Cancer physician keeps council focused on patient journey

In surgery or furniture making, Dr. Michael Bouton finds the right tools to fix things

Dr. Michael Bouton headshot

Difficult moments are sometimes unavoidable in the lives of doctors and their patients. Putting trust on those occasions in the right people makes a difference.

Michael Bouton, M.D., is a breast surgery specialist at Sanford Medical Center Fargo, and greets these instances as opportunities to inform and comfort.

Understanding breast cancer from the patient’s view is not just part of the job, to hear Dr. Bouton tell it. It is the essence of what he does. Taking care of patients demands expertise but is best delivered when accompanied by empathy and kindness. Breast cancer is a lot to take on for a patient. There’s no changing that. It’s all about what comes next.

“We have a group of people who have a disease where they have probably considered the possibility that they might get it,” Dr. Bouton said. “But it’s a different reality when they actually get it. It’s something that people fear a lot.”

At that point, he becomes a cornerstone in the patient’s cancer journey.

“I have the chance to work with the patients. I get to explain it to them,” he said. “We talk about the whole process — the disease process, the treatment process and the goals — and then at the same time, hopefully alleviate a lot of the fears and anxieties. That’s very, very rewarding.”

His commitment can be measured by the patients he cares for, but also as a leader of colleagues. This is especially true in his work as the Edith Sanford Breast Center steering committee lead.

Part of that role includes chairing a large multidisciplinary steering group with physicians and administrators from the entire Sanford network. It represents a whole team of providers.

The mission of this enterprise is to address things like targeting goals, establishing priorities and implementing the latest research into practice. In short, it is about continually staying focused as a medical community on providing the best care possible.

In 2017, he was recognized as Sanford’s outstanding clinical leader for his work with the initiative.

“Dr. Bouton holds us accountable but he does so in a way where he always keeps the patient at the center,” said Jessica Aguilar, system executive director of Women’s, Children’s and Cancer across the Sanford Health system. “He starts meetings by reminding us all why we’re here and what this means to our patients. He really keeps us focused in that way.”

In addition, he holds several positions of leadership both regionally and nationally outside Sanford. He is also an assistant professor of surgery at the University of North Dakota Health Sciences Center.

“I’ve always liked being part of groups and holding leadership positions because I get more out of them than I can ever give back,” he said. “I learn a lot about myself and other people. And since breast cancer care has such a team approach, being involved in the coordination between multiple departments and multiple groups is a big part of what we do. There is great personal reward in being associated with all these dedicated people.”

Coordinating effective collaboration can be a heavy lift, especially when those decisions can determine the direction taken by an entire health care system. Fostering a productive environment in this instance involves a commitment to listening intently and thinking clearly.

“We have robust discussions,” Aguilar said. “It’s a group that has a lot of trust in one another which means we can have difficult conversations. We can ask hard questions and come out of it feeling like we made a good decision — we’ve arrived at a good way to go forward. As the medical director, I think Dr. Bouton holds himself and the group accountable. We answer the questions: What are we accomplishing? Where are we falling short?”

It’s safe to say Dr. Bouton is blessed with an ability to embrace ambitious projects. That applies to his profession as well as to his family. With his wife and two daughters and their families he fishes, hikes, hunts and cycles. He’s also a furniture maker.

The furniture part comes from helping his father, who remodeled homes for a living, as a youngster. From that came a familiarity with the implements of the trade and ultimately aimed him at a career as a surgeon when it came time for this University of Texas alumnus to pursue a medical specialty.

“I was steered toward surgery because of the hands-on nature of it,” Dr. Bouton said. “It’s both hands-on in terms of the relationship with patients and hands-on with a lot of the things we use in surgery.”

In short, Dr. Bouton likes using tools and fixing things. Before he ever seriously thought about a career in medicine, it was part of his personality.

His initial up-close introduction to medicine came as ward clerk in an emergency room in Austin, Texas, while he was working his way through the University of Texas. It was just a job at the time, Dr. Bouton said, but it left an impression.

“I got to see a lot of patients going through there and I was able to meet a lot of physicians and see the type of work that they did,” Bouton said. “It really interested me and it reinforced the idea that I would want to do that.”

It definitely goes down as a win-win both for Dr. Bouton and for Sanford Health.

“He’s an advocate about the importance of breast health, not only within the walls of the hospital but in the community,” Aguilar said. “He lives his philosophy whether he’s in the operating room or in a meeting room or in the community. You can tell he has a passion for what he does and a passion for our patients.”

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Posted In Cancer, Cancer Treatments, Fargo, Women's