Another big loss at the University of Arizona

Jack G. Copeland, the first surgeon in the world to use an artificial heart to keep someone alive while waiting for a heart transplant, is leaving his position at the University of Arizona June 30 for an opportunity to return to the university where he completed some of his medical residency.

While critics of Arizona’s budget cuts to higher education might point to Copeland’s resignation as yet another drop in the brain-drain pool, Rainer Gruessner, chairman of UA’s 10-division Department of Surgery, says Copeland’s move isn’t about money.

“I have told Dr. Copeland that I would not talk about the personal reasons he has for leaving, but from my perspective, finances have nothing to do with it,” Gruessner said. “In fact, as we are looking for a successor to Dr. Copeland, the hospital is making additional funds available for (the division of) cardiothoracic surgery. Dr. Copeland has done great things for the university, the college, for the department, for Tucson, and this decision he voluntarily made. I respect that. Now we have to move to make sure we get just the right replacement.”

Copeland performed numerous roles at the UA, and Gruessner said the position of chief of the Division of Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery already has 20 applications from across the country, even though it hasn’t been officially advertised. “Word of this sort of thing travels,” Gruessner said, adding that five of the 20 applicants “are very strong” and that an ad regarding Copeland’s position will be coming out in the next New England Journal of Medicine.

Copeland is one of UA’s rock-star employees, and is the third-highest paid employee at UA, according to 2009 salary records. He tendered his resignation a few weeks ago, and will become a cardiac surgery professor at the University of California-San Diego’s Sulpizio Family Cardiovascular Center, as well as try to start heart transplant and mechanical circulatory support device programs at UCSD and the San Diego Children’s Hospital.

I have calls and emails out to Copeland, who has been at UA for 33 years, to confirm his decision as personal, but haven’t yet heard from him. Still, it seems it is primarily personal: Copeland is married to Hannah Zimmerman, with whom he coauthored an article on the treatment of peripartum cardiomyopathy and who is completing her general surgery training at UCSD, according to this piece in the Arizona Daily Star. The Star’s blog has a statement from Copeland this morning which says that the “budget cuts and administration changes at U of A have changed the environment” at UA, but that while he loves his work “I love my family more and I plan on dedicating my life and my work to them.” So, it sounds like it is a case of following one’s heart, primarily, with UA’s other issues playing smaller roles.

The mention of “administration changes at U of A” is intriguing, considering the difficulties UA has had since the arrival of Provost Meredith Hay. There was the faculty poll showing that most of the faculty wanted Hay to be fired, and there’s been a parade of deans (Fine Arts, SBS, Humanities) who’ve left, inferring as they did that difficulties in dealing with the new administration played a role in their decisions. Even Gail Burd, the UA’s vice provost for academic affairs is hunting for a new job, leaving one to wonder if the season of discontent at UA will ever end.

Gruessner said Tucson can expect “a good, solid successor to Dr. Copeland,” although it will be at least six months until that person is in place, due to the process of being licensed in Arizona, which Gruessner said “unfortunately takes three months.” He said UA will be looking for two or three additional cardio thoracic surgeons to join Copeland’s replacement, to fully round out the College of Medicine’s cardiothoracic team.

“We are looking for someone who does heart and lung transplants, can work in the assistive device program (artificial heart), with robotic and minimally invasive heart transplants and someone who reaches out to the community,” Gruessner said. In the meantime, Gruessner said he has appointed Michael Moulton as interim chief of cardiothoracic surgery. Moulton is the surgical director of the lung transplantation program at UA and got his MD from Harvard.


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