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Former Patients Call Dr. Thomas Starzl, Organ Transplantation Pioneer, A Hero

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- Describing transplant surgeon Dr. Thomas Starzl isn't hard - visionary, pioneer, passionate, and compassionate.

But beneath the list of adjectives was a man who saved lives.

"He was absolutely my hero and still is. He did save my life. He is the reason I am here," former patient Renee Williams said.

Williams was 14 months old when she received a liver transplant. She was born with a genetic disorder, alpha one antitrypsin. Dr. Starzl was her transplant surgeon.

"All little kids have superheroes and he was mine.  I grew up idolizing him and just looked at him as this God," Williams said.

From his early days at the University of Colorado - in the early 60s when organ transplants were considered "experimental" - to his days at the Thomas Starzl Transplantation Institute in Pittsburgh, one thing remain constant. He knew his patients by name, he knew their stories, and they wanted to thank him.

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Frank Sarris, of Sarris Candies, was one of those patients.

"I met him after Frank had the transplant and for some reason, he took a liking to us and we loved him. Frank thought he was God, and we became very close friends," Athena Sarris said.

In fact, the outpatient clinic at the Starzl Institute bears the Sarris name.

Dr. Starzl had a personal side that he shared with his patients.  He was married to his wife, Joy, for 36 years, and together they built relationships with the very people Dr. Starzl had operated on years earlier.

To say his patients were grateful almost feels like an understatement.

"For a long time, I wanted to make him proud of everything I did," Williams said. "There are no words.  I tried to several times, to say thank you."

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