When it comes to our health, Sarasotans are ahead of the game. Golf, tennis, Gulf swims and shopping strolls—we’ve got the active lifestyle down. Our steady diet of fresh produce and just-off-the-tree citrus keeps us running strong, too. And our enviable lifestyle and the many well-educated, well-heeled seniors who are in the market for excellent healthcare have helped attract some of the best physicians in the country to our sunny shores.
In this story, you’ll meet the best of the best. Of the hundreds of physicians in Southwest Florida, only 74 standouts from 32 specialties made the cut. These doctors were nominated by their peers based on outstanding clinical as well as interpersonal skills. Each nominee is screened by national research firm Castle Connolly Medical, which compiles listings of leading physicians all around the country and publishes the annual America’s Top Doctors guide. Castle Connolly’s researchers select the very best of the nominees and then provide us with the list of exceptional doctors you see here.
On the following pages, you’ll also read about four area patients whose lives were profoundly affected by these physicians. Consider them just a fraction of the medical miracles being worked here every day.
Sarasota and Manatee are home to many exceptional physicians besides those on our list. Ultimately, the best physician is one with the skills, training and personality to suit your needs and make you comfortable. Start with our list for doctors who’ve earned the respect of their peers and the gratitude of their patients. But don’t stop until you’ve found the right doctor for you. Consider your options carefully—you’ve got a lot of them.
An 18-year-old soccer player suffers a career-ending ACL tear; surgery puts her back in the game.
Dr. Joseph Noah, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist, volunteers as a team doctor for Lemon Bay High School, where 18-year-old Kaileigh Gibson was a soccer player and student athletic trainer. At Lemon Bay football games, Noah treated injured players while demonstrating diagnostic techniques to Gibson and other student trainers.
But midway through her senior soccer season, it was Gibson who needed medical attention. Late in a tied game against rival Charlotte High School, she jostled for the ball with an opposing player. “We got tangled up, and my knee popped loudly,” she says. “The pain wasn’t that bad, but it was really weak, and I couldn’t put any weight on it.” The diagnosis was clear: She had torn her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), a crucial joint stabilizer in the middle of the knee that can only be repaired surgically. Gibson would play no more high school soccer. “I was really upset about that. My sister was a freshman on the team, and that was the last game I’d get to play with her,” she says.
“At one point, this injury was career-ending,” Noah says. But advancements in surgical technique now allow even professional athletes to recover fully from ACL reconstruction. (Tiger Woods recently returned to professional golf after similar surgery.) The standard reconstruction procedure arthroscopically attaches a graft—in this case, a segment of Gibson’s own patella tendon—to reconnect the severed ligament.
As Gibson experienced the treatment process firsthand, Noah took care to describe exactly what was happening. Facing surgery and a lengthy rehab, Noah says, patients—especially young athletes—must be treated psychologically as well as physically.
“This injury often comes at the worst possible time, at the end of senior year when they’re looking to be selected for college,” says Noah. “There’s a big psychological impact. The more informed you are, the better.”
“He was great,” Gibson says with a big smile. “He explained everything that he was going to do.” She underwent the nearly two-hour surgery on Jan. 22 of this year. Nine weeks later, she started jogging again.
In August, Gibson will enroll at Florida State University, where she’ll play on the school’s Division I women’s soccer team. She plans to study athletic training.
A 59-year-old mechanic’s crippling arthritis ends his career and won’t respond to medicine. A new drug therapy restores his mobility and happiness.
Rheumatologist Dr. Jeffrey Kaine says the greatest successes are when patients “come in in a wheelchair and go out dancing.” When Amos Cook first visited Kaine in 2004, he needed two canes to walk. A wheelchair seemed inevitable.
Cook, now 59, was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in 1996. Through eight years of what Kaine describes as “the appropriate medications,” Cook continued to deteriorate, plagued by more than 50 tender and swollen joints. A native West Virginian—his accent is still thick as molasses—Cook had worked in factories for years before moving to Venice and starting work as an auto body repairman. In 2000, he could no longer hold his tools and stopped working. “I’d be doing good just getting up out of a chair. I couldn’t even make a fist,” he says.
In 2004, Cook’s doctor encouraged him to seek treatment from Kaine at the Sarasota Arthritis Center. Because Cook’s condition was so severe, Kaine was able to place him in a study for a promising new rheumatoid arthritis drug, Rituxan. But Cook didn’t improve.
Cook was crestfallen when Kaine stopped the experimental medicine. “He told me I’d be in a wheelchair in the next few months,” Cook says.
But Kaine didn’t give up. He suspected that Cook had been placed in the study’s placebo group, rather than actually taking the drug. He persuaded the drug company to reveal the truth: Cook had indeed been given the placebo. Rituxan might still work.
Kaine took advantage of a change in protocol to prescribe the drug directly to Cook. “I was told I should be able to feel the difference in six to eight weeks,” says Cook. “I could feel the difference in two weeks. Between now and then, I feel 100 percent.”
Cook, still retired, now walks two miles a day and rides his bike regularly. Several times a year, he’s asked to speak to groups about the success of Rituxan—and he’s also quick to point out the effect of Kaine’s optimism. “I’ve always tried to be positive, but it got frustrating for a while,” he says. “Dr. Kaine kept me positive.”
