2004 Citizen Services

Thomas Cacciarelli

Gave up a successful job at one of the most prestigious liver transplant hospitals in the world to ensure that veterans in need of organ donors would receive swift and affordable care.

Standing up for what’s right often means making sacrifices—but how many people would have made the same sacrifice as Dr. Thomas Cacciarelli? This internationally recognized organ transplant surgeon left a successful practice at one of the most prestigious transplant hospitals in the world to enter public service. But for Dr. Cacciarelli, the decision was simple, since taking a stand literally meant the difference between life or death for some of America’s veterans.

Throughout history, American men and women have answered their country’s call to defend and protect freedom in all corners of the world. To show the nation’s gratitude, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provides financial benefits and healthcare services to the 25 million veterans alive today, as well as their family members.

Organ transplant services for veterans are usually provided via partnerships with academic medical centers. For years, the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System (VAPHS) provided transplants to veterans under a similar arrangement with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, a world-renowned facility where liver transplantation was first developed.

But in recent years, the VAPHS found itself on the verge of shutting down when the University made plans to terminate their partnership. This meant vets awaiting transplants would be forced into private sector care, which many are unable to afford, or they would have to be shuttled to another VA transplant facility—there are only three others in the nation—causing the demand for precious organs in other areas of the country to rise, and lowering the vets’ chances of finding a donor match. 

Enter Dr. Thomas Cacciarelli, a widely-respected transplant surgeon at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, who had been working on a contract basis at the VAPHS. In 2003, faced with the knowledge that veterans in need stood to lose a second chance at life, he took a full-time job at the VA facility—a huge professional risk for one of the best liver transplant surgeons in the field.

The move meant ending his successful career at the renowned University of Pittsburgh facility, accepting a significant pay cut, and absorbing considerable financial costs related to the move. But by lending his name and credibility to the VA’s application for a charter to create an in-house transplant service, Cacciarelli ensured that the VAPHS could continue to provide life-saving transplants to the nation’s veterans.

The ethics of transplants dictate that those who are sickest must be treated first. Dr. Cacciarelli’s colleagues believe his life-altering career move shows his true character and adherence to this belief.

Today, Dr. Cacciarelli leads the transplant program at VAPHS – one of only two VA facilities with in-house transplant facilities nationwide. Under his leadership and vision, the program has thrived, and the number of veterans receiving transplants nearly doubled during his tenure. In 2003 the facility completed 18 transplants, and as of April 2004, they had already completed 15. And the program has helped the VA save hundreds of thousands of dollars per patient in medical costs.

Perhaps Dr. Cacciarelli’s most admirable trait is his care and concern for the very people he serves. His colleague, Dr. Michael Moreland, says, “I go up on the transplant unit to talk to patients, and they all call him ‘Tom’—they just love the guy.”

Thanks to Dr. Thomas Cacciarelli, the sacrifice and service of America’s veterans is being repaid—and lives are being saved.