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J Magee Profile

Seizing Opportunities to Move Forward Drives Michigan Transplant Surgeon Dr. John Magee

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Magee1Having spent a significant period of his youth as a rower, Dr. John Magee, Section Head of Transplant Surgery at the University of Michigan (UM), is happiest when he’s part of a team. “Being part of a team that works well and is about doing the right thing is exciting,” he says. “I was happy in the middle of the boat, in the back of the boat, or in the front of the boat ­­– as long as the boat was moving forward.” He sees rowing as being analogous to organ transplantation teams where there are many different roles to be played in what he calls the most interdisciplinary area of medicine.

But his pet peeve is wasting opportunities to make something better. “There’s nothing worse than a squandered opportunity or not taking full advantage of everything you have,” he says. “Those gifts can include both your own talents as well as the talents of those around you.”

Dr. Magee is known for taking full advantage of opportunities to develop himself and others. He is the Jeremiah and Claire Turcotte Professor and head of the section of transplantation in the UM Department of Surgery, professor of internal medicine and pediatrics, and the surgical director for pediatric abdominal transplantation. He performs kidney, pancreas and liver transplants and is a nationally known transplant leader. He is active in the American Society of Transplant Surgeons (ASTS), the National Kidney Foundation of Michigan, and the Organ Donation and Transplantation Alliance (The Alliance).

Dr. Magee has been on The Alliance’s board of directors since 2011 and served as chair from 2017-19. He began his service on the Leadership and Innovation Council, which he later chaired, and most recently he has served on planning committees for the National Critical Issues Forum. This year’s forum, “Optimizing Performance in an Age of Disruption” will be held September 15-16 in Orlando.

Dr. Magee rowed in high school and college. “Rowing is a big part of my approach to life,” he says. “I liked the challenge of rowing and the dedication, intensity, and purity of it. I’ve had the opportunity of both rowing in big boats, which are eight-man boats, and in singles and doubles. It’s a mix of individuality and teamwork and the interconnection of those two is a big part of rowing.”

He is the oldest of three children and grew up outside Philadelphia where his father was in internal medicine. He knew early on that he wanted to be a doctor. “I recognize that one of my biggest privileges has always been knowing what I wanted to do and having had the opportunity to do it.

Path to Transplantation

He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania and his medical degree from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia where he was first exposed to transplantation. “I thought it was a unique application of medicine,” says Dr. Magee. ”It was solving problems using data at hand. I liked that it’s an iterative process and that it involves connections with both patients and team members, and the transformative nature of it is also great. And I liked the fact that there were lots of good problems to solve. One of my greatest fears, when I was thinking about going into transplantation, was that I was worried all the challenges would be solved. And of course, I hadn’t recognized that transplantation was very much in its clinical infancy at that time.”

Dr. Magee completed his general surgery residence at UM in 1996. During his residency, he spent three years as an immunobiology research fellow in the Department of Surgery at Duke Medical Center where his research concerned endothelial cell injury in a lab that was working on xenotransplantation. His current research activities are centered on pediatric liver disease and transplantation. He is also involved in projects related to the oversight of donation and transplantation. After completing a two-year multi-organ transplant surgery fellowship at UM, he joined the faculty in 1998. Since then, he has held a variety of roles including serving as Director of the Transplant Center. In 2019, he received the Outstanding Clinician Award from the U- M for his focus on pediatric transplantation.

In reflecting on his career at UM, Dr. Magee says he learns something new every day. “There’s a lot of talent in a lot of fields here. It’s a neat mix of smart, committed people from top to bottom. I’ve enjoyed learning throughout my career, and you can learn every day doing this job if you try.” He adds, “The University of Michigan’s had a very deliberate effort at leadership development that includes presentations and courses and that’s given me an opportunity to consistently develop as a leader.” Additionally, Dr. Magee has an active interest in medical student, resident and transplant fellow education.

Magee 4He and his wife Mindy have two daughters, ages 16 and 11, who are active in singing, theater, and dance. This summer, the family took a weeklong whirlwind tour of London and Paris. Their fifth family member is a husky named Journey. The family has a 35-foot sailboat docked in St. Joseph, a city on the shores of Lake Michigan. This summer, they plan to sail to South Haven and back and in a few years hope to sail to Chicago.

Dr. Magee chaired the National Kidney Foundation of Michigan board in 2018-2020 and sees his involvement there as related to his academic focus on looking at how to prevent or modify the course of pediatric liver diseases to prevent the need for transplantation. ”Transplantation is a great therapy but it’s both limited by the number of organ donors and the number of people that need it. One way to fix that problem is to increase the number of donors, which is obviously a big part of what The Alliance does. The other is to prevent the diseases that cause the need for transplantation. One of the principles I was raised with that came from my father was that you should try and prevent disease as the best option.”

Big Thinker Who’s Accessible

Known for being a big-picture thinker that loves to solve problems, Dr. Magee credits an innate sensibility as well as his involvement in national organizations for that approach.

“I’ve always been more fascinated with why,” he says. “There’s a beauty in the why – why does this work or why does this not work? But there’s also the how to make things work. I’ve also had the opportunity to be exposed to people in various fields through my involvement with ASTS, The Alliance, and the Kidney Foundation. I like seeing a problem and then figuring out how to solve it by integrating the right group of people and the right group of assets. And then the strategic decision on when to solve it is a neat, neat thing.”

“The things we’re trying to solve with patient care and the manner in which you solve it in a multidisciplinary manner are the same things we’re trying to do with The Alliance,” he continues. “It’s recognizing there are many perspectives and so many stakeholders. There’s so much untapped talent and The Alliance has done an exceptional job of reaching out to different people and incorporating members from the donation and transplantation ecosystem.”

He’s also known for his accessibility and ability to authentically connect with people which has made him an effective leader both at UM and in the national donation and transplantation community. He credits his parents with teaching him to respect everyone and to look for opportunities to connect with people. “You ought to be able to say hi to people and find out what they like and think about. If you know the troops on the ground, whether they be staff or other physicians or nurses, the fact that you have a connection with them versus like just trying to execute on some to-do list is the sweet spot. It’s a big part of being a doctor, obviously, because you should be accessible to your patients, too.”

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