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Endowed chair named for anesthesiologist

by Mary Helen Yarborough
Public Relations
John Mahaffey had his heart set on medicine, but he wanted to fight for his country. Shortly after the young Lancaster native attended an accelerated pre-med program at the University of South Carolina (USC) in 1944, he entered the Navy on his birthday, June 3.
It was World War II, and, “a lot of the boys went straight from high school into service,” said Mahaffey, M.D., sitting with his wife, Faustina, at their home on the Ashley River, recalling the stop-and-go life that preceded his historic career at MUSC. “A lot of my friends were killed in the war.”
Mahaffey served in the hospital corps and a dispensary, and was en route from San Francisco to Okinawa when the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1946.
Mahaffey spent three months on Okinawa, an area populated by empty tents that would have been full of soldiers had the war in the Pacific not been stopped.
“We had a hurricane, and we lived in tents,” Mahaffey said, “Those natives knew how to survive hurricanes (they call them typhoons), by living in huts on the side of the hill.”
While he may have avoided hand-to-hand combat, Mahaffey soon would fight his own battle for years to come.
When Mahaffey discharged in Charleston in 1946, an X-ray detected inactive tuberculosis (TB), to which he was likely exposed while on Okinawa where the disease was endemic.
At the time, there was no therapy, and feeling fine, Mahaffey returned to USC to complete the pre-med program. About two years later, he graduated from USC and went to the medical college in Charleston.
“At the end of my freshman year in 1949, I got a coughing spasm,” Mahaffey said. “I remember taking exams at Easter and I had lost 20 pounds.”
Feeling weak and unable to focus on his exams, he saw anatomy professor, Cy O’Driscoll, M.D.
“He tried to lift my spirits,” Mahaffey said with a laugh. I used to cough up blood, and he’d say, “Oh, people cough up blood all the time. Now go back and finish your exams.’ He was a good man, a good friend, and a good teacher.”
Dr. John Mahaffey and wife, Faustina.

Mahaffey had a classmate, Shorty Johnson from Orangeburg, who  conducted a test that revealed active TB. Mahaffey was admitted at Pinehaven TB Sanitarium in North Charleston, a rather antiquated place surrounded by groves of pine trees.
“They had open screen porches,” recalled Faustina, a retired nurse. “They had flaps that would come down. It was so rustic; so bizarre to tell about it now. They did not administer antibiotics. They used pine cleanser on the floors, which were wide and wooden.”
Mahaffey stayed at Pinehaven for three months, where doctors performed pneumathorax, or collapsing the affected lung, a therapy used then to help the lung heal.
“It didn’t affect my breathing significantly,” Mahaffey said. “This went on for five years, and I went to medical school with a collapsed lung.” In 1950, a year after he underwent peumathorax, a medical treatment using the antibiotic streptomycin, was developed to treat TB infection. But it wasn’t until 1965 that Mahaffey would receive pharmaceutical therapy, isonizid, which he received for a year.
When Mahaffey returned to medical school in 1951, he took refresher courses, including those taught by Melvin Knisely, Ph.D., chairman of the anatomy department.
Mahaffey studied for six months in Knisely’s lab, which was investigating TB. While Mahaffey was on summer break in Lancaster, Knisely got word that his TB study would be fully funded. But Mahaffey was finished with lab research.
“Dr. Knisely wasn’t pleased,” Mahaffey said. “The grant was approved 100 percent, and he asked me, ‘Are you coming back?’ But I wanted to finish medical school.”
Later on, after Mahaffey had earned a  medical degree and became an anesthesiologist, he treated Knisely, who had been diagnosed with colon cancer.
“I put him to sleep,” Mahaffey recalled. “I remember he looked up at me and said, ‘I’m glad you didn’t go into research.’”
While in medical school, Mahaffey wed Faustina in 1953, and in 1954, his arduous medical school experience was complete.
Mahaffey had always wanted to practice family medicine. While he was a resident at Indianapolis General Hospital, he was introduced to a variety of specialties during his first year of rotating internship.
“I wasn’t interested in anesthesiology, but they required it,” Mahaffey said. “I wanted to be a family medicine doctor.”
He discovered that he liked anesthesiology, and decided to pursue it, and he eventually became an anesthesiology instructor at Indiana-polis General. After completion of training at the Indianapolis teaching hospital, he was on vacation in Charleston and visited John Brown, M.D., then chairman and founder of MUSC’s young anesthesiology department.
“I told him I intended to return South at some time in the future, and he said, ‘Why don’t you join me now,’” Mahaffey recalled. Mahaffey accepted Brown’s offer, and in 1958, he became an instructor in MUSC’s anesthesiology department. His decision to accept the invitation resulted in him becoming the nation’s longest serving anesthesiology chair after his 35-year tenure was complete in 1994.

On March 9, John Mahaffey’s long, distinguished career was marked by the establishment of The John E. Mahaffey, M.D., Endowed Chair.
Mahaffey was the third department chairman of MUSC’s Department of Anesthesia & Perioperative Medicine, which was founded in 1949.
A year before he became its chairman in 1964, Mahaffey was an instructor of anesthesiology.
Shortly after taking the department helm, Mahaffey became listed on the Water Aqualumni Tree, a prestigious honor bestowed on American anesthesiologists. The tree was created by Lucien Morris, M.D., in honor of Ralph Waters  for clinical care teaching and research. Mahaffey is listed as a fourth generation of these anesthe-siologists, who are considered doctors’ teachers. He is the only MUSC doctor in this tree.
During his tenure as chairman, Mahaffey led the department through a period of growth, both in size and stature.
In addition to expanding the anesthesiology program at MUSC, Mahaffey advanced the field through his service as the president of the South Carolina Society of Anesthesiologists and on the board of the American Society of Anesthesiologists, along with several state and national committees of scientific and educational organizations.
Due to his vision and leadership, the department remains one of the most desirable and sought-after anesthesiology training programs in the country.

Friday, May 30, 2008
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