Ties That Bind
When Andrew Cameron was born at Johns Hopkins Hospital 38 years ago, his father, John, was finishing his last year of a Hopkins surgical fellowship. The family lived on campus in a three-bedroom apartment—so cramped that this fourth child slept in a bassinet in the master bedroom closet.
Over the next few days, as his wife, Doris, recovered, Cameron would check on her and the new baby, but only in snatches. Surgical training demanded longer hours in those days. At 33, Cameron was even then a rising star.
Little more than a decade later, he’d win worldwide acclaim for mastering the Whipple procedure, a daring, complicated treatment for pancreatic tumors. The operation involves removing part of the stomach, the gallbladder, common bile duct, head of the pancreas, other organs and affected areas and then reconstructing the entire digestive tract.
He’s operated on more patients with pancreatic cancer and performed more Whipple resections—approximately 1,600—than any other surgeon in the world. This September will mark his 50th year at Hopkins.
Expertise notwithstanding, Cameron, who served as chief of surgery from 1984 to 2003, was simultaneously developing a reputation as an irascible perfectionist—a relentless mentor who demanded no less than what he expected of himself.
Yet Cameron showed a softer side at home. Despite grueling hours in the OR, he’d regularly find time to read Dr. Seuss books to his children before bed. Not eager to leave them on Sunday mornings, Cameron would take any child willing to accompany him on surgical rounds, or, as he called it, “Sunday School.”
When he could escape the hospital, says Doris, her husband relished his paternal role, especially during the kids’ adolescence. “He had far more patience with them than I did,” she says, admitting to having exhausted hers working all day as a schoolteacher. And—as much as possible—Cameron would attend school events, Little League games and wrestling matches.
Today, all four Cameron children remain close. Three work in health-related fields. But only the youngest embraced the surgical legacy that had been passed down from his father and grandfather. Two years ago, Andrew Cameron became a Hopkins liver transplant surgeon.
John Cameron says he never would have predicted that any of his children would choose medical careers. “I never pressured them one way or another; I let them decide, based on what most interested them,” he says. But, protests Andrew, his father’s influence was profound: “Wherever we went, people would come up to my dad and say, Thank you for saving my life or my mother’s life. I got tuned in early on that my dad did something spectacular. I wasn’t sure what it was, but it just seemed like the best thing to do.”
It didn’t hurt that Andrew had always excelled in science and math. After graduating from Gilman, he attended Harvard, graduating magna cum laude. A 1998 Hopkins School of Medicine graduate (M.D., Ph.D.—for research on immunosuppression), Andrew matched in surgery at Massachusetts General (his first choice over Hopkins, he says, to avoid the awkwardness of being the boss’ son). A transplant fellowship at UCLA followed. Andrew joined the Hopkins transplant team in 2006.
For many children of high-profile parents, the pressure to excel can be oppressive, but Andrew claims he never felt it—except once: while learning to drive stick shift on his dad’s Porsche.
John Cameron says he has no recollection of that experience. “I must have suppressed it.” Instead, what he remembers is the thrill of mentoring his son when he rotated in surgery as a third-year med student (“He was never nervous—he acted as though I wasn’t there.”), his medical school graduation and watching Andrew mature into a transplant surgeon.
“He’s better, smarter than I was at this age,” says the senior Cameron. “And he’s much more cheerful and personable. Fortunately, he takes more after his mother.”
When pressed about the challenge of meeting his father’s expectations, Andrew is adamant. “No, no—my dad is misunderstood. Yes, he sets very high standards, but they’re not as strongly measured as people seem to think. His standards are: Are you honest? Do you work hard? Did you do the best thing for the patient? That’s all he measures anybody by, including his son.” Indeed, having trained countless surgical residents—14 are now department chairs—John Cameron maintains close friendships with many of them.
John and Andrew’s relationship has evolved, says the senior Cameron, from father-son to friend-colleague. “We enjoy playing golf together, talking about patients and surgery, books—you name it,” he says. “Over a good bottle of wine,” adds Andrew, typically during Sunday dinner with the extended family, which now includes his wife, Lisa, who’s a lawyer, and their two small children as well as his sister Shannon, her husband and their three children.
Father and son also share a deep reverence for Johns Hopkins Hospital. “My dad always made us appreciate that he was privileged to work in the shadow of so many accomplished physicians, where thousands of patients have found relief,” he says. Having surgically extended lives with transplants, including the world’s first six-way kidney transplant, Andrew says that institutional pride is palpable.
At 71, John Cameron operates five mornings a week and has no plans to slow down. “I’ve always believed that if you pick a profession you love,” he says, “you never have to work the rest of your life,” a mantra he attributes to his own father, a general surgeon in Michigan.
And how does the seasoned surgeon feel about the future of surgery, in this era of restricted training hours and interventional radiology, a less invasive form of surgery?
“It’s all good,” he says. “If we can’t train them in 80 hours, we have a problem. And less risky surgery is better for the patient. It doesn’t matter how the work is divided up.” Andrew Cameron couldn’t agree more. “Less teaching time,” he says, “simply means that we’ll have to be more efficient.”
Meanwhile, the next generation appears to be feeling at home at Hopkins. On a recent morning, three-year-old Charlotte Cameron accompanied her father to work wearing green Hopkins scrubs, a toy stethoscope around her neck. “You know who I saw today?” she asked her mother later, breathless. “Grandpa! He’s a doctor, too.” And, though 10-month-old John Cameron II can’t speak for himself, he’s also been spotted on campus—in his grandpa’s arms.