Inside NYP: Dr. Anthony Watkins

The director of the general surgery residency program on choosing medicine in a family of healers and the challenges of being a transplant surgeon.

Portrait of Dr. Anthony Watkins

My mother gave me an anatomy book when I was around 8 or 9 years old, and that started my fascination with the human body. As I got older, I realized that not only did I have a love for science, but also a genuine desire to help others.

Many of my family members are in the healthcare field: I have a grandfather who is a retired cardiothoracic surgeon; a great-uncle who’s a retired dentist; an uncle who is an orthopedic surgeon; and a cousin who’s a vascular surgeon. At our family reunions, we often talk about how we come from a family of healers since there have been many ancestors who were midwives.

I was raised primarily by my mother, who had not attended college at the time (she later received her degree when I was in medical school), and she was determined that I would attend college. Her push and my later learning that my grandfather was a successful surgeon instilled the confidence that I too could become a physician.

I grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, and I went to medical school at the University of Tennessee in Memphis. My initial draw to surgery was related to my trauma surgery experience as a medical student. I did my residency at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, where I had a lot of exposure to the transplant field. That’s when my interest shifted. I did my transplant fellowship at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, where I trained as an abdominal transplant and hepatobiliary surgeon. I’m trained to perform liver, kidney, and pancreas transplants, as well as liver resections and general surgery.

Transplant surgery is an exciting field because it provides a variety of operations that range from minimally invasive approaches with living donors to open procedures that are technically demanding and can last upward of 12 to 15 hours.

The main challenge with transplantation is the discrepancy between organ supply and demand. Over 30,000 organ transplants are performed annually, but there are over 100,000 patients on the waiting lists. There continues to be a huge need for us to alleviate that problem by preventing organ failure, increasing organ donation, and continuing to explore innovative ways to increase organ supply such as using stem cells. There is still room to increase graft survival by optimizing immunosuppression medications used to prevent rejection.

One of the biggest areas we have room for improvement is lifestyle — changing how people live and eat so they don’t end up having organ failure and needing a transplant.

As the program director of our general surgery program, I’m in charge of educating the surgeons who come here (to NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center) for their training. When you have a certain level of expertise, your goal is to not only teach the next generation, but also to give them the foundation to do bigger and better things.

“Talking to families after a procedure and seeing the relief and excitement in their eyes knowing that their loved ones are going to be better is very rewarding.”

— Dr. Anthony Watkins

We recently published a paper on using a GoPro in the operating room to record residents as they’re operating and then reviewing the video to provide feedback. A lot of my research interests also include looking into strategies and ways that we can improve the use of technology to educate residents. Not only do we want to produce confident surgeons, but we want to produce excellent future leaders and academic surgeons.

Dr. Anthony Watkins with a photograph of his grandfather

Dr. Anthony Watkins with a photograph of his grandfather

I try to stress to my mentees that you want to follow your passion and do something that you extremely love. There are long days and long nights, there are a lot of pressures within specialties. There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff that is difficult, but if you’re doing something you really enjoy doing, it makes you able to tackle those challenges in a more meaningful way. It’s one of those careers that’s a lifelong learning experience, but it is very rewarding — you have the opportunity to really make a major impact on patients’ lives.

Talking to families after a procedure and seeing the relief and excitement in their eyes knowing that their loved ones are going to be better is very rewarding.

What inspires me about medicine is the ability to take my love for science and human anatomy and to merge that with the ability to help people. That’s really what medicine is. It’s you using your intellect and, in surgery, your skill set with your hands, to make someone’s life better.

Dr. Anthony Watkins is the program director of the general surgery residency program, an assistant professor of surgery at Weill Cornell Medicine, and an attending surgeon at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. He is a board-certified surgeon who specializes in liver, kidney, and pancreas transplantation, laparoscopic donor nephrectomies, dialysis access surgery, and general surgery.