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Pediatric ECMO program founder Pietsch retires

Jul. 14, 2022, 9:54 AM

John Pietsch, MD, founder of the ECMO program at Children’s Hospital, is retiring after 50 years of caring for patients.
John Pietsch, MD, founder of the ECMO program at Children’s Hospital, is retiring after 50 years of caring for patients. (photo by Susan Urmy)

by Jessica Pasley

John Pietsch, MD, professor of Surgery and Pediatrics and founder of the extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) program at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, didn’t grow up wanting to be a doctor.

“When I was growing up, I didn’t have any reference point for doctors,” said Pietsch, who recently retired. “My pediatrician was the only doctor I knew. As a result, I didn’t know much about the field at all.

“When I was asked to declare a major in college, I didn’t have an answer; however, my good friend did. He said he wanted to be a doctor. I thought that sounded good and wrote ‘doctor’ as well. I think it turned out OK,” he said with a chuckle.

Thousands of patients and families he has treated over his 50-year career would agree.

Pietsch earned his undergraduate degree from Georgetown University and his medical degree from the University of Michigan. While in medical school he completed a pediatric externship at Children’s Hospital in Boston with Robert Gloss, MD. It was this experience that convinced him that pediatric surgery should be his specialty.

He subsequently completed his initial internship and general surgery residency at Michigan, followed by a general surgery residency at Royal Victoria Hospital at McGill University in Montreal and a fellowship in Pediatric Surgery at Montreal Children’s Hospital at McGill University.

He began his pediatric surgery practice at Louisiana State University in Shreveport.

Pietsch arrived at Vanderbilt in 1986 from Kosair Children’s Hospital at the University of Louisville, where he had been a member of the ECMO team. He had a strong desire to start a program at Vanderbilt.

In 1989 he got his chance when the right patient, Chelsea Brown, arrived at Vanderbilt.

Pietsch recalls when Brown returned to Children’s Hospital for the 25th ECMO reunion. She has graduated from Northwestern University in Illinois.

Pietsch said the appreciation expressed by the families and recovering patients brings him incredible satisfaction.

The ECMO program at Children’s Hospital has helped more than 1,200 patients. It was the first program in Tennessee and is among the largest and most successful programs in the world.

The life-sustaining mechanical system temporarily takes over for the heart and lungs of critically ill patients, allowing them to rest and recover by removing carbon dioxide from the blood, replacing it with life-saving oxygen and returning it to the patient’s circulatory system.

For the first half of his 36 years at Children’s Hospital, Pietsch arrived before sunrise and left well past sunset caring for his surgical patients.

During the second half of his career at the hospital, he served as the surgical director of the ECMO program and co-director of the Maternal-Fetal Center.

Bill Walsh, MD, professor of Pediatrics, said Pietsch has been his hero since 1992, when he became a member of the faculty.

“What has impressed me the most is John’s willingness to set aside everything in order to provide the best care and ensure the best outcomes for the babies and children he cared for over the years.

“He has been an amazing partner in the NICU helping to be the liaison between the busy surgical team and the neonatal team while keeping the babies in mind at all times.”

Pietsch admits that while he is looking forward to “finding some fun stuff to do,” no longer being a part of Children’s Hospital will be a huge adjustment.

“I am so happy to have worked with so many amazing people over the years,” he said. “It truly has been a team effort. I have really enjoyed coming into the hospital every day. There is always something to do to help someone. Taking the best care of patients and families has always been my No. 1 goal, and I have found it incredibly rewarding. I will miss that.”

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