A life of surgical precision

Jun. 27—David Kutlina was not originally going to be a surgeon. Many lives ended up affected by his choice.

"In the last 43 years, there were times I wish I followed my dad, because health care is difficult," Kutlina said.

Over the length of his career, Kutlina performed more than 20,000 surgeries on hearts, lungs, nervous systems and on burn victims. He considers his best work to be the surgeries for which he did not get paid.

Kutlina grew up on Welch Avenue and attended Bishop Duffy High School. His father originally wanted him to go into engineering, same as him. He attended Erie Community College for architectural engineering, but did not have the math or physics skills for it, so he took different courses at Niagara County Community College.

Kutlina credits his interest in the medical field to an anatomy and physiology course where his instructor said he could find a good career in nursing. After enrolling R Niagara University, he finished a four-year program in three years, graduating in 1979.

"It's something they said was impossible to do," Kutlina said.

After spending six years in North Carolina doing surgeries at Duke University Medical Center and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Memorial Medical Center, Kutlina responded to an advertisement for pediatric heart surgeons at the Royal Ministry of Health in Saudi Arabia. He taught himself to read, write, and speak Arabic.

Upon nine more years in Durham, North Carolina, Kutlina traveled to the Middle East again, this time doing mission work in the Gaza Strip and West Bank of Palestine. From 1996 through 2016, he conducted 12 missions of mostly pediatric plastic reconstruction and burn surgery. Those missions were sponsored by the Palestinian Children's Relief Fund and Operation Smile.

"I used my self-taught Arabic to navigate through the culture," Kutlina said. "It was welcoming to them that a white person would take the time to learn their language to help."

Kutlina estimates he helped improve 1,000 lives through his plastic surgery, all while Israeli forces were using bombs on the Palestinians 24/7. In 2006, he suffered a cardiac contusion and partial lung collapse from a shock bomb that exploded midair and sent shockwaves below. His injuries required treatment once he returned to the U.S.

Seeing and taking care of the burned children took a mental and emotional toll on Kutlina.

"I spoke to Israelis after the mission and scolded them," he said. "The Israelis use F-16s to intimidate the local population and people who come to volunteer, to discourage them from coming back."

Kutlina considers his mission work in the Middle East to be the high point of his career. While the danger of traveling worried his family, his father encouraged him, even giving his bronze star received from World War II to his most courageous son.

"I was doing well in my career, had a nice home and car and was able to travel," Kutlina said. "It was my work in Palestine that brought home real nursing to me."

That experience started Kutlina's new love of plastic reconstructive burn surgery, as he continued his medical education and practice across Texas. He and his wife, a practicing psychiatrist, moved to Arizona in 2019.

Practicing medicine in the Middle East isn't the only thing on Kutlina's volunteer resume. Through his wife's sister, who is married to a vice president of the Kansas City Federal Reserve, Kutlina was able to go on unofficial missions to Cuba, helping residents who are not getting enough protein and children suffering pulmonary issues from living near a cement factory. They were able to raise $16,000 to help a family of four get a new home, along with sending glaucoma medicine to the father.

The most difficult kind of surgery Kutlina did was replacing a patient's aorta, the largest artery in the body that carries blood away from the heart to the rest of the circulatory system. Aorta replacement takes between eight and 12 hours to complete, and Kutlina said his arthritis was exacerbated by standing for so long — so much so, he lost functions in his right arm that required surgery to fix.

Kutlina finally retired from surgical work in December 2022, after the surgeon he worked with was diagnosed with cancer. From there, he became a nursing professor at the Arizona College of Nursing's Tempe campus and co-founded Vein & Aesthetics of North Scottsdale. He still helps other surgeons in the area, to make extra money and keep up his skills.

Kutlina said being a nursing professor is the most important job he has ever had, because he's taking care of new nurses. He mentioned a study from 2016-17 that showed 64,000 nursing school applicants were turned away because there were not enough professors to teach them.

The program he teaches is a four-year program that has been accelerated to three years. Tuition costs the students $100,000 each, and Kutlina believes they should get their education for free.

"There are people who are interested in nursing, but not enough," he said.