Society for Vascular Surgery (SVS) members are mourning the death of James (Jimmy) S.T. Yao, MD, 88, former SVS president and Lifetime Achievement Award recipient. Yao, professor emeritus at Northwestern University, died Tuesday, Dec. 20, in Chicago. He had been a very active member of SVS since 1974, holding many roles, including that of president in 1993.
He was born in Guangzhou, China, and did most of his growing up in Macau. He returned to China before medical school and, seeing the political turmoil there, went instead to Hong Kong, where his family had moved. He attended medical school at National Taiwan University Medical School and then decided to obtain more education in the United States. He trained at what was then Cook County Hospital in Chicago, earned a PhD in London, and then returned to America, spending nearly his entire career—from 1972 on—at Northwestern University.
He is considered one of the fathers of the modern vascular laboratory. He created formal protocols for noninvasive studies and helped establish the Society for Noninvasive Vascular Technology. In 1998, he received the Society for Vascular Technologies’ Pioneer Award in recognition of his contributions in this area.
His thesis in London was related to his experiments using Doppler to study patients with peripheral vascular disease. “From this work came the commonly applied ankle-brachial index that is widely used,” said SVS member William H. Pearce, MD, in an article in the Annals of Vascular Surgery upon Yao’s retirement in 2005.
“He essentially, for all intents and purposes, invented the ankle-brachial index, a simple but fundamental invention for vascular surgery,” said longtime friend—and former trainee—Walter McCarthy, MD. “There aren’t that many people who really invent something that important for our specialty. That was his PhD thesis—and he did this at such a young age.”
Yao established the first blood flow laboratory in Chicago, created a vascular fellowship training program, served as president not only of SVS but also of American Venous Forum (AVF), American Venous Forum Foundation, Chicago Surgical Society, the Lifeline Foundation (now known as the SVS Foundation), and the Midwestern Vascular Surgical Society (MVSS).
John Bergan, MD, recruited Yao to Northwestern, said Pearce, where the two began the Northwestern December symposium, still held today, and the vascular fellowship, launched in 1975. “Many of their trainees have gone on to lead divisions of vascular surgery, medical schools and even universities. The cumulative contributions of the Bergan-Yao combination and their many vascular trainees have had enormous influence in American vascular surgery,” said Pearce.
Pearce said Yao also was known for “his passion for research,” and his work with what is now the SVS Foundation to help fund research projects and awards.
McCarthy called Yao “not only a brilliant person but also an extremely excellent technical surgeon.” Other talents also made him stand out, including his interest in history, in teaching and mentoring, his expertise in vascular laboratories, and his writing skills, said McCarthy. Yao published more than 300 articles in scholarly journals, 200 textbook chapters and 50 academic books.
Within SVS itself, Yao also will be known as the guiding light behind the SVS History Project, leading a work group to preserve the Society’s history by interviewing those notable in the vascular surgery field. Members conducted more than 90 interviews—including one with Yao himself as the subject.
The project had part of its roots in the Society’s 50th anniversary in 1996, when then present-day members interviewed Michael DeBakey, MD, and Harris B. Shumacker, MD, the sole surviving of the 31 founders. And he and Calvin B. Ernst, MD, edited a special issue of the Journal of Vascular Surgery commemorating the anniversary. More than a decade later, concentrated efforts to interview leading figures began in earnest.
Yao also worked with videographer Jan Muller to compile three additional videos, “A Modern History of the Society for Vascular Surgery (1946–2017),” with the first focusing on “Era I: Antiquity and Reparative Surgery,” “Era II: Direct and Reconstructive Surgery” and “Era III: Endovascular Surgery.”
The Society honored Yao for his many contributions in 2007 with one of its highest honors, the Lifetime Achievement Award. He and wife Louise have three children, Kathy, a surgeon; John, a professional musician (whose music is heard on the history videos); and Pauline, curator of a new museum in Hong Kong. “Jimmy’s loyal friendship, dedication to excellence, untiring loyalty and devotion to family will be remembered by all who have worked and trained with him,” said Pearce.
Tributes began coming in quickly. “He was one of my vascular heroes as a trainee and early-career surgeon,” said William Shutze, MD, now SVS secretary.
“It was my extreme good fortune to have trained under Dr. James S.T. Yao (Jimmy) in the early 1980s,” said SVS President Michael Dalsing, MD. “Jimmy was an exceptionally skilled vascular surgeon who also had the ability and willingness to train others. He was not afraid to innovate on the spot if it meant that his patient would do better—his care was always patient-centered. It was truly a joy to watch him operate and to mimic his skills in some small way. Jimmy expected remarkable things from himself and from you—measure to improve; ‘do it once, do it right and you don’t have to do it again’; improve others by adding to the literature; and ‘no tomatoes,’ meaning no hematomas.
“But with all his success he never forgot who he was—truthful, dedicated, humble and intellectually fearless. Dr. James S.T. Yao has been my longest and unfailing teacher, mentor and sponsor during my career, and I will greatly miss him. We have all lost a friend and colleague who is irreplaceable—‘one of a kind.’”
“Jim was a giant in our vascular surgery specialty and as one of our past presidents,” said Immediate Past President Ali AbuRahma, MD. “God bless him; our hearts are with his family.”
“What a great man—he will long be remembered,” said President-Elect Joseph Mills, MD, adding that on a personal level, Yao was always kind and supportive to Mills early in his career. Quoting Maya Angelou’s poem, “When Great Trees Fall,” Mills said of Yao, “In the forest of vascular surgery, he was a great tree.”