Seven Mile Times

Endless Summer 2018

The Ultimate Lifeguard

World-Renowned Heart Surgeon Sutter Stays Close to his Roots in Avalon

By Jack McCaffery

Whistle in teeth, sun block liberally applied, plan firmly in place, Fran Sutter first climbed to the top of a lifeguard stand on the 28th Street beach in Avalon in 1966. Fifty-two years later, in so many ways, his mission has not changed.

If a heartbeat must be paused, it will not be on his watch.


“Stop the heart?” Sutter says. “Does that sound good to you? How would you like your heart stopped? So, we don’t stop the heart.”


He’s 68, not 16, and his Avalon home on 24th Street overlooks the beach in a decidedly more comfortable way than a wooden lifeguard perch. But to Dr. Fran Sutter, a world-renowned heart surgeon and tireless advocate of the benefits of robotic surgery, saving lives is not just his challenge, but his passion.


“I totally believe if more heart surgeons would do this, it would be so good for the patient,” he’ll say. “I would call it a paradigm shift in the treatment of coronary disease because it is so radically different.”


Sutter is the chief of cardiac surgery at Main Line Health’s Lankenau Medical Center in Wynnewood, Pa., where he performs more cardiac operations than any surgeon in Pennsylvania. He’s proud of that record, almost in a competitive way. It’s why he is in such demand as an expert in the practice, having traveled in the past year alone to Rome, New York, Abu Dhabi, Moscow, Fort Lauderdale, Chicago, Vancouver and San Diego to preach to medical professionals about the benefits of robotic, and thus minimally invasive heart surgery. When it comes to demonstrating his ability to save lives, Fran Sutter has always wanted to win.


Dr. Fran Sutter is a heart surgeon at Lankenau Hospital in Wynnewood, Pa.


So it was in 1973, and again in 1974, when he helped Avalon capture the South Jersey Lifeguard Championship by winning the singles rowing event. To that point, Avalon had never won the South Jerseys, which began in 1924. He is still proud of that, and still remembers how his brother, Fritz Sutter, contributed to Avalon’s winning score with his doubles-rowing effort.

“That was fun,” he says. “Really fun.”


More, to Sutter, it was practical. Raised in Broomall, Pa., and such a successful shot putter and discus thrower at Cardinal O’Hara High that he’d win a track scholarship to La Salle, Sutter’s work experiences along the Avalon beaches helped provide the financing for his education at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. And in the mid-’60s, earlier even, there were plenty of opportunities to hustle up a buck in Avalon.


Sutter, who always summered at his grandmother Agnes Sutter’s 38th Street home, was a lifeguard. Before that, he bought a shipment of surfboards and, at age 12, flipped them for a profit at 43rd Street, then the surfers’ beach. He worked night shifts as an usher at a movie theater on 29th Street. Years before, he delivered movie circulars to every home between 38th and 80th Street. Then, there were so few addresses on that edge of Avalon that he could finish his shift in about an hour.


The lifeguard opportunity, though, was its own life-changing opportunity for a biology major with an interest in oceanography whose career path would shift toward medicine.


“When I was in medical school, for the first two years, I was able to still lifeguard, and that made a big difference to me,” Sutter said. “I would work in clinics in Wildwood until midnight. And of course, to keep up your image as a lifeguard, you had to go out. Then I’d come home and sleep for like five hours, and be up at 7 o’clock, working out and rowing the boats.”


So, he rowed, and he worked, and he continued to study. And the more he did, the better impression he made, at least to one beach-goer. That was in 1970 when Marilu Sando, newly relocated to Philadelphia from Michigan and working at Urie’s Waterfront Restaurant in Wildwood with her friend Joanie Anderson, hit the Avalon sand for the first time.


Six years later, she was Mrs. Fran Sutter.


“I was a lifeguard groupie,” says the longtime Avalon and Main Line fitness instructor. “I walked out on 28th Street and I had never been in Avalon a day before.


I looked at him with his bushy black hair and his beautiful smile and I said to my girlfriend, ‘Joanie, I am going to marry that guy.’ She said, ‘You don’t even know him.’ I said, ‘I am going to marry him.’


“In 1976, we were married.”


The Sutters have four children – Fran Jr., Emelie, Kelly and Christopher – and four grandchildren who call their grandfather “Doc.” Though Sutter owns a home in Gladwyne, Pa., the family is never far from Avalon, where Fritz bought the 38th Street home that first drew the Sutters to the shore. With brothers Ed and Tyke, Fritz and Fran savored every Avalon summer from a lifeguard-stand view.


From left, Leon Garofola, Geoff Miller, Murray Wolf and Fran Sutter


“It was glorious,” Sutter said. “Just glorious. All of us were sort of athletes, so it was pretty easy to take the lifeguard test and do well.”


Always a competitive rower, Sutter nearly qualified for the 1976 Olympics, falling just short in the doubles trials with his rowing partner, Jack Plackter, who has been a prominent Atlantic City attorney. But continuing to row as much as possible with the Malta Boat Club on Philadelphia’s Boathouse Row, Sutter, with Fritz, did capture the World Masters Rowing Championship in 1976. Even nearing 70, Sutter continues to row so often that his hands, so valuable to heart patients, are hardened by calluses.


Then again, since 2005, precise movements of his robotic implements have been as valuable to his medical success as his many healing manners.


“In the United States, 85 percent of the surgeons put the patient on the heart-lung machine and stop the heart,” Sutter says. “But I still do it with the heart beating because I feel there are less complications. And somehow my business booms.”

It does. And so does his reputation.


“I’ve done more coronary bypass robotic surgery than anybody in the world,” he says. “And I have been pretty much all over the world talking about it.”


So, he operates, and he teaches, and he sells the value of robotic heart surgery, the way he once sold surfboards: successfully.


“Every patient that has a complication hurts me,” he said. “I don’t want to hurt anybody. That’s my mission. I want them to come out flying.”


When they do, Sutter knows where he will head to next.


“Whenever I go away, no matter where it is, whether you go to an island or to Mallorca in the Mediterranean, you think it is beautiful,” he says, on his beachfront Avalon deck. “But it can’t beat this. I tell my family that, especially my kids. They say, ‘Get out of here.’ But I mean it. You can’t beat this.”


It might even make his heart skip a beat.

Dr. Fran Sutter and wife Marilu on 24th Street Beach in Avalon.

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