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Burden of Genius Documents Historic Transplantation Career of Thomas Starzl

By on January 29, 2018 in Experts, Featured, Health News Texas with 0 Comments

by Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

Fifty years after his first liver transplant and almost a year-to-the date of his death, a new film is set to debut in Silicon Valley on the life of Dr. Thomas Starzl, often referred to as “the father of modern transplantation”.  Burden of Genius tells the incredible story of one man who tilted the scales monumentally in favor of mankind in the healthcare battle.

Fifty years after his first liver transplant and almost a year-to-the date of his death, a new film is set to debut in Silicon Valley on the life of Dr. Thomas Starzl, often referred to as “the father of modern transplantation”. Photo: Burden of Genius

In 1967 Starzl revolutionized medicine by being the first to successfully transplant a liver, an organ second in complexity only to the brain.

Born in Le Mars, Iowa, he was the son of an Iowa newspaper editor and science fiction writer Roman Frederick Starzl and Anna Laura Fitzgerald, a teacher and a nurse. Originally intending to become a priest, his plans changed when his mother died from breast cancer. He was driven by the dream of conquering unbeatable diseases and went on to attend Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago, earning both a Ph.D in Neurophysiology and an M.D. 

After his first liver transplant, the medical community became deeply divided on transplantation. Critics accused him of recklessness and murder. Others declared it the beginning of a revolution.

Burden of Genius is the story of an innovator as complex and elusive as the biological secrets he unlocked; a man many call the greatest surgeon of the 20th century.

Starzl’s Texas Connection

A one-in-a-million genetic defect called homozygous familial hypercholesterolemia, did not allow Stormie Jones liver to remove cholesterol from her bloodstream. Photo: Ed Lallo/People Magazine

At the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on February 14, 1984, Starzl led a team of surgeons at that performed the first heart and liver organ transplant on six-year old Stormie Jones of Cumby, Texas.

A one-in-a-million genetic defect called homozygous familial hypercholesterolemia, did not allow Stormie’s liver to remove cholesterol from her bloodstream. As a result, high cholesterol levels had caused two heart attacks by her sixth birthday. Since the transplant required lifelong immunosuppressant therapy to prevent rejection of the new liver, and with a severely damaged heart from the two previous attacks, it was decided to also perform a heart transplant on the young girl.

On Jan. 2nd Stormie’s mother, Susie Jones, checked the child into the Pittsburgh hospital. “They gave us no odds at all,” Susie told People Magazine after the procedure. “We were on a floor with cancer patients. Every other day Stormie would see kids die, including some of her best friends. She said, ‘I know they’re in heaven, but I’m not gonna die.’ ”

On Valentine’s Day Stormie was wheeled into surgery. “I was afraid I would die and not make it.” Photo: Ed Lallo/People Magazine

Six weeks after Susie and her daughter arrived in Pittsburgh, Katie Rebstock, a 4-year-old from Palmyra, N.Y., died in an automobile accident. Her parents consented to having her organs transplanted to the young Texas girl they had never met.

On Valentine’s Day Stormie was wheeled into surgery. “I was afraid I would die and not make it,” she told People Magazine reporter Jason Hammer in October of 1984. “If I died, my mom would start crying. She loves me. I didn’t believe I would wake up, but my mom said I would.”

Susie Jones neighbor gives her daughter and Stormie (center) a bath after a busy day of doctors and school. Photo: Ed Lallo/People Magazine

Hammer wrote that it took 16 hours and a team of more than 24 nurses and physicians headed by Starzl and cardiac surgeon Dr. Henry Bahnson to perform the operation, but wake up she did.

Stormie died on November 11, 1990 from complications of rejection of the heart transplant she received. Her case showed that the liver controls blood cholesterol and that high cholesterol is controllable. It was part of the research on cholesterol and the liver that won Joseph L. Goldstein and Michael S. Brown the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1985.

The transplant required lifelong immunosuppressant therapy to prevent rejection of the new liver and heart. Photo: Ed Lallo/People Magazine

In his book “The Puzzle People: Memoirs of a Transplant Surgeon,” the surgeon recalls how the laces of Stormie’s tennis shoes were always loose and that her smile “once seen was never forgotten.” After she died, Starzl never operated again.

Like Starzl, I will never forget Stormie Jones. I was the photographer assigned by People Magazine to cover her new life in Dallas with writer Jason Hammer.   I was fortunate enough to spend a week with her, her family, doctors and teachers. This was a brave little first grader who suffered through no fault of her own.

Burden of Genius is directed by Tjardus Greidanus and produced by Laura Davis and Carl Kurlander. It features David Crosby, Larry Kramer, David McCullough, Jamie Redford and Martine Rothblatt. The movie is a reflection on the sacrifices made by the pioneer doctor in order to give humanity an unimaginable triumph.

“If you do anything off the mark, there will be people that go after you,” said Starzl in an inverview for the production. “The key is to ignore your enemies and focus on your productivity. Everything will be fine.”


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