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Fast Friends
Transplant patient shows gratitude with major gift

Transplant surgeon Andreas Tzakis, M.D., Ph.D., right, not only operated on patient Norman Millstein, but befriended him—and now conducts transplant research made possible by Millstein’s generosity.

Lying on a gurney, taking in the alien sights, sounds, and smells of a hospital pre-op room while waiting for his cirrhosis-scarred liver to be replaced, Norman Millstein gazed up at transplant surgeon Andreas Tzakis, M.D., Ph.D.

Millstein, a septuagenarian out of nonsurgical options for treating his liver disease, was “terrified” about his impending operation. “Andy, am I going to be all right?” Millstein solemnly asked Tzakis, head of the Liver and GI Transplantation Division at the Miller School. Eyes twinkling, Tzakis bent over slightly to make sure Millstein could hear him.

“You’ll be fine,” Tzakis responded, before tossing out a deadpan: “If not, you’ll never know about it.” Both men laughed, with Tzakis’s tension-breaking comment putting Millstein at ease for the major medical procedure he was about to undergo.

Once the multihour operation was over, Millstein found himself lying in a Jackson Memorial Hospital recovery area bed, devoid of pain and totally baffled. “I didn’t feel anything!” Millstein remembers. “I sat up and asked, ‘Did he do the transplant?’”

A nurse assured Millstein that his liver had indeed been replaced. “I looked,” Millstein says, “and there was a scar going down my side like a zipper!” Following his recommended post-op recovery regimen to the letter, Millstein was discharged from the hospital sooner than is typical for liver transplant patients.

Before his surgery, which took place back in 2004, “I was very sick; I was getting weaker and losing weight,” says Millstein, a Cleveland real estate developer who was referred to Tzakis by a Miami friend, Alan Kolsky. “I was very fortunate to get in touch with Andy,” Millstein says.

Unlike most doctor/patient relationships, where interaction typically evaporates after treatment has been provided, Tzakis and Millstein became fast friends.

“Andy Tzakis is the greatest, just a phenomenal person,” Millstein says. “He came up to Cleveland once to give a lecture, and I insisted that he stay with me during his visit.” Millstein has leavened the bond he and Tzakis share with not only hospitality and bonhomie, but philanthropy—in the form of a seven-figure gift to the Miller School.

“Mr. Millstein’s generosity is helping me to perform research in the area of tolerance,” Tzakis says. “Tolerance is a state where we can do a transplant without keeping a patient on immunosuppressant drugs for life. We have not achieved that with Mr. Millstein yet, but we are very close to it.”

While he lauds his “very solid relationship” with Millstein, there’s one area where the friends will probably never see eye to eye. Whenever the NBA’s Miami Heat go head to head with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Millstein and Tzakis smilingly agree to disagree over the likely outcome.