IU Bicentennial Medal awarded to Dr. John Brown

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01/13/2021

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The honors keep pouring in for the celebrated heart surgeon, who retired last month after 43 years at Riley and the IU School of Medicine.

By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist, mgilmer1@iuhealth.org

How do you sum up the 43-year career of a world-renowned surgeon in 15 minutes?

Dr. John Brown’s cardiothoracic surgery colleagues did their best in that window of time to honor the man whose influence helped chart the direction of their own careers.

Drs. Mark Turrentine, Mark Rodefeld and Jeremy Herrmann, all of whom care for the pediatric heart patients at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health, spoke eloquently of their regard for the heart surgeon who mentored them and so many others over the years.

The occasion was a break in the IU School of Medicine’s Department of Surgery virtual conference Wednesday morning, during which Dr. Brown was presented with the Indiana University Bicentennial Medal. The bronze medal is handcrafted from materials salvaged from the bells that once rang on the IU Bloomington campus, thus giving its recipients a lasting piece of IU history.

The Bicentennial Medal honors distinguished and distinctive service in support of Indiana University’s mission – those who have enlarged the footprint of IU, helping to put it on the map in unique ways.

Dr. Brown, who retired last month, has done that and more, his colleagues say.

“Our careers would not be what they are without Dr. Brown,” Dr. Turrentine said, recalling that he was encouraged by a former resident to visit IUSM and meet with Dr. Brown in the 1980s.

“I did and I stayed, and it has been the most wonderful professional marriage that I could ever imagine,” Dr. Turrentine said. “The beauty of the group here is that there’s no turnover. People are committed, and a lot of that commitment is out of respect for our leader, Dr. Brown.”

Although acknowledging the desire to have a bigger celebration to honor their friend, colleague and mentor, the surgeons who spoke Wednesday all talked of their deep admiration for a humble but brilliant Hoosier who devoted his professional and personal life to caring for the people of Indiana.

A native of Gosport, Indiana, a young John Brown grew up on a farm where the qualities of hard work and humility took root early, Dr. Turrentine said. He was a four-sport athlete in high school and went on to Indiana University, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa before enrolling in medical school at IU.

He would go on to perform the first pediatric heart transplant in Indiana in 1989, eventually operating on nearly 15,000 children and adults and training nearly 100 cardiothoracic surgical residents and fellows who practice throughout the United States and in 12 other countries.

His academic imprint has been equally prolific, Dr. Turrentine said. He has authored more than 275 peer-reviewed research articles and 25 textbook chapters.

“He is an exemplary son of the state of Indiana. His work has touched the lives of innumerable people, and his contributions will continue to benefit the care of patients with congenital heart disease for generations to come,” Dr. Turrentine said.

Dr. Rodefeld first met Dr. Brown in 1986 as a 23-year-old first-year medical student and had the good fortune to work in his research lab. Whether serendipity or luck, he said the experience had a “profound impact on me that is still alive today.”

Describing him as a role model, trusted adviser, go-to person, supportive colleague and guiding light, Dr. Rodefeld said Dr. Brown, is “a real surgeon’s surgeon.”

In presenting the Bicentennial Medal to his mentor, Dr. Herrmann said Dr. Brown has been a tremendous anchor throughout his career, including the past four years at Riley working side by side in the operating room.

A consummate gentleman and an eternal optimist, he also has the uncanny ability to simplify the most complex subjects in a way that residents, fellows and colleagues can learn from, Dr. Herrmann said.

“We will never be able to fully account for his influence in the field.”

For his part, Dr. Brown said he wouldn’t be standing there receiving this honor if not for his parents, hardworking farmers who taught him that you don’t quit until the work is done. From there, he gave credit to his wife of nearly 52 years.

“I couldn’t have accomplished any of this without the love and support of my wife, Carol Ann. She blessed us with three children whom I love and I’m sure I’ve disappointed on many occasions when I couldn’t attend their events because I was taking care of a sick child.”

He reminisced about his own mentors – Dr. Harris B. Shumacker Jr., Dr. Harold King and Dr. Robert D. King “and many others who inspired me along the way.”

And he wasn’t finished, pointing to his three surgical colleagues in the room with him, to whom he said he gives all the credit; his residents, “who always try to make me look good”; the anesthesia team and cardiologists “who express confidence in me and the way we do things – without them, none of this would be possible.” And finally, to his support staff, who have kept things humming all these years.

“It’s been an amazing, wonderful career. I thank the Department of Surgery and IU School of Medicine for allowing me to stay here these 43 years to do what I love and love what I do.”

Photos by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, mdickbernd@iuhealth.org

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