Donald Liu, pediatric surgeon, 1962-2012

Donald Liu, section chief of pediatric surgery and surgeon-in-chief at the University of Chicago Medicine’s Comer Children’s Hospital, drowned Sunday, Aug. 5, after attempting to rescue two children who were caught in a strong current in Lake Michigan near the town of Lakeside, Mich. He was 50 years old.

Liu, the Mary Campau Ryerson Professor in Surgery and Pediatrics at the University of Chicago Medicine, was internationally recognized for his expertise in applying and adapting the techniques of minimally invasive surgery to children. He developed innovative approaches to the treatment of chronic abdominal pain syndromes in children, including median arcuate ligament syndrome, a little-known and underdiagnosed disorder. As a researcher, he was an expert in Hirschsprung’s disease, the pathogenesis of necrotizing enterocolitis and the importance of gut bacteria in health and disease. His skill and experience attracted patients from all over the country.

“Don Liu was full of life and energy and excitement for his specialty, a devoted doctor and a family man,” said Jeffrey Matthews, professor and chairman of surgery at the University of Chicago Medicine. “He was all about the children, and his enthusiasm inspired colleagues and the whole staff at Comer Children’s Hospital. That he died the way he lived, while saving children, is somehow consistent and heart-wrenching at the same time.”

The two 12-year-old boys were struggling in choppy waters, according to the Chikaming Township Police Department. Liu “saw the children were in trouble and immediately went out into the water to help them,” said Bruce McKamey, a patrolman with the Chikaming Township police. The children made it to shore, but the surgeon was swept away by the rip current, he said.

“This is a man that would wake up at 2 o’clock in the morning, be in the operating room in 10 or 15 minutes, literally save a child’s life who was bleeding to death from trauma — a car accident, gunshot wound, a beating,” said colleague John Alverdy, professor and vice chairman of surgery at the University of Chicago Medicine. “Then he would go home and go back to sleep. An hour later he would wake up, come to the OR, operate for five hours, maybe grab some lunch, go to another hospital and save another life — all in a day’s work.”

Liu touched many lives as a master clinician and researcher who always put his patients and their families first, said colleagues. 

“He was passionate about his work as a pediatric trauma surgeon, both in treating and preventing childhood injury,” said Kenneth S. Polonsky, dean of the Biological Sciences Division and the Pritzker School of Medicine and executive vice president of medical affairs at the University of Chicago. “He had also created wonderful relationships with physicians and hospitals throughout the greater Chicago area, providing expertise and guidance in treating young patients.”

'One of the best in the field'

A prolific scholar, Liu was an author or co-author of more than 70 research publications, and eight book chapters, primarily dealing with minimally invasive surgery, the human microbiome and the surgical treatment of intestinal disease. He lectured all over the world, especially in China, and contributed to seven instructional films for various surgical societies. He was the principal investigator for multiple clinical trials and for two large grants from the National Institutes of Health, looking at treatments for necrotizing enterocolitis and the establishments of the gut microbiome in young children.

“If you were a baby’s mother, this is the doctor you would want to care for your child from beginning to end,” Alverdy said. “He was compassionate, funny, unquestionably competent — one of the best in the field — a paragon of clinical excellence and an outstanding human being.”

His wife, Dana Suskind, professor of surgery and pediatrics at the University of Chicago Medicine and director of the Pediatric Cochlear Implantation Program at Comer Children’s Hospital, described him as a loving father. “He was the best husband and father you can imagine,” she said.

Liu was born in New York on Feb. 12, 1962, but grew up in Taiwan. He went to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, graduating with honors in 1984 with a bachelor of arts degree in natural sciences. He received his medical degree with high honors and his PhD in immunology from Jefferson Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia in 1990. He completed his internship and residency in general surgery at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in 1995, followed by a two-year fellowship in pediatric surgery at the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.  

From 1997 to 2001, Liu was an assistant professor of surgery at Louisiana State University School of Medicine, caring for patients at the Children’s Hospital of New Orleans. In 2001, Liu joined the University of Chicago Department of Surgery as a pediatric surgeon. He was named section chief of pediatric surgery and surgeon-in-chief at Comer Children’s Hospital in 2007.  

Liu won many honors, including teaching awards from the University of Pennsylvania, the Children’s Hospital of New Orleans and the University of Chicago, where he recently won a Distinguished Senior Clinician Award. He was routinely selected for local and national lists of top doctors, including by Chicago Magazine in January.

Liu also helped develop a formal affiliation between the University of Chicago’s Comer Children’s Hospital and the Shanghai Children’s Medical Center through Project Hope. This collaborative effort has helped train several international fellows who have gone on to become institutional leaders in China. As a result, Liu was honored with an endowed chair at Jiao Tong University/Shanghai Second Medical College. He also was given $300,000 for the “1000-Person Distinction” award by the Shanghai government recognizing collaborative clinical, research and educational efforts.

In addition to his wife, Liu is survived by their three children: Genevieve, 13, Asher, 10, and Amelie, 7; and a sister, Diana Liu, who is a corporate lawyer in Washington, D.C. 

Funeral services are being planned for noon on Wednesday, Aug. 8 at KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation, 1100 E. Hyde Park Blvd., Chicago. Liu will be buried wearing University of Chicago Medicine surgical scrubs and holding a White Sox baseball, a video game and his children's pictures. A memorial service on the UChicago campus is being planned for later this year.

In lieu of flowers, donations should be sent to the Dr. Don Liu Memorial Fund, University of Chicago Medicine & Biological Sciences Development, Attn: Abbe Temkin, 130 E. Randolph St., Suite 1400, Chicago, IL 60601.