Paul Kengor: Dr. Thomas Starzl and the burden of genius |
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Paul Kengor

Last week, I joined a packed auditorium in Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Science Center for the debut of a fascinating new documentary, “Burden of Genius.” The subject is Dr. Thomas Starzl, pioneer of organ transplantation, who pursued that revolution in medicine at Presbyterian University Hospital and Children’s Hospital, which were connected together in the Oakland section on the Pitt campus.

I can vouch for that connectedness. In fact, I knew every corridor, elevator, staircase, as I hustled from floor to floor and room to room for Starzl from 1987-91. I worked for Starzl’s team — part time at first and full time after graduation. I collected blood data from labs in the bottom of Children’s Hospital and ran it to the rooms where I daily recorded the information on patients’ charts. I was also involved in research, including on an experimental immunosuppressant drug known as FK-506, which turned out to be the breakthrough that Starzl long needed.

I was involved in a bunch of things, but

I mention my truly minor role for this reason: I was a close observer of what was going on. I remember my great frustration watching so many patients suffer. My most optimistic view was that Starzl was hopefully buying time for these poor souls — giving them a few extra years until the procedure was mastered and, most of all, until an elusive and crucial immunosuppressant was found.

Well, it was eventually found. But in the interim, from the time of Starzl’s first transplant patient in the 1960s through the very difficult 1970s, the peaks and valleys of the 1980s, and then into the 1990s, this medical pioneer was attacked. When he arrived, faculty and students at Pitt’s School of Medicine started a petition trying to stop this alleged Dr. Frankenstein. Starzl persevered. Now, the lives saved from his revolution have skyrocketed from a painful dozen or so by the late 1970s to well over 100,000 and growing — not just in Pittsburgh but nationwide and worldwide, as Starzl’s trainees now run their own centers.


“Burden of Genius” was, for me, riveting and moving. It took me back to names and faces and images I hadn’t seen in 30 years: surgeon John Fung, transplant coordinator Sandra Staschak-Chicko children who made national headlines, such as Tabitha Foster and Stormie Jones. The film is beautifully done from a technical and artistic viewpoint, but beyond that, it affected me personally and emotionally. It’s hard to put into words.

This much I can say:

It’s enormously gratifying to see Starzl and the entire program get this long-overdue, state-of-the-art tribute. This exquisite testimony badly needed to be done.

To that end, maybe one of the best insights in the film comes not from a surgeon, nurse, journalist or medical ethicist, but a historian — renowned Pittsburgh native David McCullough. He notes that writers of history tend to focus on politics and war. And yet, we can’t neglect great men of medicine, such as Starzl, not to mention another pioneer who achieved his breakthrough in Pittsburgh — Jonas Salk. Often quietly behind the scenes, away from the mass media and cameras, these individuals affect an enormous number of lives. They are pivots of technology and history.

Starzl’s burden of genius was his unique realization that he was pursuing something big, even as others didn’t see it and attacked him as cold and uncaring, allegedly shrugging off his hopeless victims who died on the operating table while he grimly stood there in puddles of blood.

Well, Starzl didn’t exactly feel good about the death either. It hurt him. As the film shows, it pained him, wounded him through his final days.

Yet, with the burden was the genius who understood that such trials could one day lead to a brighter horizon. Today, there are thousands of beneficiaries who would agree.

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