Headshot of Kathleen Fenton, M.D.
NHLBI Celebrates Women Scientists

Kathleen Fenton, M.D.


For nearly 20 years Kathleen Fenton, M.D., a pioneering pediatric cardiac surgeon, taught students and medical residents, ran a research laboratory, and worked in developing countries around the world. Then in 2018 she made a big career shift. Eager to combine her experience in medicine, cardiac surgery, global health and ethics, she completed a prestigious AAAS fellowship at NHLBI’s Center for Translation Research and Implementation Science. Now she’s in a role she hopes will give her a chance to do even more game-changing work—just in a different way.

In January, Fenton became the Deputy Chief of the Advanced Technologies and Surgery Branch in NHLBI’s Division of Cardiovascular Science. There, she said, she will get to further develop the NHLBI-sponsored Cardiothoracic Surgical Trials Network, which evaluates innovative surgical approaches for cardiac disease. She will also help promote more research on commonly used surgical devices.

Fenton will be drawing from decades of experience on the front lines. For three years she ran a fetal heart surgery research laboratory at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. But before then, as a cardiothoracic resident at Emory University, she traveled to El Salvador to help train local surgeons and operate on children with severe congenital heart disease. Working with those children first-hand, she said, led her to devote ten, fulfilling years living and working in Nicaragua as a pediatric heart surgeon and trainer in similar resource-limited countries around the world—from the Dominican Republic and Honduras to Ukraine and Libya.

“People were so eager to see the doctor. There would be lines of kids waiting to be seen with their parents,” Fenton said. “It sounds corny, but working as a pediatric heart surgeon in Nicaragua reminded me that I truly wanted to help people.”

Although extenuating circumstances brought her back to the United States in 2016 to live, she continued to travel abroad to perform surgeries before making the switch to a new career. “I’m really glad that I made the career change when I did,” Fenton said. “I don’t get to just dabble in something that interests me, but I can have a good 10 to 15 years to continue making an impact on domestic and international health care policy.”

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