Tom Starzl: 'super human' transplant pioneer and 'the good man'
March 12, 2017 12:00 AM
Joy Starzl hugs her brother, Carlos Conger, after giving a remembrance of her husband, Dr. Thomas Starzl, during a memorial service Saturday at Heinz Chapel in Oakland. Dr. Starzl, a pioneer in organ transplantation, died on March 4.
A banner presented to Dr. Thomas Starzl for his 90th birthday last year stands at the front of Heinz Chapel before the start of his memorial service for on Saturday. Starzl, a pioneer in organ transplantation, died on March 4.
Members of the U.S. Navy Honor Guard fold a flag to be presented to Joy Starzl during the memorial service for her husband, Dr. Thomas Starzl, Saturda at Heinz Chapel in Oakland. Dr. Starzl, a pioneer in organ transplantation, died on March 4.
By Sean D. Hamill / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
There are 391 people from thousands of years of human history who are honored in Heinz Chapel’s spectacularly colorful stained glass windows.
They include important figures from religion, philosophy, the arts, humanities, and the sciences, including William Harvey, an English physician who first mapped the human circulatory system, and Galen, the Greek physician who identified the importance of the arteries.
There is not a window honoring Thomas Starzl, the pioneering Pittsburgh transplant surgeon and researcher who died last week and was memorialized at a nearly two-hour service by more than 400 family, friends, colleagues and transplant recipients in the chapel Saturday, on what would have been his 91st birthday.
But many in attendance agreed: If the 84-year-old windows were being made today, Dr. Starzl would deserve a place in them.
“Oh yeah, he deserves a window,” Phil Schauer, a Cleveland Clinic surgeon who trained under Dr. Starzl, said just before the service. “He deserves his own wing.”
Eleven speakers during the service explained why.
Martine Rothblatt, a technologist and chairman of the United Therapeutics Corp., told the story of how she first met Dr. Starzl a decade ago at a meeting and told him her frustration that there must be a better way to create organs to alleviate the shortage that plagues the transplant world.
“I’ve been thinking about his issue for many years,” Dr. Starzl replied, before laying out a plan to make it possible to one day have genetically modified organs from pigs that can be transplanted into humans in a nearly unlimited supply.
She said she has spent the last decade trying to follow that plan he laid out that day. She announced to the crowd that next year they project that the first human transplant from such an organ will occur — all of it “born from the seed of Thomas Starzl.”
While all the speakers acknowledged his “super human” qualities, “force of nature” will and impact on history, they spoke, too, of the kind and generous man they knew personally, the man who made his own bed, who walked the family dogs, the man who acknowledged his faults and tried to make up for them.
Alex Dietrich, Dr. Starzl’s great-niece, said her grandmother used Dr. Starzl as an example for her, but not just for his success.
“She held him up as an example of what it meant to be a good man,” she said.
“The world will miss your genius,” she said, speaking to Dr. Starzl’s memory. “We will miss Tom, the good man.”
Bob Starzl, Dr. Starzl’s cousin, said the family understood that they share his loss with the world — and another larger family.
“We were lucky to have him in our family,” said Bob Starzl, his cousin. “But he had created a far bigger family, of medical professionals and patients and their families.”
Mark Nordenberg, the University of Pittsburgh’s chancellor emeritus, said the first time he met Dr. Starzl in the early 1980s, Dr. Starzl explained what was happening with the transplant program at a time when anti-rejection drugs were not yet common, and “the numbers he presented were not particularly encouraging.”
But Mr. Nordenberg said “all it took was a look in [Dr. Starzl’s] determined eyes, and I was convinced that this man was going to meet and defeat any challenges that came his way.”
John Fung, Dr. Starzl’s protégé and now director of the Transplantation Institute at the University of Chicago, expressed for many the anguish he felt at the passing of his friend, who seemed as bright as ever, even if his body was failing him in recent years.
“His death was unimaginable. This could not happen. Not to our friend and mentor,” Dr. Fung said. “At first there were no words. Then there was a word: Awe.”
Tim Starzl, his son, compared his father to a medieval stone mason, or architect who built “a living cathedral.”
“You can go almost anywhere and see an edge of this cathedral,” he said, noting the thousand doctors he trained, and then the thousands those doctors trained, and on and on. “You will almost always see somebody who is touched by Dr. Starzl.”
“The architect is gone,” he concluded. “But the cathedral remains.”
Dr. Starzl’s wife, Joy, who sat in the front pew during the service with their family golden retriever — who famously used to go to the office with Dr. Starzl — was the last speaker.
Through her tears, she told the mourners how hard it was in the early days when they arrived in 1981, but how they were still sure they made the right choice by coming to Pittsburgh.
And she concluded by telling the audience she had a request.
“I know this is not traditional, but I’d like you all to join me in singing Happy Birthday,” she said, before the crowd rose and joined her in full voice.
Afterward, in an interview, Ms. Starzl said Saturday had been a tough day. But her spirits were lifted hearing all the memories and stories.
Some of the stories were new to her, she said, “But they were all true; they were Tom.”
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