But that success was short-lived. For more than a decade, Starzl’s patients had a meager 20 percent survival rate. The doctor came under fire from his colleagues in the medical profession. “When Starzl was growing up, the idea of successfully transplanting an organ from one body to another was science fiction,” says Carl Kurlander, co-producer of Burden of Genius, a documentary about Starzl scheduled to screen April 7 and 8 at the Cleveland International Film Festival.Co-produced by Laura Davis and directed by Tjardus Greidanus, the film looks at Starzl’s controversial but ultimately triumphant career.
Growing up in Cleveland, Kurlander first discovered Starzl’s work through his father, Don, who was a gastroenterologist at Mount Sinai Hospital and University Hospitals for more than 60 years. “He used to tell me how he heard Dr. Starzl speak in the early 1980s and even then he thought what Starzl was proposing in regards to transplant was impossible,” says Kurlander, who talks with us about the surgeon who revolutionized organ transplants.
Q: How was Starzl able to withstand the attacks on his work early in his career?
A: For Dr. Starzl, this wasn’t a job. It was a mission. It was painstaking. He would throw up before every surgery. But he always ignored the bullets because he had a confidence in his vision. He became one of the greatest surgeons of the 20th century and received every scientific award except for the Nobel Prize. He never was about the money. He never got the big paydays. He always wanted people to understand what he was trying to do.
Q: Starzl saved the lives of many patients but also shared his groundbreaking knowledge with many surgeons who studied under him. What is his legacy?
A: It takes visionaries to make real progress, and Dr. Starzl was a true visionary. The hundreds of transplant surgeons he trained would go on to head transplant centers around the world, including Dr. Kareem Abu-Elmagd at the Cleveland Clinic and Dr. Andreas Tzakis at the Cleveland Clinic South Florida. The work Dr. Starzl did on immunology continues to transform medicine today.
Q: What did you learn about the doctor as a man?
A: He had turned down many offers to be part of a movie about his life, feeling it was too complicated to get it right. Four years ago, he finally agreed, and I brought on Laura and Tjardus, who were quite brilliant. We are lucky they got to film Dr. Starzl before he passed away last year. Dr. Starzl could be wicked, but there was also a sense of humor there. His life was an inspirational Rocky-type story. It’s one of the greatest untold stories I’ve ever come across.
Burden of Genius screens on Saturday, April 7 at 1:50 p.m. and Sunday, April 08, at 6:35 p.m. during the Cleveland International Film Festival.