“It’s what I do,” Kaine says.
“Before, I couldn’t even hold a bottle,” Cook laughs. His newest hobby? Oil painting.
A healthy 66-year-old develops a terrible headache. The diagnosis: a rare tumor dangerously deep inside the brain.
Just over a year ago, Allan Kersten was an active 66-year-old retiree living in University Park and playing trombone in several local bands. But in April 2008, he began suffering from an intense headache that wouldn’t go away. When he called his doctor, he was instructed to go immediately to the emergency room.
The first diagnosis was a brain hemorrhage. After a CAT scan, however, Kersten was told it was brain cancer.
At that moment, neurosurgeon Robert Knego showed up.
“He just happened to be walking by and heard the diagnosis,” remembers Kersten. “He kind of stuck his head in and said, ‘Hi.’” Knego’s confidence and bedside manner made an immediate impact. Kersten’s wife turned to her husband and said, “This is the guy you need to have.”
Knego refused to jump to any diagnostic conclusions, opting instead to give Kersten steroids to reduce swelling before seeing what an MRI revealed. “During that month, he was getting worse, losing balance and a lot of weight,” says Knego. “Really, he looked like he was going to die.”
The MRI verdict? A cancerous tumor. Brain surgery was scheduled for May 23.
Typically, tumors appear in the periphery of the brain, explains Knego, who with his group performs 10 to 12 brain surgeries a month. In Kersten’s case, however, the mass was located deep in the ventricles. One slip could cause permanent brain damage or even sudden death.
“Many times you’d send a case like this to an academic center,” Knego explains. “But because of the great support staff and the capabilities we’ve got at Sarasota Memorial, we could do the surgery here.”
Knego and his team removed the mass in its entirety, and Kersten awoke to great news: It wasn’t cancer, but neurocytoma, a very rare benign growth that usually appears in young men. In fact, at 66, Kersten is now the world’s oldest reported case of neurocytoma.
“He’s pretty much back to his old jovial self. He’s back to playing the trombone,” says Knego.
“That’s the beautiful part,” says Kersten. “It was brain surgery, but there wasn’t too much anxiety on my part, because I had such faith in Dr. Knego. He just oozes confidence. He’s a beautiful person.”
Olivia and James Fansler
Doctors can’t explain a 31-year-old woman’s excruciating stomach pain—until the correct test is finally ordered.
Olivia Fansler, now 31, says she was “desperate to get well” when she first started suffering excruciating stomach pain two years ago—pain that led her to the emergency room in her home of Lakes Wales.
“They found my liver enzymes were really high,” recalls Fansler. But after a month of seeing different doctors, Fansler was no closer to finding the cause of her mysterious pain. Then she was referred to gastroenterologist Dr. Elliot Livstone in Sarasota.
Livstone ordered a series of tests, but the lab overlooked his request for a test that would have highlighted the possibility of celiac disease, a digestive disease that damages the small intestine and interferes with absorption of nutrients from food. The culprit is gluten, a protein found in grains such as wheat, rye and barley, but also present in products including vitamins, lotions and lip balms.
Livstone suspected celiac disease early on, though. For years, he says, doctors misdiagnosed patients with Fansler’s symptoms as having irritable bowel syndrome, caused by stress—and, ironically enough, they prescribed for relief a substance that contained gluten, so most did not get better. Since the early 1990s, however, a simple blood test has helped detect celiac disease.
Once the proper test was run, Livstone ascertained that Fansler did indeed suffer from celiac disease—something her Irish ancestry probably plays a part in. “About one percent of American adults have celiac disease,” says Livstone, “but it’s much more common in Europe, especially the British Isles.”
Even before the correct diagnosis, Fansler had taken Livstone’s suspicions to heart, researching a gluten-free diet and avoiding coming into contract with gluten by accident. “My husband and I don’t eat out anymore, because it’s so hard to be certain there’s no gluten in the restaurant,” she says. “And I do miss Subway. But I found a great gluten-free cookbook and a staple flour mixture I can buy right off the shelf. And now our dogs eat gluten-free food, too” to ensure that she doesn’t touch even trace amounts of the product.
“Olivia was very motivated, and people who educate themselves and attend a celiac disease support group will do well,” says Livstone. Younger adults, like college-bound students, may have a rougher time adjusting when first diagnosed, he adds, “until I tell them there is gluten-free beer.”
Castle Connolly’s physician-led team of researchers follows a rigorous screening process to select top doctors on both the national and regional levels. Using mail and telephone surveys and electronic ballots, they ask physicians and the medical leadership of leading hospitals to identify highly skilled, exceptional doctors. Careful screening of doctors’ educational and professional experience is essential before final selection is made among those physicians most highly regarded by their peers. Physicians selected for inclusion in this magazine’s “Top Doctors” feature may also appear online as regional top doctors at www.castleconnolly.com, as well as in Castle Connolly’s national guides, America’s Top Doctors® and/or America’s Top Doctors® for Cancer.
Behind the List
What you need to know about Top Doctors.