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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Allan Kirk ’83, a Leading Kidney Transplant Surgeon, Feels “Married” to his Patients

By Philip Walzer

From his first word, Dr. Allan Kirk '83 proved he was his father's son.

"It was 'moss,' though my mother tries to turn it into 'Ma,'" recalled Kirk, the chairman of the surgery department at Duke University Medical Center.

His father, Paul Kirk Jr., was a biologist at Old Dominion University who loved tromping through the Great Dismal Swamp (and wrote a 427-page book about it).

Allan began tagging along when he was 9. "It was fun. You got to play in the mud. I just thought you did that with your dad."

Nearly a half-century later, "I find myself more like him than less over time: his focus on the factual aspect of things, his eschewing of entitlement," said Kirk, 58.

At ODU, Kirk majored in his dad's discipline. He was drawn more toward people than plants. Kirk was named outstanding senior in biology and graduated summa cum laude. He later attended Duke's medical school partly because of his father's positive experience there as a doctoral student.

Duke also had a strong research program. Like his father, Kirk knew that would be part of his career. He found his focus early.

As a young doctor, Kirk read an article about a molecule that emitted signals to direct a cell to advance or retreat. Kirk had developed an interest in kidney transplants. Maybe, he thought, he could build on that research to reduce the odds a body would reject a transplanted organ.

He and several colleagues got to work. Their first paper found success in the approach. It led to an interview on "Good Morning America" and a lifetime of investigation. "That really opened the way for thinking differently about how we can harness the immune system to prevent rejection, control cancer and so much more," Kirk said.

Despite his success, Kirk eludes the stereotypical "God complex" that overtakes surgeons. "People who think they're all that great clearly don't understand what's going on. If you understand what's going on, you're more thankful than egotistical."

He maintains a deeply personal approach to his patients, telling each, "We're going to get married." His meaning: It's going to be a close relationship and he'll be with them in good times and bad.

Kirk performed Tana Kokol Petracek's transplant in 2005. She still seeks his advice on medical issues and visits him every year.

"He's an amazing doctor and an amazing human being," said Petracek, a dietitian in Northern Virginia. "I can completely trust him. I think it's very rare to feel so comfortable with a surgeon of his stature."

The awe of performing transplants hasn't left him.

"To see a cold, gray lifeless organ become warm and pink and start working right before your eyes is transformative," Kirk said. "If that doesn't get you up, I don't know what does."

But he's learned the limits of his skills. "The more you know how things work, the more you know you're not in control. You have to be very accepting of things that don't go perfectly and adapt to them. All of biology is just adaptation to error."

In honor of his father, Kirk and his wife, Robin, endowed the Paul W. Kirk Jr. Wetlands Ecology Lecture and Paul W. Kirk Jr. Wetlands Research Award for students. Ariana Sutton-Grier, an ecologist at the University of Maryland at College Park, will deliver the free lecture this year at 7 p.m. Sept. 24 in the University Theatre.

This is an excerpt of a profile of Dr. Allan Kirk in the summer issue of Monarch magazine. To read the full story and other articles in the magazine, go to www.odu.edu/monarchmag

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