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Women's History Month: Hear from Kim Olthoff, MD, FACS

Mar 25, 2024, 13:47 PM by Kim Olthoff, MD

Kim Olthoff, MD, FACS is Chief, Division of Transplant Surgery and Donald Guthrie Professor in Surgery at Penn Medicine. Dr. Olthoff was President of ASTS from 2012-2013. 

Why did you decide to pursue transplant?

I chose transplant surgery my 2nd month of internship. They had just started doing liver olthoff (1)transplants at UCLA the year before, and I had never seen a surgery so intricate, beautiful, challenging and exciting, and patient care that was so rewarding. The children were the best. I was fortunate to be training at an institution that was pushing the envelope and breaking many barriers for transplantation, with amazing role models and mentors. In addition, the surgeons and physicians I met in transplant were such a unique and eclectic group from all over the world. It was a crazy bunch – who else would love staying up all night, operating at all hours, 365 days a year? These are the people I bonded with and found to be “my type of people”. They were so passionate about everything – patient care, research, teaching, technical advancement. What is there not to love?

What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue transplant?

It’s the best job in the world, but you have to be “all in”. The world of transplant envelops you. Your family needs to understand this, too. It is a world that is predictably unpredictable, and things can change quickly. It is a life filled with amazing highs, but also a lot of pressure and stress. Nothing is more rewarding. I would advise anyone interested in transplant to find a research niche that excites them and pairs well with your clinical practice. Go to conferences and talk to as many trainees and faculty you can to understand what drives them.

Who has been your biggest influence?

There are so many. It was Ron Busuttil who lighted the fire of transplant in me as a resident and trained me in the art of transplant surgery. Avi Shaked, my mentor and partner in transplant for over 30 years, showed me how to think big and how to intermingle science and surgery. And there were those who were role models for me early in my career and giants in transplant, who I now consider as friends – Nancy Ascher, Jean Emond, John Roberts, Alan Langnas, Pierre Clavien, and so many more.

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What does being a woman in transplant mean to you?

Funny, but I didn’t think about being one of the few women in transplant surgery early in my career, even though you could count on one hand the number of women doing liver transplants. I was so fortunate to work with a team where gender was not a hindrance. But as I advance in life, I see the critical importance of opening doors, representation, and being an example for young women as they consider a career in transplant. I want them to see that it is possible to have an amazing rewarding career in transplant surgery and also maintain your identity as a woman, however you may envision that.

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What keeps you in the field of transplantation?

Primarily two things – First, the patients; the recipients who struggle so and then are able to have a second chance at life, the donors who give so selflessly and risk their own health to help others, and their families and friends who provide boundless support. And second, the team and how transplant has always been about true teamwork. I love coming to work every day and working side by side with team members so dedicated to the mission. They are family. I love helping to build these teams that blend together in a beautiful way; where everyone works together to care for patients, overcome obstacles, advance research, and always has each other’s back. 

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