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If you like Thomas Starzl's story, you might also like:
Tenley Albright,
Keith Black,
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Thomas Starzl
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Thomas Starzl
Thomas Starzl
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Thomas Starzl Interview (page: 8 / 8)

Father of Modern Transplantation

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  Thomas Starzl

If a young man or woman came to you for advice for what it takes to have this kind of career, what advice might you give to them?

Thomas Starzl: I would say that the thing to do would be to pick some question or objective that hasn't been addressed before, or has never been addressed in a satisfactory way, because if you really want to do something like I was able to do you have to start near ground zero. If you try to pick up and ride somewhere in that mushroom cloud that develops as things get bigger and bigger, there's really no... You might be able to make a lot of money and have a nice living even, but if you really want to ride a skyrocket you have to start on the ground, at the beginning.

What do you think will be the next frontier in transplantation, or other areas of medicine, in the next quarter century or so?

Thomas Starzl: By elucidating the mechanisms of engraftment, the tools have been handed on now that are going to make it possible to get people off (immunosuppressant) drugs more frequently or to use low doses of drugs more frequently. By understanding mechanism also, it may be possible to move into xenotransplant objectives, the use of animal organs. Or there is an interface, a powerful one, between transplantation and stem cell biology that might be exploitable. So I don't think that the lid is on transplantation. But with something new, the skyrocket goes here, and then it gets into a plateau which may be sustained on an upward trajectory, but it will never be straight up like it was at that time. With all its vicissitudes, I like the straight shot. It's a little bit like flying to the moon. That was a tremendous achievement in 1969, but it's slowly lost power, lost power, and in fact, even our participation -- at least moon exploration -- is coming to an end. We're turning it all over to the Russians. But there are planets out there beyond that, so there's room for more. But probably nothing will ever have the thrill of having some guy walking around on the moon.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

What do you know about achievement now that you didn't know 50 or 60 years ago, when you were starting your career?

Thomas Starzl Interview Photo
Thomas Starzl: I don't know that I can even give an answer to that, for one simple reason. I never thought of what I did as being an achievement. Even now I don't tend to categorize it in that way. I think self-evaluation is very unreliable and probably wrong either in one direction or another.

Do you have any advice for healthy living in the 21st Century?

Thomas Starzl: I have one cardinal rule or two; they're related. One is not to ever get caught up with substance abuse. That has ruined more people than any other factor, except one. The second is obesity. I do not understand what has happened in this country that makes everybody fat. It's just incomprehensible, because in fact obesity is a higher health risk than smoking. Take somebody like Shelly Winters. She probably doesn't mean anything to you...

We all know Shelly Winters.

Thomas Starzl: How can you start with this beautiful glamour girl and end up the way she ended? I just don't understand it.

It doesn't seem like Americans were the same size 30 years ago. Is this a new addiction? Has there been some change in our habits or lifestyle?

Thomas Starzl: I think there has been.

Looking back on World War Two personnel, or even thinking back on companions at that time, they were small. I weighed the same thing as I do today, 165 pounds, and I was considered big. I was one of the biggest kids on my high school basketball and football teams, one of the biggest kids on the college team. These are giants. Somebody who's 200 pounds is actually considered rather small in the pro football game. So I don't know what the hell happened, but it happened in a different way in Japan. And it's dietary. In Japan, the average height of Japanese women went up about a half a foot, from I think it was five to five feet six inches. Big Japanese women. The men also gained height, but not as much as the women. So what happened in Japan, they tend not to be fat, but their nutrition is good. But if you look at what happened, just follow the pro football players. I've been watching them almost since the game began. If you had somebody like Sam Huff -- you would probably know him, he was a West Virginia guy who played for the New York Giants, was supposed to be one of the great mid-linebackers of all time -- he weighed 200 pounds. And you know, they would be eaten alive today at that weight. So I don't know what the hell has happened. But the problem is that you have those examples of these... and you look at our soldiers now that are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. They're big, muscular brutes, I'm just wondering if that is really an advantage. They're easier to shoot when they're so big. So I don't know what happened that made everyone fat, but I do know that it's a terrible health hazard.

Do you have a definition of the American Dream?

Thomas Starzl: No, I don't. It's a nice phrase, but there are many countries where these dreams can be fulfilled.

I think the American Dream has come to be distorted. The original American Dream was simply that we must have here a meritocracy where we don't inherit wealth, influence and power. It's come to mean, at least in political arguments, the right to get filthy rich. And I think that's a mistake. That is not the American Dream that our forbears had. That dream was to be free: freedom of expression and the right to climb as high in worthy causes as your abilities would enable you to do. It was pretty simple. It had nothing to do with money.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

Could you tell us how organ transplantation reshapes the life of the surgeon?

Thomas Starzl: Well, it teaches you humility, for one thing, because there are failures, and as it existed when I was in practice it was all-consuming. It didn't leave a lot of room for other very worthwhile activities, such as tending more completely to your family, or carrying out other obligations that are time intensive. That was a different era, in which transplantation was more of a crusade then a business or an ordinary enterprise of any kind. So anything that I might say on that score would have to have an asterisk by it and that would be a "one-time-only" "at the beginning" notation.

Thanks very much, Dr. Starzl. It's been a pleasure.

Thomas Starzl: It's been great to talk to you.

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This page last revised on May 16, 2011 17:01 EST
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