By Sam Prickett
Dr. John Mathews tried to talk his son, Winn, out of becoming a surgeon.
“It’s a difficult life,” he said, and after a 40-year career as a surgeon, he would know.
But Winn decided to follow in his father’s footsteps anyway. Some inspiration came from reading Dr. Ben Carson’s 1992 autobiography “Gifted Hands” while he was in third grade, Winn said, but he also always was around surgery, thanks to his dad.
“I’ve been going on mission trips with them since I was really about 1 or 2 years old,” he said. “That was a big influence on me.”
On those mission trips to Haiti, which included one 2½ -year stretch between 1982 and 1985, John performed about 800 major surgeries. When he was old enough to help, Winn would work in the pharmacy. After he got into medical school, he started assisting his father during surgery.
“And we’ve gone back a couple of times where he and I have been able to operate with each other there,” he said. “It’s just extremely rewarding to do that.”
Now, John and Winn don’t just function as a father-and-son team while on mission trips. They share a practice, the Surgeons’ Group, operating at Birmingham’s Princeton Baptist Medical Center. John has worked there for 40 years, including his residency. He’s currently the hospital’s chief of staff. Winn has been there since last October.
“There wasn’t really any other option for me as far as going into general surgery other than joining my dad’s practice and keeping our presence and our name tied together,” Winn said, then laughed. “It’s hard to get away from him!”
One might imagine that the high stakes inside the operating room would place significant stress on any relationship. But John and Winn said that, for the most part, it’s only brought them closer.
“It’s something that I think is very rare nowadays, for fathers and sons to do the same thing — much less fathers and sons practicing together and able to tolerate each other while they’re doing it,” Winn said. “It’s improved our relationship. We certainly butt heads every once in a while, but I think the end result has always been great … . It’s rare for a father and son to have someone’s life in our hands, and it’s deepened our relationship as men to each other.”
Student Leading the Teacher
There’s also an element of mentorship, though not always in the direction you would think. Robotic surgery, for instance, is becoming more commonplace, and John said that, in that field, he learns from his son.
“In fact, he is so much better at that than me, it’s quite humbling,” John said. “He’s teaching me now! It’s been a wonderful transition … . It’s been a lot of fun learning together, my son and I.”
Working alongside each other at Princeton has changed their dynamic, Winn agreed.
“It’s really kind of an old-school apprenticeship,” he said. “When I was in medical school and I had a question, he was always someone I could call and talk to him about it. He was extremely open … . Now, working together in a practice, he’s there. I can bounce ideas off him, and he sends me patients that he thinks might be fit for more complex robotics work. It really went from him teaching me to more of a complementary relationship.”
Despite those changes, both said they are motivated by desire “to serve our fellow man,” helping patients even if they can’t pay for it.
“As surgeons, we take patients as they come through the emergency room,” John said. “We try to make it our practice not to look and see if there’s any compensation associated with our care.”
“We haven’t given up yet — and I haven’t missed a paycheck yet,” he said, laughing. “But it’s been an honor to be able to serve this community.”
Both father and son are outspoken in their Christian faith, which Winn said motivates their practice.
“Jesus taught us to serve others and also to be a teacher,” he said. “Part of what we do and where we do it is trying to have a ministry … . Whether or not we get compensated is not really part of the issue. It’s really just trying to live each day as Jesus’ example was to serve our fellow man. That’s a huge part of why we (work) at Princeton and why we became surgeons and why we continue to do what we do. Our belief in Christianity has a huge impact on what we do and is probably one of the reasons why we do it well, because he’s blessed us, and why we don’t burn out and still want to do it every day.”
Just before returning to surgery, John put it even more succinctly. “We just keep working hard,” he said. “This is our life.”