The distance from a small dirt farm in Iowa to the wonders of outer space can only be measured in light years—both literally and figuratively.
Nobody understands this better than Dr. Craig Saunders. For him, the dirt farm was the beginning … the place he grew up and learned the values of hard work and support and family. And outer space? That’s where he wanted to go someday.
“Medicine and flying were always mystical to me,” Saunders explained. “It was the beginning of the space age. Life magazine chronicled both, and I wanted to explore both.” It was also the beginning of a new era in medicine—open heart surgery. Saunders was fascinated by articles about the “new” heart lung machine, open heart surgery, and reading about medical pioneers Michael DeBakey and Denton Cooley. He knew then where he wanted his path in life to take him.
The journey began at Simpson, where Saunders was offered a football scholarship and discovered a community that truly took an interest in him. “Dr. Edwin Booth signed me and turned me over to two new football coaches, Ken Heizer and Larry Johnson. For the next four years they were father figures to me and I learned the lessons of teamwork, the rewards of hard work and yes, the consequences of screwing off.”
During his time at Simpson, Saunders got involved with research, but it was always the hands-on application of research that drew his interest. While he was working on a research paper for a sociology class, his professor—who was also a pilot— took him for his first plane ride in an exercise about the effects of geography and topology on society. It was an experience like no other for Saunders, tapping into his childhood fascination with flying. This time, he wouldn’t let it go.
After graduating from Simpson, Saunders was accepted at the University of Iowa College of Medicine. From there, he spent four years in the Air Force as a flight surgeon, he obtained his private pilot’s license and flew “backseat” in many Air Force jets. After considering a career in aerospace medicine, he ultimately chose surgery. “I’m a much better surgeon than pilot,” he said.
Saunders was accepted for a two-year cardiac surgery fellowship at The Cleveland Clinic, consistently ranked the #1 heart program in the country by U.S. News & World Report. From there, he spent time in private practice in California, before returning to The Cleveland Clinic. Eventually, Saunders took a leadership position at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center.
“At the time it was a newly-formed healthcare system and the only hospital in the system with cardiac surgery, Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, had the worst reported results in the state,” Saunders said. “And the state may well have been one of the worst in the nation.” Today, and for the past two years, Newark Beth Israel Medical Center has been ranked among the top 50 heart centers in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Last year alone, it had the fifth busiest heart transplant program in the country.
“To hold a human heart in your hands, stop it, fix it and then start it up again better than before is an awesome experience,” Saunders said. “Even after doing thousands of open-heart operations it still inspires wonder. Every day is a new challenge and a new problem to be solved as people tell you their life stories and trust you to return them healthy and fit to their families for a second chance. People put their hopes, their fears and their future on your shoulders and in your hands.”