‘Burden of Genius’ tells story of transplant pioneer Dr. Thomas Starzl
Six months before Dr. Christiaan Barnard conducted the world’s first highly-publicized heart transplant in December of 1967, Dr. Thomas Starzl performed the world’s first successful liver transplant.
Barnard received worldwide publicity and, after hitting the talk show circuit, became a household name.
Starzl did not become as well known and, over the years, had largely resisted telling his story to people like filmmaker Carl Kurlander.
A Pittsburgh native known for writing “St. Elmo’s Fire,” Kurlander spent five years trying to convince Starzl to let him make a documentary about his life.
After finally “wearing him down,” Kurlander received Starzl’s cooperation. The end result is a riveting film that tells the story of the legendary transplant pioneer called “Burden of Genius.” It is produced by Kurlander and written and directed by Tjardus Greidanus.
“Burden of Genius” has its public, red-carpet premiere in Pittsburgh on Friday, April 12 at Carnegie Science Center’s Rangos Giant Cinema.
“He wouldn’t let me make the movie for five years because he said, ‘It’s too complicated. No one can fully understand what we had to do to do this,’” said Kurlander.
Kurlander persisted. Starzl ended up doing a solid week of interviews with Kurlander’s colleague Laura Davis and director Greidanus not long before the surgeon died in March 2017.
“I knew the story was amazing, but I don’t think we were prepared for the reaction we’re getting,” said Kurlander. “At almost every screening, audience members have come up to us and have told us how they were so moved by the film. They are changing their organ donation status.”
Parts of the film are not for the squeamish. “Burden of Genius” does not hold back from showing operating room scenes of transplant operations in bloody detail. But it helps to show the difficulty involved in perfecting the process.
There are also lighter moments in the film that come out in stories about Starzl, such as his refusal to carry a pager. However, his secretary knew that after hours he could usually be found either at The Original Hot Dog Shop in Oakland or Dunkin’ Donuts.
The movie conveys the struggle Starzl and his colleagues went through to convince people that the idea of taking one organ from one person and transplanting it into another wasn’t science fiction. That it would, in fact, end up saving the lives of countless patients and transform modern medicine.
The movie also tells a very human story, showing the emotional toll the early failures took on Starzl and his family as well as the other doctors as they struggled to learn how to make transplant procedures work.
“Because of his knowledge and abilities, he actually made it possible for liver transplantation to be successful when most people were giving up,” said Dr. Velma Scantlebury, a former Thomas E. Starzl Institute fellow. “He was persistent and determined. He was a genius in his own right and so many people trained under him, surgeons from all over the world came to Pittsburgh to learn from him. Today liver transplantation is the norm, it’s considered every day surgery because of him.”
Scantlebury is featured in the film. She is the author of the new book, “Beyond Every Wall: Becoming America’s 1st Black Female Transplant Surgeon.”
Scantlebury, who will participate in a post-screening discussion after the 4 p.m. showing on Saturday and Sunday, says “Burden of Genius” is important because there are many people who don’t know and appreciate Starzl’s story.
“Unfortunately, there is a sector of young surgeons who may not necessarily have encountered Dr. Starzl, who may not even know of him,” Scantlebury said. “The perfection of immunosuppression drugs that we use today is because of his early trials and his willingness to use this stuff to have better outcomes. We all need to learn about the history of transplantation and the remarkable way that he contributed to the field.”
The 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday screenings with Scantlebury are nearly sold out. Tickets can be purchased in advance at the Carnegie Science Center website.
Paul Guggenheimer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-226-7706 or [email protected].