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Legendary leader

John S. Najarian, M.D., served as chair of the Department of Surgery from 1967 to 1993.

Endowed chair honors a pioneer in transplantation

By age 79, most people have retired. Not John S. Najarian, M.D. After 40 years as a pioneering surgeon in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Surgery, he remains devoted to his passion—transplantation.

“Solid organ transplantation, the University of Minnesota, and the name John S. Najarian are virtually synonymous in the surgical world,” says David A. Rothenberger, M.D., deputy chair of the Department of Surgery and holder of the John P. Delaney, M.D., Chair in Clinical Surgical Oncology. “The program Dr. Najarian developed here has trained more leaders in clinical transplantation than any other, and his successors continue to lead the world in this ever-evolving field.”

That’s why the Department of Surgery is establishing the John S. Najarian, M.D., Surgical Chair in Clinical Transplantation in his honor. So far, Najarian’s colleagues, friends, and patients have committed about $1.6 million toward the $2 million goal. The department plans to use the chair to recruit or retain a transplantation leader of Najarian’s caliber.

Najarian’s friend and neighbor Stanley S. Hubbard, chairman and CEO of Hubbard Broadcasting, Inc., is among those leading the charge. Hubbard has contributed to the chair through his company and the Hubbard Broadcasting Foundation. He has supported the fund personally and encourages others to contribute as well.

“The fact that John Najarian has done so much for the University of Minnesota, the state of Minnesota, and humanity in general—that’s all the motivation our family needed,” Hubbard says. “He’s a great doctor and a wonderful person.”

John S. Najarian, M.D., is an internationally known leader in transplantation.

Najarian came to the University in 1967 to lead the Department of Surgery. At that time, he was already a well-known tissue transplant surgeon and had founded one of the nation’s first kidney transplant services. At age 39, he took the department’s reins from longtime chair Owen H. Wangensteen, M.D., Ph.D., who was known for fostering a creative environment and for making the department a research powerhouse.

Colleagues say Najarian continued that tradition. “The strongest part of Dr. Najarian’s remarkable leadership was the freedom he gave to the faculty to be innovative,” says David E. R. Sutherland, M.D., Ph.D., a world-renowned leader in pancreas transplantation, chief of the Division of Transplantation, director of the Diabetes Institute for Immunology and Transplantation, and holder of the Golf Classic “fore” Diabetes Research Chair. “You could try anything, and if you failed, that was okay. You would just get up and try again.”

Najarian spent more than a quarter-century as chair of the Department of Surgery, building one of the world’s largest transplant centers. Under his leadership, the transplant program pioneered innovative and complex transplants. His team performed transplants for high-risk recipients—such as diabetics, children, and older adults—who had been turned down elsewhere. In the summer of 2006, the University performed its 10,000th organ transplant.

But Najarian didn’t let his leadership role get in the way of patient care, says his longtime friend Eric Aanenson, who knows that firsthand. “John has saved my life a few times,” he says.

Najarian walks with one of his most famous patients, Jamie Fiske. Now a healthy woman in her twenties, Fiske is the world's longest-living pediatric liver recipient.

Aanenson once called Najarian from Maui, Hawaii, complaining of a high fever and terrible cramps. Najarian, who seemed to diagnose the problem immediately, prescribed a strong dose of antibiotics and urged Aanenson to fly home to Minnesota. “As soon as I got in, John stuck me in the hospital and scheduled me for surgery to have my gall-bladder removed,” Aanenson says.

In the spirit of giving back, he and his wife, Tracy Aanenson, Ph.D., have contributed to the Najarian chair. Aanenson’s brother and sister-in-law, Steven and Beverly Aanenson, have also supported the fund.

Many former colleagues and surgical residents and fellows who trained under Najarian have contributed to the chair as well. Fifteen of them—including Rothenberger, Sutherland, and Department of Surgery Chair and Jay Phillips Professor Selwyn M. Vickers, M.D.—have pledged at least $10,000 to the fund.

In addition, the department held its first annual Najarian Lectureship in Transplantation in May 2007.

“Dr. Najarian is one of those rare individuals who is truly ‘larger than life,’” Rothenberger says. “His contributions to the field of organ transplantation are legendary.”

To contribute to the John S. Najarian, M.D., Surgical Chair in Clinical Transplantation, please contact Erik Thurman at 612-626-4848 or e.thurman@mmf.umn.edu.

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