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For father-daughter duo Harold and Sophia Roberts, heart surgery is all in the family

Wearing scrubs, father and daughter Dr. Harold Roberts and Dr. Sophia Roberts perform surgery.
BJC HealthCare
Dr. Sophia Roberts, left, followed her father, Dr. Harold Roberts, right, into the medical field.

Dr. Sophia Roberts didn’t have to look far for a role model.

She’s a resident with Washington University at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, and she’s on the path to follow in her dad’s footsteps and become a cardiothoracic surgeon, working on hearts. Her dad, Dr. Harold Roberts, has been in medicine for more than 30 years. This past year, he joined his daughter at Barnes-Jewish.

Only around 8% of cardiothoracic surgeons in the U.S. are women, but Sophia has known she’s wanted to be a surgeon ever since her dad took her to the operating room, at age 11.

“There's all these different tubes and things coming out of the heart that basically recirculate all the blood in the body while the heart is not beating anymore,” Sophia Roberts explained on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air. “So to see a heart beating, and then stop and then beat again — as an 11-year-old, that's almost like a supernatural experience.”

Dr. Sophia Roberts, shown as a child with a toy stethoscope.
The Roberts Family
Even as a child, Dr. Sophia Roberts knew she wanted to be a surgeon like her father.

When she was a kid, her dad had Sophia practice stitches on a banana and bought her a toy stethoscope. She’s one of three siblings, but Harold Roberts could tell something clicked with Sophia when he explained what he did for a living. He saw potential not only in her detail-oriented brain, but also in her humility.

“She's got a good set of hands and a very good head to go with it,” he said.

He also made sure to pass on his taste in classic rock — not only by playing it in the operating room, but also providing a third-row ticket to Black Sabbath when she was in middle school.

“Then I went to eighth grade, not really having full hearing for a couple of days,” she joked. “My English teacher was very jealous.”

Listen to Dr. Harold and Dr. Sophia Roberts on St. Louis on the Air

At home, Harold Roberts was soft-spoken, and his daughter never saw him take charge the way he did in the operating room, dictating the work of the anesthesiologist, perfusionists and assistants.

“Cardiac surgery is really like the ultimate team sport,” Sophia Roberts said. “And really, it's the surgeon that leads and kind of dictates the mood of the room, so it was very cool to see my dad doing that.”

Through her father, she also saw firsthand how physicians can impact lives.

“Someone would come up and say, ‘Dr. Roberts, you don't remember me, but you operated on my mother and gave her 10 extra years,’” she recalled.

And when Sophia thought about where she wanted to train, Barnes-Jewish was top of the list. During her childhood, she often visited her mom’s family in Belleville.

“Every time we came to visit, we'd see this monolith on the side of Kingshighway,” she said. “I had never seen a hospital that big.”

Her grandparents ended up being treated at Barnes-Jewish.

“Both of them were treated very well there,” she said. “And basically, I grew up knowing that Barnes was a pillar in the St. Louis community.”

She wanted to get into Washington University’s heart and vascular program so badly that she borrowed her friend’s gooey butter cake recipe to give out on match day.

“I was just trying to will this into existence,” she said. “Fortunately, it worked out — and the cake was good.”

And then her dad followed. Harold Roberts got an offer to work at Barnes-Jewish last year, but before he accepted, he asked Sophie if she would mind. She didn’t, not one bit.

“I already established myself and learned the ropes,” she said, explaining that the timing was ideal. “I didn't put this work in to live in a shadow.”

Sophia’s entering her third year of a seven-year program and already making her father proud.

“She makes my job easier around here because she's such a popular resident with the attending [physicians],” he joked. “Anytime I meet one, they go, ‘Oh, you’re Sophia’s dad.”

In classic resident fashion, Sophia Roberts is on call for Father’s Day, but she’ll celebrate with her dad later.

“Maybe I’ll see him next week,” she said.

 Dr. Sophia Roberts and her father, Dr. Harold Roberts, pose in an operating room for a photo.
BJC HealthCare
Dr. Sophia Roberts and her father, Dr. Harold Roberts.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Kayla is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.