The doctor’s doctor

Henry Tazelaar ’78


Spring 2014

Henry Tazelaar ’78 always wanted to be a doctor. He doesn’t recall pondering any other vocation, from early childhood to today. What he didn’t know is how God would lead him to boundary-shifting research on heart and lung transplantation at one of the country’s most prestigious medical institutions, the Mayo Clinic.

“I’m rarely out front with patients,” said Tazelaar, now the chair of the department of laboratory medicine and pathology at Mayo’s Arizona facility. “You could say that my colleagues and I serve as the doctor’s doctors. They need interpretations of the human tissue they remove in surgery or biopsies. We give them those answers so treatment can begin.”

After his pre-med coursework at Calvin, Tazelaar went to Rush Medical College in Chicago and then did his residency at Stanford University, including work on a National Institutes of Health fellowship, examining issues related to heart and lung transplant rejection. He regularly writes and speaks internationally on his specialty.

“I was drawn to Mayo because everyone, from the janitor to the chief officer, can clearly state the mission of the institution—and that mission is simple but inspiring: the patient comes first,” he said.

He spent 17 years at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., before moving to the Arizona facility in 2005.

At Mayo, the doctors worked at a fixed salary and often on teams. There’s a high level of camaraderie and little of the competitive dysfunction that can be present in other medical settings, Tazelaar explained.

“No one here is afraid of losing a patient to someone else. We are all on the same team, looking out for the patient’s best interest. You work hard, you get paid a salary—not as much as some other settings, but the resources available and chance to study, travel and do work with very talented colleagues makes for a wonderful work environment,” he said.

A professional doing the kind of research Tazelaar does must be able to excel at visual-pattern recognition—the ability to see the distinctives of a particular disease in different patients. He has counseled students toward or away from this area of research depending on their level of competency.

This work takes dedication and concentration—traits evident in Tazelaar as he describes his work.

“This may sound crazy to say, but I enjoy being in my office on a Saturday morning looking at slides,” he said. “It gives me great satisfaction to discover the pathology of new diseases or complications. The publication of such observations then brings this knowledge to patients across the globe.

“I am certain that God has put me in the place where I can use my gifts best and do the most good,” he added.

Challenges abound in medicine and medical research, of course. The Affordable Care Act, the future of funding for research and the increased use of technology bring scores of questions to the forefront. “Tele-medicine”—having a specialist in one part of the country advise a patient in another state—is one such issue.

“Is the specialist allowed to practice in a different state, even if by teleconference?” he asks. “Interesting problems ahead to solve.”

Above all, Tazelaar takes great pleasure in being able to take the time to get the diagnosis right and to be a part of Mayo’s “patient first” philosophy.

“I can spend a whole day looking at just lung biopsies from all over the world,” he said. “Here, we can specialize to a great degree. One could almost be a left-foot doctor—it gets that specific.”

That specificity brings a wealth of medical knowledge to light, and combined with the careful attention patients receive from the medical staff, Tazelaar sees Mayo’s approach as an excellent response to human need.

“I had a patient say that the Mayo doctor was the first physician that actually sat down with him and looked him in the eye while discussing his medical problem,” he said. “I want to be a part of something that brings that level of respect to the patient.”