Courted for months by a cross-town hospital, Dr. Leonard Makowka, who transplanted the first pig's liver into a human, finally said yes and announced Tuesday that he is leaving Cedars-Sinai Medical Center to establish a transplant program at St. Vincent Medical Center near Downtown Los Angeles.
In the end, Makowka said he was induced to leave not so much by the money and other incentives offered by St. Vincent, but by the opportunity to start a liver disease and transplant program from scratch and work with two prominent kidney transplant specialists, Drs. Robert and Rafael Mendez, at his new hospital.
"It wasn't an easy sell, because I am leaving a wonderful position here," said Makowka, who began the Cedars-Sinai liver transplant program when he joined the hospital in 1989 and also heads the medical center's department of surgery. "What really attracted me was the challenge of developing something that was different than I had ever done before."
At Cedars, Makowka pioneered research into the use of livers from pigs and other animals as a stopgap measure to extend the lives of people whose own livers had failed and who had no immediate chance of a human transplantation.
While high-profile surgeons are constantly being recruited by hospitals, the defection of Makowka from Cedars to St. Vincent has had local hospital circles buzzing since the deal was first hinted at several days ago.
David Langness, a spokesman for the Healthcare Assn. of Southern California, said the intensely competitive hospital environment had created "a lot of competition for the big-dollar specialists." He called Makowka's defection "a coup" for St. Vincent. Several years ago, the USC University Hospital tried to lure Makowka away from Cedars-Sinai, but was unsuccessful.
Makowka will immediately raise the profile of St. Vincent, creating a new force in liver transplantation, which until now has been dominated by only three hospitals in Southern California--Cedars-Sinai, UCLA and UC Irvine medical centers. At the same time, it will create a void at Cedars, which has more than twice as many beds as its cross-town rival and is much better known.
Aside from the prestige of attracting a star surgeon, Makowka's move could help generate research grants and more new business for St. Vincent, which is locked in a fierce struggle for survival with other hospitals in Los Angeles. Dozens of hospitals have gone out of business in the region over the past five years.
Cedars-Sinai is already scrambling to replace the famous surgeon.
Makowka will remain at the Westside hospital until Feb. 4, according to an announcement by Thomas M. Priselac, president and chief executive officer of Cedars-Sinai Health System.
"Cedars-Sinai remains firmly committed to maintaining a world-class transplantation program and we are currently in discussion with an internationally prominent surgical team to ensure that the program continues to meet the needs of the community," Priselac said.
Cedars spokesman Ron Wise added: "We aren't going to get out of the transplant business. Make no mistake about that. Cedars doesn't live or die by one surgeon."