Graduating Tar Heels: Ben Sutton

This weekend, Ben Sutton will be graduating with a master’s degree in radiologic sciences, beginning a career as a radiologist assistant.

Ben Sutton.

How do you define success in your career? Hours worked? Money made? Projects completed?

Ben Sutton defines success by the lives he impacts.

That belief led him to Carolina’s radiologic science program two years ago and will now send him on a mission to bring better, more personal health care to veterans.

This weekend, Sutton will be graduating with a master’s degree in radiologic sciences, a two-year master’s program in the UNC School of Medicine’s Department of Allied Health Sciences that prepares students to become radiologist assistants through an online curriculum and a radiologist-directed clinical preceptorship.

“I’m just very excited and proud to have accomplished this,” Sutton said. “My parents are going to be there, my wife and two kids will be there. It’s going to be fun.”

Sutton completed his clinical experience at the Charles George VA Medical Center in Asheville, North Carolina, where found his passion for making an impact in veterans’ lives through health care.

At the Charles George VA, Sutton kept patients at ease even as he inserted an 18-gauge needle into their bodies to help diagnose a disease or inject medication. Sutton made patients more comfortable during the procedure by making human-to-human connections with them — rather than patient-provider transactions, he said.

One patient stands out to Sutton most. The man came in for a paracentesis, a procedure done to drain fluid from the abdominal cavity. After introducing himself, Sutton asked about the man’s interests and learned that they had a mutual love of fishing. While he bonded with the patient about the best locations and gear, it took only 30-seconds to get a drain catheter in and the patient said he never felt a thing.

“He liked me because I talked to him and I didn’t hurt him,” Sutton said.

From that day on, whenever the patient needed a paracentesis, he always asked for Sutton.

To Sutton, radiology is about helping people for the greater good, even when it’s not easy. When Sutton started the online radiologic science program at Carolina, he had a full-time job and was married with one child.

In the past two years, he’s added 24 hours of clinical work a week, online courses at night, an hour commute and even a second child. The result has been many nights with three hours of sleep or less.

“It’s hard to explain, but it’s worth it. I’d do it all again,” Sutton said. “In two years, I’ve made an impact on a bunch of lives. If you can help one person, it’s worth it. I’ve done as much as 18 procedures in an eight-hour period. All those people left without harm and they left feeling better.”

His experience with his patient with paracentesis is what continues to drive Sutton and solidify his passion.

As the patient’s health continued to deteriorate, his trips to the VA became more regular. Eventually, he was making weekly trips to visit Sutton and have excess abdominal fluids drained. He only came when Sutton worked, and the two always started with a hug and small talk. Then, a two-week period went by and the patient hadn’t come in.

When Sutton checked on him, he learned that the man had passed away.

“You always feel like you can do more, but sometimes you can’t,” Sutton said. “We looked up the funeral home because we wanted to send flowers, and then we saw it. I had no idea.”

Sutton saw his own name mentioned in the patient’s obituary.

“It’s very touching. You know you’re good with patients, but it just affirms that this method of patient care works because you’re actually impacting patients’ lives,” he said.