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Up to the Challenge: Kaiser Hits the Ground Running
Surgeon, father, husband, leader, winemaker, country music fan and barbecue aficionado are just some of the words and phrases that describe Larry R. Kaiser, M.D., the fifth president of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. Determined, ambitious and open would apply as well.
Larry R. Kaiser, M.D., (on left) devotes one day a week to his surgical practice.
"I am, as many surgeons are, fairly ambitious," Kaiser admits. "I was running a great department of surgery, yet I felt there might be something else out there to challenge me."
Kaiser, who began his tenure at the health science center on Aug. 1, succeeds James T. Willerson, M.D., now president of the Texas Heart Institute at St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital.
Kaiser spent the past 17 years at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School in Philadelphia. Recruited to create a thoracic surgery division there, within two years he helped the university boost thoracic surgeries performed by faculty from 110 to 1,200 annually. He said that for the first few years on faculty at Penn, "I didn't think about becoming a chair and I certainly didn't think about having a leadership role like this one," referring to his current role as president.
"When I started thinking a little more globally than just what I was doing in the operating room the next day is when I got interested in larger leadership roles," Kaiser said.
Kaiser earned his medical degree with honors from Tulane University in 1977, then trained in general surgery and surgical oncology, as well as thoracic and cardiac surgery at the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Toronto. He joined the faculty on the Thoracic Service at Memorial Sloan- Kettering Cancer Center immediately following the completion of his residency. In 1988, he was recruited to Washington University School of Medicine, to join his mentor, Joel Cooper, M.D., where he ultimately rose to the rank of associate professor with tenure in 1990. He joined Penn in 1991.
Ready for new challenges
In 2001, Kaiser was named chairman of Penn's department of surgery. After several successful years on the job, he was ready for more. That's when the opportunity at the UT Health Science Center at Houston beckoned.
"I had developed a set of leadership skills over the years, having chaired a major department and having put into place a number of initiatives and I got to the point where I was looking for the possibility
of running a bigger enterprise," Kaiser explained. "I think that I'm attracted to challenges and this [position as president] offered me that opportunity. "It's not often that you find a position that has both the responsibility and the authority. I think the challenge is what attracted me."
Discipline at an early age
The attraction of meeting challenges began early, as Kaiser was growing up in St. Louis. Noting that he "always wanted to be a physician," he began work as a hospital orderly while still in his teens.
"I always had a tremendous amount of discipline. When I started working at 15, I wasn't driving. I used to take three buses to get to this hospital that was fairly far from where I lived," Kaiser recalled.
During the same period, he worked as a busboy and an umpire. His goal? To earn enough money to buy himself a car before his sixteenth birthday. Before even obtaining his driver's license, Kaiser was the proud owner of a bright red Austin-Healy Sprite sports car.
But looking back on his pursuit of challenges, Kaiser is hard-pressed to pinpoint the milestones that led him to the presidency of the health science center.
"If somebody asked me, ‘How do you get to be president?' I'm not sure I could give you a formula," he said, but added that he feels well prepared for the task.
"The skills one develops as a leader are transportable. No one's born leading a large institution, so you have to go from someplace and make that step up," Kaiser said. "I think the skills that one learns in running a fairly complex department certainly are translatable. Remember, Dr. Willerson was the chairman of medicine before he became the president."
Among his role models, Kaiser places pioneering cardiologist Michael DeBakey, M.D., who passed away in July at age 99, at the top of the list.
"As a cardiothoracic surgeon, Dr. DeBakey's name plays such a prominent role in the field. Here was somebody who made fundamental contributions to the field and literally made Baylor College of
Medicine-as the chair of surgery, as the president, as the chancellor. I always looked at that as an
amazing career," Kaiser said.
"You can't be in my field without mentioning his name during any operation. The forceps we use are DeBakey forceps. I stood in awe of him."
A big believer in open communication, one of Kaiser's first new initiatives was to start his own blog.
"I think two-way communication is key. I started my blog because I want people to know what I'm doing, what I'm thinking, what my impressions are," Kaiser explained.
"I think people need to know what's going on and to feel a part of the place."
Kaiser has scheduled a number of town hall meetings at all the schools of the health science center and often uses his blog to encourage faculty and staff to introduce themselves and feel free to
approach him, even off-campus.
Born for Texas?
After many years in Philadelphia, Kaiser is quickly adapting to life in Texas. Already known among his friends for his finesse with brisket produced in his Big Green Egg smoker, he is now in pursuit of the best barbecue in the Lone Star State. He also is a big fan of country music, citing Keith Urban, Kenny
Chesney, Trace Adkins and Toby Keith among his favorites.
Another key factor to his success: humor, doctor-recommended, as often as needed.
"I don't take myself too seriously, by the way," Kaiser said with a wry grin. "That's the other secret to leadership: don't take yourself too seriously!"
If he hadn't become a physician, he figures he would probably own and operate a winery. Australian reds are among his favorites, and as a hobby, he makes wine. He displays an empty bottle of a 2005 Syrah with the apt name, "Ex Vivo," the Latin term used in science that refers to experiments conducted
outside the body.
On the label is a message from Kaiser and Bert W. O'Malley, M.D.: "We make our wine with the same care and precision that we employ in our ‘other line of work.' Enjoy."
Wendy K. Mohon, Institutional Advancement