placed in the front of the spine where the surgical work is only performed from the rear.
“As I explored trying that more and more, what was really clear was the implants we used to try to get those cages in there just weren’t available,” he says.
Sweet began working with different manufacturers and helped design smaller cages that are placed on the front of the spine, as well as some of the tools used during the surgery. Those cages and tools have evolved over the last decade and have become quite popular, but Sweet says that wasn’t his initial goal.
“My initial reason to help with that design was not to make them popular for everybody else; it was so I could have a ready supply of what I needed, and to really push the envelope on trying to do more and more surgeries, complicated surgeries like scoliosis, from the back-side — without having to open a patient’s chest or abdomen,” Sweet explains. “If you can do that, then the kind of surgical stress and morbidity is a lot less, and patients recover a lot faster.”
Soaring above the fray
Sweet also provides charitable care at the Walter Lawson’s Children Home, the Rebound Pediatric Clinic, as well as surgical evaluation and treatment internationally for children with severe spinal deformities from third-world countries in partnership with Childspring International.
“God made me, and gave me all these gifts that I have,” Sweet says. “For me to squander them on my own self-desires would be an hypocrisy of the gifts he gave me.”
When he does take time out for himself, Sweet enjoys flying. It’s something that has been in him since he was a child, and he not only built model planes, but began designing them as well.
“I wanted to be an aeronautical engineer,” Sweet recalls. “And I think that’s why I design implants, you know; I have a very strong design and engineering kind of fabric in me. I don’t know where that went, becoming an aeronautical engineer. I guess I decided I didn’t want to sit and draw plans all day. But, the concept of flying and stuff was always in me.”
Sweet likens flying a plane to being a spine surgeon in that both require maintaining focus, and being safe.
“When you’re obsessive compulsive and focused on one thing, you don’t think about all the other stuff that consumes your life,” Sweet says. “The other thing is the perspective. When you hop on a commercial airline and you’re at 33,000 feet and they say, ‘There’s the Grand Canyon,’ you look out and say, ‘Where?’ It looks like a little speck down there. But if you fly over the Grand Canyon at 5,000 feet, it’s a totally unbelievable, awe-inspiring experience. That’s what I really love about it — the beauty of what you get to witness that most people aren’t lucky enough to see.”