The Perfect Fit

The Perfect Fit

A biologist who roams the world's oceans studying endangered whales. A bacteriologist leading efforts to develop a new and potentially crucial source of energy: hydrogen-creating bacteria. A dedicated surgeon who gives transplant patients new life.

By David Treadwell and Alexis Grant '03 | Photos by Mary Levin, Johnny Hansen, and Yulia Ivashchenko

Patrick Wood '75, M.D.
Soft classical music calms Patrick Wood '75, M.D., while he pores over paperwork in his office. But in the operating room, it's all rock 'n' roll.

The liver-transplant specialist prefers Jimi Hendrix or The Doors while performing surgeries at his private practice in downtown Houston. "In the OR there's a lot of activity going on. So I'm big on old-time rock 'n' roll,— said Wood. Then he joked, "I'm not too much on rap or the new stuff, being an old man.—

Though his taste in music may be stuck in '70s, his work in the medical field is cutting edge.

Wood founded three liver-transplant centers in Houston during the last 15 years and has since become one of the region's premier surgeons. As the chief of liver transplantation at St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital, he is well respected for his work with livers—considered the most difficult organ to transplant—but over the last few years has transitioned more into general surgery.

He has also performed or been involved in hundreds of transplant surgeries as a medical director with the Texas nonprofit organ agency LifeGift.

Patrick Wood '75 in surgery at St. Luke‰s Episcopal Hospital in Houston, Texas, where he is chief of liver transplantation. Wood says, "I love what I do."
Photo by Johnny Hansen
Despite a demanding schedule that often requires 12-hour workdays and middle-of-the-night surgeries, "I love what I do,— Wood said. "Somebody's putting their life in your hands.—

Being a transplant surgeon has always appealed to him, he said, because of the relationships he develops with his patients. Unlike general surgery patients, who have relatively little face time with their doctor before and after the procedure, organ recipients require long-term care. Wood still checks up on patients he operated on a decade ago, and, since many of those patients were children, he has watched them grow into adults.

"You have a long relationship with the patient prior to the transplant because sometimes they can be on the waiting list for a couple of years,— Wood said. "So you're seeing them through that whole process and then you do an operation that's probably the most intense operation that's done, then you get to follow them long term.—

After graduating from Colby, Wood went to medical school at New York University and completed a fellowship at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

His career got off to an impressive start in 1984, when he was part of a University of Pittsburgh team that successfully completed a liver-kidney transplant in a young girl—the first such dual transplant in the world.

That patient, he later learned, was his wife's cousin.

Back then, the science of transplants was very different, and most patients did not survive. Today the chance of survival for a liver-transplant patient during the first year after surgery is in the high 80-percent range, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing; after five years the survival rate drops to a percent in the low 70s.

But with medical advances has come a new obstacle: the demand for liver donors far exceeds the supply. About 17 people die in the United States each day waiting for a transplant, according to LifeGift. "It's hard on the patients because we know if we can get them transplanted successfully they'll do very well,— Wood said. "The problem is getting them a donor.—

The desire to help close that gap led Wood to volunteer with LifeGift. As a regional medical director, Wood must approve and coordinate every transplant case in several Texas cities. That often means phone calls and surgeries in the middle of the night.

"There are hundreds of people alive today because of Pat Wood and his skills as a surgeon and as a physician,— said Sam Holtzman, president of LifeGift.

It's not only what Wood does for his patients physically, Holtzman said. He also fosters emotional healing using humor. Wood's jokes are notoriously irreverent, patients and co-workers say. "It's that kind of humor that sort of relieves the tension and keeps everybody on an even keel while you're rushing around trying to save lives,— Holtzman said.

One such saved life was that of Bill Malmquist, a Houstonian who was listed for a liver transplant in 1994.

Malmquist's first interaction with Wood was an incredible disappointment: he was told to prepare for a transplant, only to be informed by Wood that the organ was not good enough quality. But several months later, he successfully received a donor liver, and Wood performed the surgery. Though Malmquist will be on medication for the rest of his life, the 59-year-old is now healthy.

"We have such faith in [Wood],— Malmquist said. "He gives you the confidence that he's going to do everything in the world to make your life as comfortable as possible for as long as it can be.—

Perhaps that knack comes from his background. The son of two nurses, Wood knew since age 10 that he wanted to be a doctor. He used to spend hours in the emergency room at the hospital in his hometown of Newport, Rhode Island, where his mother worked the night shift.

But it was during his time at Colby that the biology major honed his interest in medicine. After a football knee injury, he worked in the sports training room with then-trainer Carl Nelson, who Wood still refers to as his mentor.

He moved to Houston, which boasts one of the world's largest medical centers, in 1991 to work at the University of Texas Health Science Center Medical School, and he later formed his private practice, Transplantation and General Surgery Associates, with another surgeon.

With a busy and unpredictable schedule, even finding the time to interview for this story was difficult (the meeting was cancelled twice because of emergency surgeries). But Wood manages to find time for his hobby, fishing, and to spend with his family; he remarried seven years ago and has a son and three stepchildren. A framed family photo is displayed prominently on his desk, surrounded by otter collectibles.

But the desk also holds several photos of a different type of family: his patients. Their success stories, he said, could not exist without the organ donations made by grieving families.

"Whether you want to be a donor or don't want to be a donor, either way, it's important to make sure your family knows,— Wood said. "If there's one message in this, it's 'think about organ donation.'——Alexis Grant '03
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  • On August 22, 2006, Kate Cone, '76 wrote:
    Thanks for reacquainting me with Pat Wood, whom I knew at Colby as a dedicated "Pit Rat." Back then, '74 - '75, Pat had a permanent desk in The Pit, lower level of the library. He hobbled around with crutches (must have been the football injury), and was as a much more reliable fixture there than the Colby clock. It at once filled me with awe that he studied so much, then his work ethic became an inspiration. I eventually chose a desk in the stacks as "my spot." I somehow knew all these years Pat would accomplish as much as he has. Thanks again for a great profile.

  • On September 12, 2006, Amber wrote:
    Dr.Patrick Wood is one of the greatest men I have ever known. He performed a liver transplant on me when I was 13 years old. I am about to turn 24 and because of him I was able to get married, become a nurse, and have a family. He is my hero.