Transplant pioneer Starzl eulogized as a 'true gift to humanity'
Dr. Thomas E. Starzl, globally revered as a lifesaving transplant pioneer, was remembered Saturday as much for the earnest and gracious way in which he treated all people as he was for his professional genius.
“My grandpa had the preternatural ability to instantly see you, see right into your soul, and he would use what he saw to be the person you needed him to be,” Ravi Starzl said Saturday on the University of Pittsburgh campus during a memorial service for his grandfather. “By being the person you needed, he would draw out from you the best you had. And no matter the agony, you knew that it was right and that you would never be the same again.
“For all of his surgical and scientific accomplishments, he was even more accomplished with the human factor.”
Dr. Starzl, the father of organ transplantation, died peacefully March 4 at his home in Pittsburgh's Schenley Farms neighborhood. He was 90.
More than 400 people crowded into Heinz Memorial Chapel in Oakland to celebrate Starzl's remarkable life on what would have been his 91st birthday.
Starzl performed the first human kidney transplant in 1962 and performed the first successful human liver transplant, on a 19-month-old girl named Julie Rodriguez, in 1967.
As the head of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's transplant center, he revolutionized medicine and set the standard for the life-saving surgery.
“Think about the life he structured for himself,” former Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg said. “He set out to do the impossible, knowing he'd have to do it perfectly. Then he taught others to do it just as well, even as he kept searching for ways in which it could be done even better.
“We cannot know how many lives Tom already has saved, directly and indirectly. But we do know that lives will continue to be saved for as long as we can imagine because of his work.
“Thomas Starzl was a true gift to humanity, and his spirit will live on in the lives he saved, in the lessons he taught and in the memories of those he touched.”
The son of a newspaper publisher in Iowa, Starzl once worked as a proofreader for the Chicago Tribune and thought of becoming a priest. But his mother's breast cancer compelled him to attend Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago.
After a distinguished career at the University of Colorado, he came to UPMC in 1981. Pitt's fledgling kidney transplant program quickly grew to perform 106 surgeries in 1981, three times as many as in prior years. By the time Starzl retired in 1991, the UPMC transplant center was performing more than 200 kidney transplants a year and 600 transplants overall.
The center was named for him in 1985.
“The architect is gone,” his son, Tim Starzl, said at the memorial. “But the cathedral remains. We all live in its shadows, we all live with its benefits. It's a permanent feature in our world now. ... He has actually, fundamentally changed the world we live in.
“… Dr. Starzl is not really gone at all, for those who have the eyes to see it.”
Starzl was remembered for his love of family, intellectual conversation and his many dogs, including Chooloo, a golden retriever who sat with family members in the front pews of the chapel.
A successful kidney transplant patient, Hollis Hurd, recalled a day in the hospital when Starzl crept up behind him and gave him a bear hug. Only when he heard the voice and saw the nurses in the room smiling did Hurd realize that he was, quite literally, in safe hands.
“He announced to the assembled nurses that I was his favorite patient,” Hurd said, shaking his head at the memory.
Hurd closed his remarks by addressing Starzl directly: “Doc, when I see you again, and I know I will, I will be hugging you and telling everyone you are my favorite physician. And it will be true. It may sound crazy, but I can't wait.”
Starzl's wife of 36 years, Joy, sat in the front pew and hugged each of the 12 speakers as they left the podium, many with tears in their eyes.
When it was Joy Starzl's turn, she wept as she recalled the love her husband always showed her and the pain he endured as the end neared.
“I know he is at peace now,” she said. “It was hard watching his body deteriorate.”
In a family statement printed in the memorial service program, Starzl's family wrote:
“Thomas Starzl was many things to many people. He was a globally recognized pioneer in science and medicine, a legend, a great human and a great humanitarian. But most importantly, he was simply known and loved for the person that he was. ... Nobody who spent time with Thomas Starzl could remain unaffected; he will forever be missed.”
Ravi Starzl agreed, noting that when he learned of his grandfather's passing, “I felt his absence as a physical thing.”
“I loved my grandpa,” Ravi Starzl said. “In our time together, we spoke about things in dimensions and ways that were often difficult for others to understand.
“Yet no matter how deep, abstract or esoteric the intellectual constructs we would build became, neither my grandpa or I ever feared the other could not follow. Our minds crossed the thresholds of alien worlds effortlessly. We were dolphins playing in a sea of information.”
Joy Starzl concluded the service by making an unusual request.
“I know this is not traditional,” she said, “but I'd like you all to join me in singing ‘Happy Birthday.' ”
The crowd rose.
With her voice cracking, Joy Starzl sang every word.
“Thank you,” she said at the song's end. “Now let's go celebrate his life.”
With that, the people most touched by an extraordinary life walked out into a cold winter day, crossed a lawn to the Cathedral of Learning, and continued to tell their stories during a private reception.
Chooloo was there.
And birthday cake was served.
Chris Togneri is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5632 or firstname.lastname@example.org.