Department of Medicine News

Cardiologist Sharon Hunt to Receive Hewlett Award

After years of research, patient care, teaching, winning awards, mentoring trainees, and traveling all over the world, Sharon Hunt, MD, has done almost everything a transplant cardiologist could do. Added to her list of accomplishments will soon be the 2013 Hewlett Award.

Walter Albion Hewlett was known as a physician of rare compassion and extraordinary skills. He was recognized for his outstanding contributions to patient care and medical science, much like Sharon Hunt. The award is designed as a recurring tribute to Hewlett, a professor and executive head of the Department of Medicine from 1916 to 1925.

Being chosen as the Hewlett Award recipient was humbling, says Hunt, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine. “I looked at the list of previous awardees, almost all of whom I knew, and there are some pretty amazing people. It’s also special because it is particular to Stanford, close to home, and personal.”

Hunt started her career at Stanford as a medical student in 1967, as one of just seven women in her class. The following year, Norman Shumway performed the first adult heart transplant in the US at Stanford.  The early years of the operation proved difficult, and few patients survived very long. Soon Shumway was the only American surgeon performing the operation, as others gave it up. Over the years, surgical techniques were improved and perfected and postoperative procedures such as endomyocardial biopsy for heart rejection surveillance were introduced by the mid-1970s. In 1981, Shumway pioneered the use of cyclosporine, an immunosuppressive drug previously used in kidney transplantation, which made survival after a heart transplant more likely.

“Norman Shumway said many times that Sharon was the cornerstone of his successful program,” said Ross McDougall, Professor of Radiology and Medicine Emeritus. “Dr. Hunt has been responsible for improving the survival rates by identifying and treating rejection and determining how to reduce the side effects of the drugs.”

In 1977, when Hunt finished her training, survival rates for heart transplant patients were improving, with one-year survival reaching about 60 percent. “When patients started living longer, the surgeons felt they needed real doctors to take care of them because they would come in for follow up with all sorts of medical complications of long-term immunosuppression,” says Hunt. “The surgeons would rather be in the operating room doing what they did best, so they started looking for cardiologists to start taking care of the patients.”

Sharon Hunt had found her niche. She remained at Stanford, rising through the ranks from clinical instructor, clinical assistant, and then associate professor. She was promoted to clinical professor in 1993 and then became professor in the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine, where she is today. She has published more than 200 peer-reviewed articles, been invited to present her research all around the world, and in 2012 received one of the most coveted awards in the field, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Society for Heart and Lung Transplantation, joining her mentors Norman Shumway and Margaret Billingham.

Survival rates following heart transplantation have slowly crept up to around 90% at the one-year bench mark, and many patients live for 30-35 years. They are capable of physical activity and work, they attend school, drive, and can do just about anything. “We initially weren’t sure about child bearing,” says Hunt. “Instinctively, you would think they were taking all those drugs that might make for abnormal genes in children. It turns out that is not the case. We have a lot of mothers in our program who bring their kids to clinics, which is really fun.”

In addition to patient care, teaching and mentoring “the incredibly bright and productive residents and fellows” who go through the program are incredibly rewarding for Hunt, as is the interaction with a close knit group of colleagues from all around the world. “If I ever do retire,” she says, “I would miss keeping in touch with them.”

In her spare time Hunt enjoys spending time with horses near her home, growing orchids, and traveling. “One of the privileges of what I’ve done over the years is the opportunity to travel all over the world as an honored guest. There are few parts of the world I haven’t seen yet,” says Hunt, who also enjoys spending time with her daughter, who works as a police officer in Sacramento.  “I’m very proud of her. The fact that she goes to work every day with a gun on her hip is offset by the happiness I see in her really loving the job. She’s happy.”

Sharon Hunt will give Medical Grand Rounds in April.

Sharon Hunt, MD