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Tarpley may be retiring, but he isn’t slowing down

Jul. 26, 2016, 11:15 AM

Maggie and John Tarpley, M.D., accept a plaque from Kyla Terhune, M.D., at a recent reception honoring Tarpley's career at Vanderbilt. (photo by Anne Rayner)
Maggie and John Tarpley, M.D., accept a plaque from Kyla Terhune, M.D., at a recent reception honoring Tarpley’s career at Vanderbilt. (photo by Anne Rayner)

On June 30, John Tarpley, M.D., retired after 23 years of service at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) and the Nashville VA Medical Center. The next day, he packed a suitcase, and on July 2 he boarded a Kenya-bound plane, a move that was absolutely no surprise to all who know him.

Tarpley, 71, remains professor, emeritus, of Surgery and Anesthesiology, and program director, emeritus, for the General Surgery residency at VUMC. Affectionately known as “Tarp,” he also served as associate chief of Surgical Service at Nashville’s VA hospital. For nearly two decades, he led the VUMC’s Surgery residency program, one of the largest on campus. He chuckles when recounting the five-year warning he gave his bosses that he was handing off the reins of the residency program when he turned 70. A man of his word, his 70th birthday was Nov. 19, 2014, and Kyla Terhune, M.D., associate professor of Surgery, one of his many mentees, took over the role the very next day.

“John Tarpley is a friend, mentor and like a father to me in the world of surgery,” said Terhune. “And it’s not just me; he has provided that to countless other trainees over the years. It’s only fitting, in a paraphrase of John Wesley, that John Tarpley continues to mentor us all by providing a living example of continuing to do all the good he can, for all the people he can, as long as ever he can.”

Tarpley is now off on a six-month stint training young surgeons and performing operations at Kijabe Hospital in Kenya, home site for many international endeavors by VUMC medical personnel. There he joins pediatric surgeon Erik Hansen, M.D., and Mark Newton, M.D., a pediatric anesthesiologist, both of whom have Vanderbilt faculty appointments.

“We’re going to be on what we’re calling a ‘five-year plan,’” said Tarpley, about he and his wife, Maggie Tarpley, who worked as a senior associate for the Section of Surgical Sciences at VUMC. “We hope to spend most of the next five years in Africa. We’re keeping our house here, and we’re still going to be affiliated with Vanderbilt. We’re going to keep watering our relationships here, but now we see ourselves focusing on service with Vanderbilt International Surgery and the Vanderbilt Institute for Global Health.”

Tarpley’s trademark bow ties and his thick shock of typically unruly hair have long been a recognizable constant on campus, especially on his long-legged dashes back and forth from Medical Center North to the VA hospital. And, while it’s not uncommon for retiring physicians to be lauded highly as they depart, the loss of Team Tarpley is one their colleagues and students have been dreading for years. They acknowledge, however, that it’s for the greater good.

“For the VUMC family, the departure of the Tarpleys is a seismic event,” said Seth Karp, M.D., Ingram Professor of Surgical Sciences and chair of the Department of Surgery. “For the Tarpleys, however, I suspect it is a more a transition in a life dedicated to service to humanity. Although less available on a day-to-day basis, the Tarpleys’ legacy grows as a symbol of the influence that a few people can have in this world.”

Tarpley received his undergraduate and medical school degrees from Vanderbilt, and he then went to Johns Hopkins and the National Institutes of Health for seven years of a general surgery residency and training. After much prayer, he then decided that he wanted to be an academic surgeon and teach in Nigeria. In 1978, the Tarpleys left Baltimore to spend three years in Nigeria, then one in Baltimore, repeating this pattern for 15 years.

“Maggie had ‘security council veto privileges’ if things didn’t work out in Nigeria,” he said. “We had two sons, a first grader and a second grader, when we went. Maggie only asked two things: that there be running water and that she wouldn’t have to teach the kids. Well, we didn’t have running water, and she did have to teach the kids, which goes to prove you should never trust a red head, even if they have grey hair!”

In Nigeria, John Tarpley trained residents at Baptist Medical Centre in Ogbomoso while Maggie worked as a seminary librarian. A third son was born in Nigeria in 1982. In 1993, they returned to the United States to be near aging family members. John Tarpley joined the Vanderbilt faculty and assumed his position at the VA, but the Tarpleys never lost sight of Africa. They’ve been going back to Nigeria every year since 1978.

“John and Maggie Tarpley were among the first people I met when I was recruited to VUMC in 1994,” said R. Daniel Beauchamp, M.D., John Clinton Foshee Distinguished Professor of Surgery and chair of the Section of Surgical Sciences. “I was immediately taken by their warmth, their welcome and their kindness. Their generosity of spirit is so evident in their humanitarian and spiritual work that extends to everyone around them and beyond. We wish them good health and many future successes as they continue their mission in Africa. We will miss them while they are gone, and look forward to greeting them back and hearing of their adventures when they return.”

“Tarp is a gem of unsurpassed character,” said Jonathan Nesbitt, M.D., associate professor and interim chair of the Department of Thoracic Surgery. “Besides being the eternal optimist who sees good in every person and every situation, he is an absolute delight to be around. Rooms simply light up with his entrance. Whether it is sharing a humorous story, a bit of Vanderbilt history or a key clinical nugget with his boundless knowledge and experience, the atmosphere is more energized in his presence. I will miss him greatly.”

Thomas Naslund, M.D., professor of Surgery and chief of the Division of Vascular Surgery, said he’s always been impressed by Tarpley’s limitless energy and the amount of preparation he puts into everything he does.

“His best days of his life must be interviews,” Naslund said. “He knows everything about every candidate and can recite it without notes. Then, of course, there are the notes. For two decades I have watched Tarp take notes in every conference he attends. This includes medical grand rounds. I haven’t taken notes since med school. Where are all those notes? Does he read them? If he keeps them, they must fill an extra room in his house.”

Tarpley didn’t bequeath his voluminous notes to a lucky colleague, but he does hope that he will leave behind a “legacy of nice” at Vanderbilt: good people and good surgeons who know when to operate, when not to and who are not too full of themselves.

“I’ve tried to treat people like I would hope people would treat our sons,” Tarpley said. “I did a lot of management by walking around. I knew many folk’s name. I knew their kids’ names. They were not work units generating widgets. Maggie and I had three boys, and we always said the residents were our fourth child.

“I like to coach people up rather than judge them down,” he said. “I would really like my legacy to be that I encouraged people. That’s how I see myself, as an encourager.”

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