Women in medicine

No Limits: DO cardiothoracic surgeon has made a name for herself in the field

Sharon Beth Larson, DO, MS, knew from age 8 that she wanted to be a heart surgeon and is now encouraging other women to join the field.


Our subject for this No Limits profile is cardiothoracic surgeon Sharon Beth Larson, DO, MS. I visited with Dr. Larson recently and found her story not just compelling but also inspiring, especially for our osteopathic medical students and early-career residents who may be considering what they want their future practice path to look like.

Please tell our readers a little about your background and your education.

Dr. Larson: I was born in the Midwest, in Galesburg, Illinois. When I was still young, my parents moved our family to Texas. So, I did a lot of my growing up in Plano, which is north of Dallas. I feel like I grew up in Texas with Midwestern values – both of my parents were originally from the Twin Cities area of Minnesota.

After high school, I attended Austin College in Sherman, Texas. It was a small liberal arts school which was really strong in the pre-professional programs. From there I went on to earn a master’s degree in biomedical science at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth.

Then I applied to medical school and, being young and adventurous, I moved to the West Coast to attend Touro University California College of Osteopathic Medicine, which is in Vallejo, California. I received my DO degree in 2007.

Did you know early on what you wanted to do or was it a gradual decision as you went along?

Dr. Larson: I knew from the age of 8 that I wanted to be a heart surgeon. I know how that sounds, but it’s true, and when I told adults that, the positive feedback I got was amazing, so I figured I must be doing something right. Both my parents were bright, highly educated people – a Renaissance man and a Renaissance woman would be fitting descriptions – so I was always supported and encouraged in what I wanted to pursue.

Where did you go next?

Dr. Larson: I did my general surgery internship at Peninsula Hospital in Far Rockaway, New York. The hospital actually closed not long after my intern year, so I did my general surgery residency at Lutheran Medical Center (now known as NYU-Langone Hospital) in Brooklyn. Both were osteopathic training programs.

Any trouble securing a cardiothoracic surgery spot after that?

Dr. Larson: I matched with the University of Miami’s CT program and spent one year there. It was a great program, and I was doing well, with great evaluations, etc., but I was looking for a different kind of training experience. I transferred to the University of Minnesota’s program and spent two years there. It was a three-year fellowship, but they gave me credit for the year I had spent at Miami. It was also a great program.

With their history in the development of one of the original heart-lung machines, the legacy of C. Walton Lillihei, MD, and their commitment to advancing cardiac technology, I developed a keen interest in mechanical circulatory support, heart and lung transplantation and ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) and I realized, probably during the last six months of my training, that I wanted that to be the focus of my surgical career.

The faculty at U of M was highly supportive and encouraged me to further my training in those specific areas. My next stop was Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, where I was a fellow in cardiopulmonary transplant and mechanical circulatory support surgery for a year, finishing in 2016. It was one of the two busiest centers in the country, and it was a truly awesome experience.

You were awarded the Richard C. Lillehei and Earl Bakken Prize by the Lillehei Surgical Society in 2015, at a national thoracic surgical meeting, no less. That’s really impressive.

Dr. Larson: It was quite an honor, especially at that level and in that company.

With all that prestige training, no trouble finding a position, I assume.

Dr. Larson: My first job out of training was at the University of Iowa, in Iowa City, a little over a hundred miles from where I was born. I was, interestingly, the first female CT surgeon at the university as well as the only female CT surgeon in Iowa at the time. I was there for almost seven years before moving to my current position as surgical director of cardiac transplant, mechanical circulatory support and ECMO at Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.

Did you experience any challenges along the way? Being a DO, being a woman, being a woman and a DO?

Dr. Larson: Everyone who wants to achieve anything faces challenges of all kinds. I did not feel that my degree or my gender were ever a hindrance to accomplishing my goals. You have to prove yourself, regardless of your degree. Once you have your boots on the ground someplace, they very quickly don’t care which school you’re from or what your degree or your gender is. They want the patients taken care of. How you do that says everything and decides whether you make an impression.

Your record of achievement in a highly competitive, not to mention male-dominated, field certainly bears that out. What’s your take on going after and getting what you want in a medical career?

Dr. Larson: Only 8 percent of practicing CT surgeons are women, but that sector is growing. Regardless of your personal demographic, you have to have a passion for it if you want to be successful. You have to expect challenges and even setbacks. You can’t be easily discouraged. If you really want something, you have to go after it, because it’s not going to come to you on its own.

What sort of advice do you have for the younger members of our profession? Or maybe for any 8-year-olds who might be reading this?

Dr. Larson: Never sell your dreams short. And never be embarrassed to say what those dreams are. If you are headed to med school, in med school or early in your training, you need to start working on your goals now, or as soon as you can define what your ultimate goal is. Start networking. Go to a medical or scientific meeting. Introduce yourself to people, make yourself known. Tell them what you’re interested in and see what they say.

Look for role models. Look for potential mentors. Look for people who’ve done what you hope to do. So much of success is predicated on opportunities. Developing role models, contacts and mentors will often alert you to opportunities you might otherwise miss. People are always looking for talented, hard-working and passionate students.

That’s been my experience as well. And so often, those role models and mentors are there for you long after your training days have finished.

Dr. Larson: They are. So, as you progress, always find time to be a mentor, and strive to be a role model for someone else. I was drawn to academic positions because of my specialty but also because of the opportunity it provides to teach and mentor others. I still remember finding out for the first time that there was such a thing as a woman heart surgeon. My experience shadowing her during undergrad was crucial in the perseverance of my early career path, in that I saw a female doing what I wanted to do. It provided me with the validation that there was a place for me in the profession I was passionate about pursuing.

Any wisdom you want to share with our osteopathic medical students in particular?

Dr. Larson: You’re more likely to find success if you do visiting rotations at places or programs where you might want to apply. If you’re just a name on an application, that might not be enough. Ask for recommendations, follow-up on contacts and stay in touch after your rotation is finished. The chief resident you impressed when you rotated may be an attending by the time you apply. If there’s one key, I’ve found it to be networking.

Superb advice. Congratulations again on your accomplishments. You’ve been out of training less than 10 years – what you’ve accomplished is really the definition of having No Limits.

Dr. Larson: I appreciate The DO’s interest in my story. I hope others can use my experiences to help realize their own dreams.

If you would like to suggest a physician for a future NO LIMITS profile, please contact The DO’s editorial office at thedo@osteopathic.org.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

Related reading:

How this DO matched into an academic research-integrated general surgery residency program

An essential skill for all medical students

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