Dr. Teresa Flippo-Morton, one of Charlotte’s leading breast cancer surgeons, died Sunday, only 33 days after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that had spread to her liver. She was 55.
Since 1991, when she completed surgical training at Carolinas Medical Center, Flippo-Morton had treated an estimated 2,300 women with breast cancer, many of whom credit her with saving their lives, said Dr. Richard White, a friend and colleague at Levine Cancer Institute.
“This is a massive loss for our community,” White said. “She was loved by her patients. She was loved by her peers. She was loved by her students.”
Her lack of hubris may have been unusual for a surgeon, but it served her well. “She used to say, ‘I’m just a girl from West Virginia.’ And every time I heard that I laughed,” White said. “She had this amazing ability to help people see things and move them in a leadership direction without any sense of ego … It was all about doing the right thing for the patient. It was never about her.”
After her diagnosis, White suggested creating a free Caring Bridge website that would allow her to post some information about her diagnosis and allow others to share their thoughts and wishes. Characteristically, Flippo-Morton initially resisted. “Who would really look at it?” White recalled her asking.
But once the site went up, they watched the numbers in amazement – 500 views in a day, more than 2,000 after two days. On Tuesday, the site had garnered more than 19,000 visits, including posts from patients who hadn’t seen her in years and some whose surgery she performed recently.
Among them was a patient who had met Flippo-Morton on April 10 to discuss a new breast cancer diagnosis. “Thank you for the compassion you showed to my family and me as we started this treatment,” the woman wrote on May 29. “Little did we each know that God was orchestrating a different path for you and for me.”
On May 30, a message popped up from former Charlotte mayor and former U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick, who made friends with Flippo-Morton after undergoing breast cancer surgery in 1999.
“Reading all these posts from people who love you – and whose lives you saved – like you did mine, should remind you of the community of love and support you now have as you embark on your tough journey. … You are a very strong woman, who encouraged so many of us to be brave and face cancer head on. We now encourage you to give this fight every ounce of strength God gives you.”
In an interview this week, Myrick said she has talked with Flippo-Morton’s husband, Dr. Duncan Morton, a retired pediatric surgeon, and said the family is “amazed at the outpouring of support. …She was like a rock star. … A lot of people wouldn't be around today if it weren’t for her.”
When she was diagnosed with cancer, Myrick said, “People said to me, ‘You need to go to Dr. Flippo.’ The minute I met her, she hit it on the head. I just loved her. … A lot of doctors are very good at what they do, but they don’t have compassion. She’s so compassionate and caring. She would make phone calls to see how you were doing.”
In another Caring Bridge post on May 24, Dr. Patrick Connor, an OrthoCarolina surgeon and team physician for the Carolina Panthers, said he was speechless when he heard the news. “It is so difficult to get one’s arms around how someone so kind, caring and smart who has spent her entire professional life dedicated to the treatment and care of patients with cancer is now fighting the battle from a different perspective.”
Connor met Flippo-Morton 25 years ago when he was a general surgery resident at CMC and she was chief resident. “You represented one of the smartest, strongest and toughest people I had known,” he wrote. “… We are all profoundly indebted to you for what you taught us through your words and actions, and certainly the strength you have amassed over all of the years from teaching others and caring for others will power you in this battle.”
White and his wife, Mary, co-wrote the Caring Bridge post announcing their friend’s death Sunday evening. Their original post described Flippo-Morton’s path to diagnosis, noting that she began having abdominal and back pain at the end of April. On May 5, tests revealed pancreatic cancer that had spread to her liver. The Mortons went ahead with a previously planned trip to Scotland and England in May, and she began chemotherapy on their return.
White, chief of the division of surgical oncology at Levine Cancer Institute, said Flippo-Morton’s humor and thoughtfulness will be missed. She hosted an annual Christmas party for female surgeons in the region, and she often invited residents to her home and remembered their birthdays by sending cards. In October, she always wore pink cowboy boots in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
In 2010, Flippo-Morton developed a fellowship at CMC that offered extra training for surgeons interested in breast disease. It has graduated five physicians, two of whom practice in North Carolina. Recently, the hospital established a fund, Teresa Flippo-Morton, M.D., Surgical Fund, to support educational and research opportunities for residents and fellows in surgical oncology.
White said these efforts will continue her legacy. “My hope,” he said, “is that her gifts are passed on to patients who are seen by her fellows. That’s the best we can all hope for, to have an impact, like watching the ripples when you throw a rock into a pond.”
In addition to her husband, Flippo-Morton is survived by son, Duncan Flippo, a student at Vanderbilt University, and her parents in Sutton, W.Va. A memorial service is scheduled for 1 p.m. Thursday at Providence United Methodist Church, 2810 Providence Road.