September 10, 1999

Johnson turns over Renal Transplant Program reins

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Dr. H. Keith Johnson

Johnson turns over Renal Transplant Program reins

Dr. H. Keith Johnson, associate professor of Medicine and Surgery, recently stepped down as medical director of the Renal Transplant Program after 30 years of leadership.

Although he will no longer have an administrative role for the kidney transplant program, Johnson will continue a regular clinical schedule, seeing patients on an outpatient basis. He will also continue as the medical director of Tennessee Donor Services.

Dr. J. Harold Helderman, professor of Medicine and medical director of the Transplant Center will take over Johnson's duties.

The announcement came during a day-long symposium where scientists from varied disciplines gathered for a "Transplantation Research Day" in honor of Johnson's career.

Dr. C. Wright Pinson, professor of Surgery and surgical director of the Transplant Center, and Dr. Jacek Hawiger, Oswald T. Avery Professor and Chair of Microbiology and Immunology, organized the event with the goal of fostering collaborations across medical center departments. Twenty-four presentations covered a spectrum of research ranging from basic molecular immunology to clinical studies in transplantation.

Dr. John E. Chapman, Dean of the School of Medicine, presented Johnson a Vanderbilt Medal of Merit for his "high degree of proficiency and excellence in performance, his balance, durability and solid performance" during his 30 years of service.

Throughout his tenure at Vanderbilt, Johnson witnessed several milestones in the transplant arena.

"I think the major difference I have seen through the years is that 30 years ago each kidney transplant was a clinical adventure," Johnson recalls. "At that time, it was the only transplant being performed. We didn't have a handle on what was going to happen.

"Since then, there has been an enormous change. There has been significant improvement in graft survival and the mortality rates. Here at Vanderbilt, the creation of the Transplant Center has made for tremendous change in areas of transplantation."

Although Johnson is looking forward to spending more time with his family, he says the toughest part of leaving is losing his association with some of his patients.

"The reason I enjoyed medicine so much was the privilege to work with the patients. The contact with patients was what I liked. But there is one thing I will really miss — the highlight of this job, the best part of this job — and that was making that phone call to a patient and saying "hey, we've got a kidney for you."

Johnson brought prestige to Vanderbilt through his dedication to the field as well as his interest in research, Pinson said. Johnson was president of the Association of Organ Procurement Agencies, Southeast Organ Procurement Foundation, The Tennessee Transplant Society and the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) at various times during his career. His work helped develop the concept of organ procurement agencies.

"Keith has been a tremendous leader in the field of transplantation," Pinson added. "He has always been able to identify needs and step in and do what was needed to be done in creative ways. I have always found that he is a good person to call to ask his opinion or advice. He is a tremendous supporter of transplantation in all aspects."

According to Pinson, Johnson started Vanderbilt's first outpatient dialysis unit. He has funded renal transplant fellows and transplant ethics fellows for years. The development of the Nashville rabbit anti-thymocyte serum was his pet project, though he has more than 150 publications in a variety of areas.

"We should all be so lucky to have all these contributions to look back on when we retire. It has been a spectacular 30 years," Johnson said.

A native of New York, Johnson joined the Vanderbilt faculty in 1970. A graduate of Amherst College and Tufts University School of Medicine, he completed his residency at Roosevelt Hospital in New York followed by a fellowship at Strong Memorial Hospital. He served two years in the U.S. Army and came to Nashville via a Nephrology Training Fellowship at the Veterans Administration Hospital in 1969.