(Photography by Bruce Powell/University of Chicago Medicine)

Ultimate sacrifice

A UChicago pediatric surgeon dies as he lived—helping children.

When he saw two children in trouble in Lake Michigan’s heavy waves August 5, Donald Liu rushed to their aid. According to the Chikaming Township Police Department near Lakeside, Michigan, where the incident occurred, the two 12-year-old boys, who were friends of Liu’s family, were struggling in the choppy water.

Liu “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 Liu, section chief of pediatric surgery and surgeon in chief at Comer Children’s Hospital, was swept away by the rip current and drowned. He was 50 years old (see Deaths).

“That he died the way he lived, while saving children, is somehow consistent and heart wrenching at the same time,” said Jeffrey Matthews, professor and chair of surgery at the University of Chicago Medicine.

In 2001 Liu joined the University as a pediatric surgeon. He was named section chief and surgeon in chief at ­Comer Children’s Hospital in 2007.  Liu, the Mary Campau Ryerson professor in surgery and pediatrics, was an expert in adapting minimally invasive surgery for children. He also developed new approaches for treating chronic abdominal pain syndromes in children. Despite Liu’s research accomplishments, colleagues said he always put his patients and their families first.

“This is a man that would wake up at two o’clock in the morning, be in the operating room in ten or 15 minutes, literally save a child’s life who was bleeding to death from trauma—a car accident, gunshot wound, a beating,” said John Alverdy, professor and vice chair of surgery. “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 was the author or coauthor 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 surgical societies. He was the principal investigator for multiple clinical trials and for two large grants from the National Institutes of Health.

Liu connected with his young patients through conversations about two of his favorite pastimes: sports and video games. “It lightened the atmosphere in the room and they were more open to you, and all of a sudden you could see their faces light up,” Christopher Speaker, a nurse practitioner who worked with Liu for several years, told the Chicago Tribune.

Liu’s wife, Dana Suskind, professor of surgery and pediatrics and director of the Pediatric Cochlear Implantation Program at Comer Children’s Hospital, described him as a loving father to their three children, Genevieve, 13; Asher, 10; and Amelie, 7. “He was the best husband and father you can imagine,” said Suskind, who told the Tribune that the couple was engaged to be married three months after they met at the University of Pennsylvania in the mid-1990s.

More than 1,000 people attended Liu’s August 8 funeral at a Kenwood synagogue. He was buried wearing his University of Chicago Medicine scrubs and holding a White Sox baseball, a video game, and photos of his children.