Breaking Barriers in Medicine

Debra Sudan posed with her family at Muskingum University Homecoming weekend.

Debra Sudan ’85 was a 2023 honorable recipient of the Muskingum University Distinguished Service Award. This award is honored to alumni who have attained the highest levels of achievement in their professions and whose service to others has had an extraordinary impact on the world.  

Debra said she had a plan for her future, so it was not a difficult decision to attend Muskingum University.  

“So, I had grown up in a relatively small town called Miamisburg, and I was looking for a smaller school. Really didn’t want to go to a huge place where I was a number,” Debra said. “And my brother had gone to Muskingum. He was a year ahead of me, so of course, I was interested in looking at Muskingum.” 

Debra Clausing Sudan posed with her Muskingum University Distinguished Service Award.

At Muskingum, besides Debra’s involvement in academics, she was also heavily involved in extracurriculars. “I played in the band and the orchestra; I was a flute player. I also was an FAD, so I pledged to a sorority while I was there. I also spent a year as a resident assistant, overseeing a floor of girls,” she said.  

Debra graduated from Muskingum in 1985 with her Bachelor of Science in Chemistry summa cum laude with minors in Biology and German. After she graduated, she decided to attend Wright State University Medical School, where she received her M.D. degree.  

Debra said that her time at Muskingum helped her develop a path for her career. “I think it developed while I was at Muskingum. I think in conversations with some of the professors and kind of pushing me to think about what direction I wanted to go,” she said. “Some of my colleagues [at Muskingum] were thinking about medicine as well, so I think our conversations developed that.”  

Debra began her career at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, where she served as Professor of Surgery and Director of the Living Donor Liver Transplant Program. At the medical center, she accomplished many things.  

“Back in the early 1990s, living donor kidney transplantation had been performed for several years; in fact, some of the first transplants that were done, were between twins because of the decreased amount of immune response that twins would have two organs. You know, a sibling with a lot of genetic homogeneity, so to speak,” Debra said. “But, living donor liver transplant was different in that you couldn’t just take one of the two kidneys out, you actually had to cut the organ into two pieces, and so the technical expertise to do that took longer to develop. In the 1990s, we [Sudan and her team at Nebraska] figured out how to do that safely.”  

When trying to develop the idea of safely conducting these types of transplantations, she visited programs in Asia that were pioneers in living donor liver transplants. Debra said that she learned the techniques from them and then applied them to start the program in Nebraska. Also, she worked with colleagues to develop an intestinal rehab program and oversaw the intestinal transplant program.  

“That was another novel and innovative area of transplantation that really didn’t have very much volume, or even understanding of what the outcomes might be after intestine transplant, so I kind of served as a pioneer in that area,” said Debra.  

Debra Clausing Sudan's professional headshot in her medical white coat.

Debra is recognized both nationally and internationally as an expert in intestine transplantation. She said that she is grateful for the time that she spent at Nebraska and the impact the people and experiences there had on her.  

“The folks that I worked with there were true pioneers in the field of transplantation. I came to the program when just across the nation, there was less than a decade of experience and optimal outcomes of liver transplantation. So, the folks that I worked with were truly some of the folks who helped make liver transplantation successful. The time I had there was phenomenal.”  

After nearly a decade of working in transplantation, Debra was recruited to Duke University to be the Division Chief of Abdominal Transplant in the Department of Surgery, Professor of Surgery, and Professor of Pediatrics.  

“The part that I really like here is that I was able to take a program that wasn’t nearly as well established or successful and transform it clinically to one of the best programs in the country as far as outcomes from transplantation,” said Sudan. While she has been at Duke, she completed North Carolina’s first-ever abdominal wall transplant.  
“The fantastic thing about that particular case was that this was somebody who didn’t have space in his abdominal cavity for an intestine graft, so we really wouldn’t have been able to transplant him safely without risking injury to the graft because his abdominal wall just didn’t have enough capacity,” Debra said. “Once you take the native intestine out, due to prior resections from his intestine injuries and stuff from the past, the abdominal cavity actually shrinks down around what remains, and it can’t be easily expanded; this allowed his abdominal cavity to increase in size enough that we were able to put an intestine graft in and he was able to come off of the IV nutrition that he was dependent on and get rid of some of the complications he was experiencing from the IV nutrition. It was really life-altering.”  

For Debra, there is not a day at Duke that is the same. She may be in meetings, making rounds, or completing transplantations. She is also heavily involved in the American Society of Transplant Surgeons.  

“The National Surgical Quality Improvement had established quite a few modules. I worked with a group of transplant surgeons through the American Society of Transplant Surgeons to develop a transplant module for that [National Surgical Quality Improvement],” said Debra.  

She has been active in this organization for three years and has recently started as the secretary. Sudan’s position as secretary will ascend to president of the organization in five years. Debra is very passionate about what she does and consistently references the importance of her job.  

I think the most important thing about what I do is the impact it makes on individual lives – both the patients, who are the recipients of the transplants themselves, and the families who care for their loved ones.

She said that her accomplishments are due to the team that she and her colleagues have developed over time. “So many of the things that I have accomplished, I do it in a team process. It is only with their contributions that we can increase the volume of transplants we do and the outcome. The team I have built, and that others have helped me build, is my greatest accomplishment.”  

Through her experience in college and her career, she has developed wisdom that she wishes to share with current and future students at Muskingum University.  

“Don’t be afraid to look outside of your local circle of influence, so to speak. Open your eyes to things that are happening beyond what is happening immediately in front of you. Don’t be afraid to jump in with both feet and embrace something that is brand new.”  

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