Compassionate Precision
Alumna is leader in liver transplantation field
by Myrna DeVries Anderson '00

Kim Olthoff (r.) - click photo to enlarge image
Dr. Kim Olthoff '82 (r.) performs a kidney transplant.

"Avi called. There's two transplants tomorrow."

That is how Kim Olthoff '82 remembers being greeted by her husband at the airport. It was 1995, and Olthoff had just flown from Los Angeles, where she had trained as a surgeon, to Philadelphia, where she would work as a surgeon, stopping over in Seattle just long enough to take her oral boards in general surgery. She was eight months pregnant with her second child. Avi was Abraham Shaked, M.D., Ph.D., the chief of the Division of Transplantation Surgery and the director of PENN Transplant Center at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania—and Olthoff's new partner.

"He did one," the 42-year-old surgeon recalled about her first day on the job, "and I did the other one. And it's been that way ever since."

Her surgical skills are required at whatever hour a donor liver becomes available for her patient. On call two weeks out of the month, she alternates between transplanting and procuring—traveling to wherever the donor liver awaits and surgically removing it. She administers the liver transplantation program at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia. When not "in operation," she researches subjects like ischemia reperfusion (the injury an organ suffers when removed from its blood supply) and its relationship to regeneration of the transplanted liver. She speaks in places as far away as Turkey and Sweden and teaches. She rarely has time to cook, though she loves it. She shops for clothes only twice a year. She runs when she can for exercise. She rarely gets home for dinner.

"To do transplant surgery, you have to be a little crazy, and you have to love what you do," Olthoff said.

"To do transplant surgery, you have to be a little crazy, and you have to love what you do," she said. "I think that's what I like about my job, the unpredictability of it. I don't see my kids as much as I would like to. We don't do as many family activities as I would like to."

Liver transplantation, as Olthoff described it, is "incredible surgery," as technically complex an operation as a surgeon faces. It is also akin to witnessing a resurrection in the patient: "You take them from the brink of death. You see a brand new person every day. It's like a miracle every time."

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Olthoff's current laboratory research

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"It's the fact that you are operating on patients who have, in some cases, multi-system organ failure," explained Dr. Ron Busuttil, in whose UCLA classroom, operating room and lab Olthoff trained. "For any operation—and certainly operations far less difficult than liver transplant—these patients wouldn't even be considered candidates. It requires absolute precision, maturity, surgical judgment…. I mean, one error in an operating room with these patients will usually result in patient death."

His former student combines the necessary surgical talents with qualities less tangible, Busuttil said. "She's one of the most compassionate and empathetic individuals I've ever trained … . She combines this unique quality of surgical precision with warm interpersonal relations, which you sometimes don't see in a surgeon. And I think this combination is why she is one of the future leaders in transplantation."

Olthoff's distinctive package of skills might have served a different (and furrier) sort of patient. Born in Chicago and raised in a Detroit suburb, she came to Calvin College in 1978, intending to transfer to Michigan State University after two years to study veterinary medicine. She re-mapped her career path because of two family medical emergencies: her mother's successful battle with breast cancer and her grandmother's illness, resulting from a perforated appendix. "I think all that sort of influenced me. I wanted to do real medicine—people medicine—instead of veterinary medicine." Olthoff made the switch slowly, working summers in various emergency rooms.

David Van Houten '81 is a full-time caretaker for their sons.

During her sophomore year interim, on a bicycling trip from San Diego, Calif., to St. Augustine, Fla. ("Texas was long," she recalled), Olthoff met junior David Van Houten '81. "Bing," she calls him, his nickname since high school in McBain, Mich., where he played a lot of basketball back when Dave Bing was a marquee Piston. Van Houten, a track and cross-country runner, intended to follow college with seminary at Calvin. "I kind of messed those plans up," Olthoff confessed.

The pair married in 1982, and Van Houten attended seminary for a year. They then moved on to the University of Chicago, he to earn a Ph.D. in theology, she to study medicine. From Chicago, they proceeded to Los Angeles, where Olthoff served her nine-year surgical fellowship at UCLA Medical Center.

While a chief resident at UCLA, she became pregnant. Since Olthoff's schedule allowed little maneuverability and her husband's plenty, he opted to raise the children full-time. "I always enjoyed being with the kids, with infants. It wasn't a hard decision for me," said Van Houten, 44, who remains the full-time caregiver for both Lucas, 10, and Jacob, 7, and the part-time scholar in residence at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church.

"He still runs a lot, and that's his saving grace," said Olthoff. "I think whenever he wants to go back to teaching, he will. I have no doubt he works as hard as I do."

Lucas and Jacob Van Houten

His male friends envy the flexibility of his work schedule, Van Houten said, and younger son Jacob once aspired to his role. "When he was about 3, he wanted to grow up to be a nothing like his dad, which I considered a great compliment. Now he wants to be a surgeon like his mom."

Jacob's mom almost missed the chance to be his role model. After completing her fellowship, she had settled on an academic career when Shaked, a former colleague and mentor at UCLA, convinced her to join him in Philadelphia. "And I've never regretted it."

Dinner is only 12 minutes away when Olthoff can make it home. "I'm not one for long commutes," she said. The family lives in a big stone house in Merion Station, Penn., where the doctor maintains a perennial garden.

While this isn't the life she envisioned for herself as an undergraduate, Olthoff sees guidance in the seemingly serendipitous events of her life. She credits Calvin with teaching her serenity—the calm that comes from the knowledge "there is someone watching over everything." It's a quality she relies on when she's in the middle of the operating-room chaos, watching the miracle occur.

— Myrna DeVries Anderson is Calvin's staff writer.