Native son excels in surgery

Arriving home after a late night of carousing with his friends, a 15-year-old boy is given a stern talking to by his father. “You have to get serious about your future,” the father says. “What do you want to do with your life?” 

It’s a common story, but this particular tale involves some extraordinary Caymanians. 

The father was Ormond L. Panton, an Officer of the Order of the British Empire who was recognized as one of the Cayman Islands National Heroes in 2011. The son, Neely Panton, would grow up to be a top surgeon, clinical professor and a leader in the medical field. 

Destined for surgery 

That talk with his father may have been the first time Dr. Panton considered his desire to become a doctor, but there had been previous indications as to what his future career might be. He said his sisters always knew that was his destiny because when he was a child, they would find him sitting in the backyard, dissecting small animals such as frogs. He was even named after another Dr. Neely, who, in the days before a government hospital in Cayman, had come from the U.S. military base hospital to the Pantons’ house to help deliver five of Ormond and Naomi Panton’s seven children. 

Dr. Panton had also long admired the good work of healthcare providers, whom he saw on frequent visits for the respiratory infections he often suffered as a child, and for assorted childhood accidents requiring shots and other treatments. Later he was often invited into the operating room by a local surgeon, and he found he was enamored by hospitals. 

“I liked the old colonial hospitals. I liked the smell, it had the smell of iodine,” he describes with enthusiasm, the way others might talk about the smell of cookies baking at home or freshly cut grass. 

Dr. Panton spent his childhood in Grand Cayman before leaving to pursue his medical education at the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica in 1971. He quickly decided to become a surgeon. He preferred the action of surgery to internal medicine. Those doctors, he said, reminded him of lawyers, standing around for hours arguing over an EKG. Surgeons got results faster. 

“I was very impressed with the ability to very rapidly affect positive change in a patient’s life,” he said. 

Eventually, Dr. Panton made his way to Canada, where he has lived and worked since the 1980s. Today he is the head of the Division of General Surgery at the University of British Columbia, where he is also a professor and an active member of the staff of the UBC Hospital and Vancouver General Hospital. 

Laparoscopic pioneer 

Dr. Panton is considered to be a pioneer in laparoscopic surgery, often referred to as “keyhole surgery.” Instead of making large incisions for operations, surgeons performing laparoscopic operations make micro-incisions, using tiny instruments and insert tiny cameras that help them see inside the body. Patients who undergo laparoscopic surgery typically experience far less pain and have a much faster recovery time than had they undergone traditional procedures. Additional benefits are less hemorrhaging and a reduced risk of infection. 

Dr. Panton has performed laparoscopic inguinal hernia repair, colectomies, bile duct exploration, splenectomies, rectal cancer surgeries and adrenalectomies. He now focuses on abdominal surgeries. 

He said when the laparoscopic revolution began in the 1980s, many surgeons were reluctant to make the jump to a type of operating that involves looking at two-dimensional images on screens and using chopstick-like tools that can be challenging even for a confident surgeon’s dexterity. Dr. Panton said he “often wanted to stay on the leading edge of surgery,” and estimates he has spent more than a half-million dollars in continuing education since he finished his formal medical training. 

“A lot of surgeons are reluctant to change. I don’t want to be the first to try new things, but I don’t want to be the last,” Dr. Panton said. 

In May, Dr. Panton was featured in The Vancouver Sun for “test-driving” an innovative imaging system designed to reduce the risk of complications that can occur during laparoscopic gallbladder surgery. Dr. Panton describes gallbladder surgery, which is frequently performed and relatively inexpensive, as a “nickel and dime” operation, but if a mistake is made, serious consequences may follow, thus making it a million-dollar mistake. 

The University of British Columbia Hospital is the first in Canada to use the new surgical imaging system to help reduce risks of surgical complications during small-incision (laparoscopic) gallbladder surgery,” according to The Sun. 

Dr. Panton told the newspaper that the $150,000 technology developed by a Canadian company called Novadaq showed it is a significant advance. 

He is quoted in The Sun as saying that the new technology allows surgeons to “see the biliary tree and blood vessels, potentially preventing bile duct injuries” which are rare, but “continue to be a serious problem despite the fact that the surgery has been performed over three decades.” 

Last year, Dr. Panton received a “Recognition of Excellence” coin from the International Society of American Gastrointestinal and Endoscopic Surgeons for his “tireless commitment to improving the quality of patient care in British Columbia through leadership and training of surgeons in minimally invasive surgery.” 

He is passionate about mentoring a new generation of surgeons in laparoscopy, which is his way of repaying the many teachers who have shaped his life. 

“You can’t pay back your mentors, you just have to pass it on,” he said. 

Intended to return 

Dr. Panton says that when he began his medical training, it was always his intention to return and work in Cayman, where his family ties date back to the 1650s. He pursued training that would prepare him for working in a small hospital with limited resources, and he chose rotations in obstetrics and pediatrics, which would be useful back home. 

“I never wanted to disappoint my mother and father,” he said. “But more importantly, I didn’t want to fail the Caymanian people. That was always a huge incentive to succeed.” 

But he says that when he did return home to interview for a job, he found that the offer he was made was simply inconsiderable. 

Yet he has continued to maintain strong ties to his home. Although he lives and works in Canada, Dr. Panton continues to give back to the community where he grew up and the community where he was trained. He has contributed equipment to the University of the West Indies to help develop their laparoscopic surgery services and has helped to establish a surgical skills training center of the Mona Campus in Kingston, Jamaica. He also helped with Hurricane Ivan relief, and donated a substantial amount of equipment and medical supplies to the Cayman Islands Hospital in George Town. 

Although he is still working and busy traveling extensively to attend conferences and to mentor surgeons – he has been to Chicago, Barbados, Oman and Argentina in the past year alone – he tries to return to Cayman at least twice a year to visit his two sisters who still live here and many of his friends from the class of 1969, and to spend some time fishing. 

He and his wife Rhona are also sure to attend services at the Elmslie Memorial United Church, where they first met in Sunday school, and where Dr. Panton can still find some of his nannies, now in their 80s, who always greet him with a hug. 

He is fiercely proud of the country’s heritage and hopes that someday the dream for Cayman that this father had will be achieved – that the territory will eventually be independent. 

Dr. Neely Panton

Dr. Neely Panton

Ormond L. Panton, OBE

Ormond L. Panton, OBE

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  1. I can remember hearing about the American Dr. Neely and the great work he did in Cayman when we first arrived in 1976. Mom and Dad always credited this man that we never met with making Neely a good name in Cayman. Glad to hear that Dr. Neely Panton is helping to keep the good name going!

  2. My sincere congratulations to Dr Neely Panton, and if he is anything like his dad Mr. Ormond, he is truly a man of this soil.
    Wishing you the best, God’s guidance, and great success in every human body you touch