Cedars-Sinai Blog

Faces of Cedars-Sinai: Drs. Watkins, father and son

Cedars-Sinai orthopaedic surgeon Dr. Robert Watkins III

Meet Dr. Robert Watkins III and Dr. Robert Watkins IV, orthopaedic spine surgeons and co-directors of the Marina Spine Clinic. Dr. Robert Watkins IV also serves as chief of staff at Cedars-Sinai Marina del Rey Hospital.

We sat down with the father-son duo to learn more about what it's like working together to bring their expert, compassionate care to patients all over the world.

"I hope that my legacy is that we put patient care not only first, but at the heart of every decision that we made."

When did you know you wanted to become a doctor?

Dr. Robert Watkins Sr.: I was about 12 years old and my cousin, Johnny, was diagnosed with osteomyelitis, an infection of the bone in his leg. I would visit him in the hospital every day because it was near my school. This is when I became pretty sure that this was what I wanted to do.

Dr. Robert Watkins Jr.: Growing up, I never wanted to be a doctor. I was a philosophy major at Vanderbilt in Nashville and a couple years into it, I looked at my dad's job and realized that being a doctor is a great profession. You get to accomplish a lot as an individual: You get to take on great challenges, study and learn, and all the while know that at the end of the day, you're helping people.

How has the experience been working with each other?

Dr. Robert Watkins Jr.: My dad is my greatest mentor, and as a surgeon, his experience is invaluable. Working with him is really easy because he genuinely cares about me and vice versa. One of the greatest things about being a son is, you want to make your dad proud, be competent at your job. That's been really gratifying.

Dr. Robert Watkins Sr.: Part of our dynamic is based on the fact that I’ve known him and loved him since he was born. I remember that day very well and every little aspect along the way, which helps me have perspective. I know that he's a good man. If there are problems, I have complete faith that he'll work them out properly with the attitude that the patient always comes first. He will do the right thing, and truly care for everyone in his orbit.

Cedars-Sinai chief of staff Dr. Robert Watkins IV

What would you say are each other's greatest strengths?

Dr. Robert Watkins Sr.: Robert has a great deal of empathy and compassion for sick and wounded patients, and I think that's number one. He's also much smarter than I am and always has been, and he's an excellent technical surgeon. He's got a good brain and he can figure things out.

One of the greatest lessons I've learned from my son is to be innovative. Robert has a very open, bright and original approach to new problems and in our field, things come up constantly that require us to be innovative. But the most important thing is the care he gives the patients. That impresses me more and more every day.

Dr. Robert Watkins Jr.: My dad's greatest strengths are his decision-making abilities when determining the factors that matter in each patient’s case and helping to make the decision that's best for that individual.

What lessons from fatherhood have impacted the way that you deliver care?

Dr. Robert Watkins Sr.: I was raised by my mother. She worked for American Airlines for 30 years, and we lived alone. She played a huge role in instilling a multiplicity of things in me.

But I didn't really know how to be a father. I didn't have that example around me all the time, so I try to just let my love—the same love I feel for my five kids and nine grandkids now—lead in my professional life. I try to find that combination of letting people I work with feel things out, learn things, try things … it's always a fine line between enjoying the journey ensuring nobody gets hurt by the experience. I didn’t have a magic formula.

Dr. Robert Watkins Jr.: It's a balance. You're the authority. You listen to your patients. You let them express themselves and it's an equal relationship in ways, but at the same time it's your job as the expert to give good advice. At home, I listen to my kids and I consider their opinions, but at the end of the day, I'm the authority, and I'm going to tell them what they need to do.

In a sense, it's the same way with patients, although of course patients make their own decision. My job is to tell patients what I recommend, because this is my area of expertise and I make the best recommendation I can, because I care. What I learned from my dad is, if people trust you and they know that you care about them, they will want to know what you think is best and 90% of the time they're going to follow your advice.

What impact do you want to leave on the Cedars-Sinai Marina del Rey Hospital community?

Dr. Robert Watkins Jr.: I hope that people think that I was a genuine person who cared about other people and respected everybody who works at that facility, and anybody I come in contact with. Ultimately, all the titles, awards or initials behind your name don't mean as much as the relationships you build and how you interact with people on a daily basis.

Dr. Robert Watkins Sr.: I hope that my legacy is that we put patient care not only first, but at the heart of every decision that we made. It was always about what's best for that individual patient. If it is known that this was our philosophy and that this is what we did best, then I'll certainly be satisfied.