June 6, 2008

Reporter profile: Precision, dedication guide Byrne’s surgical journey

Featured Image

John Byrne, M.D., chair of Vanderbilt’s Department of Cardiac Surgery, in a familiar place, the Hybrid OR. (photo by Dana Johnson)

Reporter profile: Precision, dedication guide Byrne’s surgical journey

Byrne talks with patient Dewell Reynolds during a clinic visit, as Sean Smithey, N.P., and Reynolds’ daughter, Dixie Manning, look on. (photo by Neil Brake)

Byrne talks with patient Dewell Reynolds during a clinic visit, as Sean Smithey, N.P., and Reynolds’ daughter, Dixie Manning, look on. (photo by Neil Brake)

Byrne and his wife, Theresa.

Byrne and his wife, Theresa.

The Byrnes hit the links on a regular basis. Here he checks the swings of sons Christopher, left, and Matthew on the driving range at Hillwood Country Club.

The Byrnes hit the links on a regular basis. Here he checks the swings of sons Christopher, left, and Matthew on the driving range at Hillwood Country Club.

As an infant, John Byrne, M.D., was fed only milk from cows.

Back in the 1950s, however, cow's milk was not fortified with vitamins and iron. When he was 1 year old, the future chair of Cardiac Surgery at Vanderbilt Medical Center was admitted to Stanford Hospital with nutritional anemia, cardiomegaly and a heart murmur.

Unknown to Byrne — until 30 years later — the fourth-year medical student who helped care for him was Larry Cohn, the man who would eventually train Byrne and serve as his mentor.

Coincidence? Perhaps.

Life-changing? Definitely.

Byrne was born in 1959 to Joan and George Byrne, 10 years after the pair left their small farming town in Ireland to come to America in hopes of getting a fresh start.

“My parents spent 10 days on a boat to come here,” Byrne said. “Post-WWII Ireland was desperately poor. At that time, the largest export product was the people. My parents, like so many others, left everyone they knew and everything they had behind to become Americans.

“Leaving Ireland in 1949 was like you had died because there was no going back.”

The Byrnes first immigrated to Canada before moving to the Boston area and finally settling in northern California. Byrne's father became a prominent research scientist at Stanford Research Institute.

Byrne is the fourth of six children — Mary, Eileen, Sheila, Pat and Joanne. He and his brother, Pat, are 15 months apart.

“I have no memory growing up that doesn't have my brother in it,” said Pat Byrne. “My brother and I spent a lot of time together — playing sports, fixing cars and hunting and fishing with our father. Growing up, he was a much better shot than I was at hunting and stronger and faster in sports. He was one of my role models. We even went to college together.”

Pat is the CEO of Intermec, a Seattle-based high-tech company that makes bar code scanners, mobile computers and printers. Although the brothers live on opposite ends of the country, they make it a point to talk weekly. Recently, Pat mailed his brother a pair of grease-stained overalls, a reminder of their days as auto mechanics.

Mechanical aptitude

When Byrne was a teenager, he could remove a car's engine in 12 minutes and rebuilt many car motors. Beginning at age 12 he and his brother would spend countless hours fixing cars. Soon the brothers developed a solid reputation as the neighborhood mechanics.

“He was a natural mechanic,” Pat Byrne said. “He was very detailed-oriented and diligent to get things right and understand the root cause of any issue. I am sure this was a harbinger for his successful career as a surgeon. John's success, passion and commitment to innovation, as seen in his work at the Vanderbilt Heart & Vascular Institute, are not at all a surprise to me or our family. It's very consistent with his character and dedication.”

Byrne agrees that he had a mechanical way of thinking. From a very young age he probably rebuilt a dozen cars before heading off to college.

Although college was always in Byrne's future, a high school counselor once suggested that he might be better off becoming a mechanic. This advice was just the encouragement Byrne needed.

“I have no hard feelings about the counselor,” said Byrne. “It just seemed to motivate me to work hard and attempt to achieve something worthwhile.”

His drive and sense of self confidence has carried him a long way.

“That's the part of John I admire,” said his wife, Theresa. “Whether it's him personally being viewed as the underdog or having a patient who has been given little hope, he believes God gave him a gift. The more stressful a situation, the calmer he gets.

“This is his calling,” she said. “He loves [being a cardiac surgeon] immensely. He has such a passion for it. He is a very simple person — what you see is what you get.”


Byrne attended the University of California at Davis, an agricultural school near Sacramento. He was interested in health sciences. During the summers, he worked as an EKG technician for heart transplantation at Stanford Hospital in the department run by Norman Shumway, M.D., the father of heart transplantation.

Another interesting coincidence: Shumway, who graduated from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, was Larry Cohn's mentor. Byrne explains that his journey to cardiac surgery involved many intersecting paths.

“I'm the William S. Stoney Professor. Stoney interviewed Shumway for his (Stoney's) video library at Eskind Library and Shumway wrote my letter of recommendation to medical school,” Byrne said. “Shumway trained Cohn. Cohn took care of me as a baby and later trained me, and I worked under both Shumway and Cohn.

“It's just a weird story with lots of connections.”

Byrne said after getting his first taste of cardiac surgery, he knew he was destined to be a heart surgeon and he did not look back.

