$2 million endowment chair named after U professor

Dr. John S. Najarian, 79, has been groundbreaking in the field of transplants during his 37 years at the University.

When Dr. John S. Najarian was 12 years old, he spent more than a month in the hospital with a ruptured appendix. The chances of him dying were high, but Najarian survived.

“The most important people that I saw were the doctors and nurses who took care of me,” he said. “I felt if I got through this all right that I would begin working toward getting a degree in medicine.”

Najarian’s friends and colleagues will gather Friday to celebrate the creation of an endowed surgical chair named after him.

Najarian, 79, has worked in the surgery department in the University’s transplant program since 1967.

The John S. Najarian Surgical Chair in Clinical Transplantation was established to fund transplantation research and expand the University’s program.

The $2 million chair consists of $1.5 million in contributions from friends, colleagues and patients, and includes $500,000 from the University.

Dr. David Sutherland, a colleague of Najarian’s for more than 37 years, said Najarian has been essential in developing the University’s organ-transplant program, which has become renowned under his leadership.

He said Najarian worked to create the first training program for transplant surgeons. He has developed techniques and worked with children and diabetics.

“He’s a highly intelligent person,” Sutherland said.

In 1982, Najarian performed a liver transplant on 11-month-old Jamie Fiske, who is now the world’s longest-living pediatric liver recipient.

Charlie Fiske, Jaime’s father, said liver transplants for children were almost unheard of at the time. His daughter’s condition would not have allowed her to live to see her first birthday.

The Boston family traveled to the University because it was their only option. Charlie Fiske said Najarian gave them hope.

“He believed it enough so that we believed it,” Charlie Fiske said. “He allowed us to begin thinking about the word tomorrow.”

Najarian’s time at the University has not been without controversy. In the 1990s, he was forced to resign as chairman of the department of surgery amid federal allegations of selling an anti-rejection drug that had not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. He was acquitted on all criminal charges.

“The drug was so good,” he said. “It was being used by 160 transplant units throughout the world.”

Najarian said the FDA funded the supply and production of the drug, called Anti-Lymphocyte Globulin.

Although it was an experimental drug, ALG was within months of gaining full federal approval when two pharmaceutical companies filed complaints, he said.

The controversy had long-term consequences for Najarian and the University.

“Anytime you accuse somebody of something they didn’t do, it’s hard to get rid of that,” Najarian said.

Frank Cerra, senior vice president for Health Sciences, said in an e-mail the endowment chair was created to celebrate Najarian’s achievements in the transplantation field, and achievements trumped any questions relating to the controversy.

“(The achievements are) an accomplishment for humanity; that is what this chair is about,” he said.