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Organ transplant program pioneer dies

Editor's note: Charles Thomas Fitts, M.D., 76,  died on Nov. 4. During his tenure at MUSC, Fitts held several appointments including professor of surgery, medical director of the South Carolina Organ Procurement Agency, and attending surgeon at MUSC and the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center. He is credited with pioneering the organ transplant program at MUSC where he performed the first kidney transplant on Dec. 3, 1968. His success with kidney transplants established the model for subsequent MUSC transplant programs.
Following is a eulogy given by P.R. Rajagopalan, M.D., Department of Surgery.
I met Tom “Tommy” Fitts, M.D., for the first time 40 years ago when I was a junior surgical resident. He was giving a talk on transplantation immunology. At that time, the field was new and exotic. He was a charismatic teacher and had a remarkable talent in making complex things appear simple and understandable. To this day I cannot forget his description of the complex interaction of different cell types involved in organ transplant rejection by using common objects such as bananas and apples.
In 1968, he  performed the state’s first kidney transplant and was trying to establish an MUSC transplant program.
Tommy offered me an opportunity to work with him after my residency; thus began a close relationship that lasted nearly four decades.
He was not just a great teacher and scientist but a pragmatic leader, as well. The foundation he laid by initiating the transplant program at MUSC, and the establishment of the organ procurement organization (formerly called SCOPA and now Life Point) have grown to be what is now one of the top programs in the country.
He was the father of the transplant program in South Carolina. His influence in the program still exists.
Tommy had a way of dealing with people that was legendary. His bedside manner was exemplary. The staff simply loved him and the patients literally worshipped him. He had a way of making it easy for patients to understand the complexity of the transplant process. I will never forget one Wednesday morning about 30 years ago on 6 East. We were trying to get a patient to come in for her transplant. I had trouble getting her to understand the urgency of the situation. When Tommy took the phone, she told him, “Dr. Fitts, can I come and get it on Saturday?” Without hesitation, Tommy said to her “Honey, the kidney will be spoiled by then.” Needless to say the patient understood the problem and made arrangements to come in right away.
Tommy was an extraordinary teacher and superb surgeon. Even MUSC faculty members who needed surgery looked to him for help. That included me. When he was operating, he had a way of talking to himself that at times caused some consternation among the staff. Every time he said, “Damnit Tommy,” it used to scare the daylights out of Tom Flowers, one of the scrub nurses, who thought he was being scolded.
Tommy liked cowboy boots and country music, and had perfected the, “I am just a cowboy” appearance. But underneath that façade he was pure Ivy League. He attended a prep school; earned his undergraduate degree at Princeton and his degree in medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Tom completed his residency under James D. Hardy, M.D., surgery department chairman at the University of Mississippi.
He was a wonderful father and was very proud of his family. In turn, his children adored him. In my opinion, his relationship with his children was nothing short of amazing. When Tom retired from MUSC he went into practice with his son, Casey. I believe Tommy enjoyed that more than anything else.
Tommy was my boss, mentor, friend and guidance counselor. It was my privilege to have worked with him for nearly 30 years. He had a wonderful sense of humor and was admired by students, residents and everyone else who worked with him. Above all, he made the rough-and-tumble world of transplantation fun.
Tommy was not just my partner and friend but represented everything that is good about a human being. The compassion, selflessness and leadership were admirable. He reminds me of a Jewish saying: “Good men need no monuments. Their acts remain their shrine.”

Nov. 28, 2008

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