“This is just such a wonderful field,” he said. “It makes sense and it's very mechanical. I like the physiology and the surgery is technically demanding. Besides, you know by noon every day whether you have succeeded or failed. The cardiac surgeon is the ultimate cardiologist.

“I think it was the experience with Dr. Shumway, unequivocally, that influenced my decision to go into heart surgery,” said Byrne. “He was really an idol of mine. I met him several times. He was one of the giants in our field.”

Early years

After graduating from UC-Davis, Byrne headed to Boston University to attend medical school. It was during his senior year at Boston that he met his wife, Theresa.

She was completing her graduate studies. Byrne headed off to the University of Illinois for an internship and Theresa, armed with a Ph.D., stayed behind doing medical-related research.

They married in 1988 and moved between Chicago and Boston for 10 years, finally settling in Boston where Byrne was the associate chief and residency program director in the Division of Cardiac Surgery at Brigham and Women's Hospital and associate professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School for seven years, before coming to Nashville in 2004.

The pair has three sons — Christopher, 11, Matthew, 5, and Andrew, a 2-year-old from Guatemala, whom they recently adopted. The Byrnes hope to welcome a fourth child, John Joseph, 3, later this summer, also from Guatemala.

“John and I share a common trait — we both have a deep love or passion for those who struggle in life and we feel we can make an impact,” said Theresa. “It's one of the reasons we chose to adopt after having our own sons.

“There are so many things you can choose to do in life and it's hard to know if what you do makes a positive difference,” she continued. “But we feel we have the opportunity to make a difference in all of our boys' lives.

“He is wonderful husband, my best friend. He is a fantastic dad. People think he's so serious, but he's really very funny,” she said pausing. “I love when he laughs and he doesn't laugh a lot. When he laughs, he laughs really hard and it's real.”

Theresa Byrne said her husband loves spending time with their boys, especially playing golf. He empathizes with people and relates well to them, often getting choked up over a gift or note. She said he saves all of his handwritten cards. She also loves that he carries a rosary in the shirt pocket of his scrubs when he operates.

For Theresa Byrne, her husband is the total package. But she is not alone in that thought.

“He's known as a triple threat — a good teacher, a good surgeon and a good researcher,” said Byrne's mentor Larry Cohn, M.D., Hubbard Professor of Cardiac Surgery at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

“He is one of the most loyal people I've ever met. He really will do anything for you once he is your friend. It is a great trait to have, especially if he's on your team.”

Cohn said he saw Byrne's drive early on.

“He was such a conscientious person and I had to send him home because he was working too hard,” Cohn recalled. “He was so devoted to his work and dedicated. These are very important qualities to have for a heart surgeon.”

Not only does Cohn respect Byrne as a colleague, he said the story of how he took care of Byrne still makes the “hair on the back of my neck tingle.”

“There are some patients you never, ever forget in your whole career. And he was one of them.”

Now Byrne is all grown up and Cohn is proud of the trail he has blazed at Vanderbilt.

“What he is doing is very futuristic,” said Cohn of Byrne's vision for cardiac surgery at Vanderbilt. “The future of heart disease — he has taken that on as a challenge and I think his program is on target.”

His wife agrees.

“He is a visionary and dreams about making something better,” said his wife. “A lot of people dream about it, but he is a realist and makes it happen. He'd rather take on something and make it better — whether it's a person's heart or a program. I've never met anyone who will work harder than John.”

Setting goals

Now the William S. Stoney Jr. Professor of Cardiac Surgery and chair of the department at Vanderbilt Medical Center, Byrne is well on his way to accomplishing the vision he set forth in 2004 for Cardiac Surgery, when he first arrived at Vanderbilt.

When interviewing for his current position, Byrne presented a detailed plan of how he could achieve his goals of growing Cardiac Surgery and enhancing its roles in the institutional, academic and educational missions.

Byrne has already accomplished much of his five-year plan with volumes, outcomes, scientific advances and training on track. His blueprint for building a new model of care for cardiovascular treatment came from years of studying other centers, businesses and programs for successful patterns.

“How did the visionaries, the great business leaders, the incredible football coaches, build a durable organization that matters, that makes a difference, that goes down in history?” Byrne asked as he worked to build Vanderbilt Heart.

“We want to build the No. 1 heart center in the country. You have to have four things — the vision, the resources, the will power and the people on the ground who are able to execute, deliver and make things happen. I would hope people see that I do a relatively good job at that.

“You have to have team work. It's all about the team, the people — people to make the plan work. And of course our patients rely on us to make a difference.”

Byrne's passion for his work is hard to defuse. That energy is evident in his family life.

His oldest son, Christopher, recently completed a school assignment describing the person who inspires him:

“My dad is an inspiration to me. He sets goals and doesn't stop working until he achieves them. Long hours and difficult decisions do not discourage him. He pictures a better way to do something, and then makes it happen. My dad inspires me because he does something that can really change lives: he saves them.

“My dad transplants hearts, starts them once they stop, and repairs broken valves. He gives patients a second chance. I hope I have inherited some of his traits.”

For John Byrne — son, brother, husband, father, friend, physician — that last paragraph hits home.

“When it is all said and done, it mattered that I was here…”