Getting There: How This UT Alumna Became Chief of Houston’s Busiest Emergency Room

In 2011, an 18-year-old man nearly died in a motorcycle crash in Houston.

Severely bleeding from his abdomen, the teenager looked up from an operating table inside a bustling emergency room and pleaded, “Doc, don’t let me die. I have a long life to live.”

That doctor was Michelle McNutt, BA ’00, then a trauma surgeon at Memorial Hermann Red Duke Trauma Institute. Her young patient died in surgery that day, but McNutt and her team worked furiously to revive him after repairing a grievous liver injury. A few weeks later, he walked out of the hospital. McNutt receives a Christmas card from him every year.

Today, McNutt is now director at Red Duke, one of the nation’s busiest—and best—Level 1 trauma centers. McNutt tells the Alcalde what helped her ascend to a leadership position held mostly by men.

Discover Your Passion

McNutt’s interest in medicine took hold during her Richmond, Texas, childhood. Her doctor, neighbor, and Girl Scout Brownie troop leader was Nancy Dickey, a family practitioner who went on to become the first female president of the American Medical Association. “It was pretty remarkable to be a kid growing up in small-town Texas and have somebody right down the street from me make it big in medicine. It made an impact on me,” McNutt says. In high school, she flew with her parents to Chicago to witness Dickey’s inauguration as president of the AMA. “That was the moment I knew I wanted to be a doctor.”

Find a Mentor

She chose her specialty because of James “Red” Duke, the trauma surgeon who introduced Memorial Hermann’s Life Flight program and brought a Level 1 trauma center to Houston. “Any Texan in the field of medicine knows who Dr. Red Duke is, and I had the distinct fortune of learning from him as a resident in surgery and then practicing beside him as a partner,” she says. “It was amazing.”

Catch a Big Break

In 2016, McNutt was the assistant trauma medical director at Memorial Hermann when the chief role opened up. She had worked in that hospital system her entire career and knew it well. McNutt got the job—despite the reality that most chairs of surgery, medical professors, and trauma chiefs are men. She was only 38. “Nobody else was crazy enough to take it,” she jokes. “It was a combination of good timing and good luck.”

Be Versatile

“A typical day for me when I’m on trauma call is a 12-hour shift,” McNutt says. She responds to any traumatic injury that comes in the door. “That could be a gunshot wound, a stab wound, a motorcycle crash, or a motor vehicle collision,” she says. McNutt stabilizes those patients in the ER and operates when necessary. “I can operate on the heart, the lung, the abdomen and the carotid artery in the neck—all in the same day.” She maintains an active clinical workload amid research, teaching and administrative obligations. “We’re an academic institution, so I work with med students, residents, and fellows every day.”

Dream Big

McNutt’s team includes eight other trauma surgeons. Four of them are women. “That’s really an aberrant ratio,” she says. “If you look at medicine in general, there are more female surgical residents now than there were 10 years ago. I think in the next couple of decades there might be close to an equal number of men and women surgeons.” Ultimately, McNutt wants the female physicians of tomorrow to understand that they should be respected for their skills. “Just focus on being a good surgeon. Not ‘a good surgeon for a woman.’”

Ignore Critics

“Some people may be jealous of your position. I’ve learned that life is not a popularity contest,” McNutt says. “You will face critics everywhere. Sometimes they make you stronger. I try to focus on our product. People who come to our hospital have excellent outcomes because of the team approach we take to trauma. I’m very proud of that.”

Find the Humor

“You can’t make it through a stressful call shift without finding humor in something. Most surgeons have a pretty good sense of humor, though some careers are cut short from the stress,” she says, noting that some people in her position burn out early. “I have not suffered that yet because I have an amazing husband I can talk to. He’s also a surgeon and is very supportive. He helps me understand that success in my professional career helps the success of our family. I also have a life outside of my job. I think that’s really important. I like to cook. I love football. I swim and work out. We take the kids to our lake house on weekends to relax and have family time—we go fishing and get out on the boat. We snow ski. There’s nothing better than a nice glass of wine after a long day at work.”

Photo by Michael Stravato



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