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The Catalyst

Director infused division with passion for 30 years

By Mikie Hayes
Public Relations

Colleagues honor Dr. Steve Sahn for his service as director of the Division of Pulmonology, Critical Care, Allergy and Sleep Medicine. Photo provided

“Where do you start when a man gave 30 years of his career to MUSC?  He came to take the reins of a fledgling division and built our current program into one of national and international recognition,” said Patrick Flume, M.D., the Powers-Huggins Endowed Chair for Cystic Fibrosis.

Flume is speaking of Steven Sahn, Distinguished University Professor of Medicine and professor emeritus, who served as director of the Division of Pulmonology, Critical Care, Allergy and Sleep Medicine for 28 years, from 1983-2011.

With tremendous sadness, MUSC bid a fond farewell to Sahn, a legend and friend, when he officially retired on Oct. 30, after caring for patients, mentoring fellows, teaching students and conducting research for 30 years.

A man who took little credit, but always looked for opportunities to help others be great, Sahn is described as a soft-spoken, dedicated and selfless leader. While he still comes to the office once a week to work with his pleural research group, the division misses his vast knowledge, heartfelt counsel and sense of humor on a daily basis.

Patients adored him and never failed to let him know how much. Sahn receives letters from patients thanking him for saving their lives and allowing them to live fuller lives. An avid fitness buff himself, he practices what he preached to patients and they appreciated him for it.

“One only needs to speak with a few of his patients to know how much he is loved and admired. He has always been deeply committed to ensuring that every patient receives the best care available. He leaves behind a very long list of grateful patients,” said Lisa Montgomery, executive vice president, Finance and Operations.

Colleagues can’t speak highly enough of his dedication to excellence and his purpose-driven leadership.

“Dr. Steve Sahn is the prototypical academician— exceptional physician, outstanding clinician scientist, superb medical educator and sought–after mentor! Dr. Sahn is one of MUSC’s most distinguished faculty, and during his years leading pulmonary medicine here, he created one of the premiere pulmonary divisions in the country.  With his indefatigable leadership and tenacity, he resurrected our lung transplantation program,” said Jack Feussner, M.D., executive senior associate dean for Clinical Affairs, College of Medicine.

“Every now and then, if we’re lucky we’ll encounter a great person, someone who is a cut above the rest. Steve Sahn is one of those people. He is a giant in American medicine. He has contributed an enormous amount to our understanding of lung diseases. He is recognized as one of the premiere international experts in this area. The fact that he was here for so long has been a big factor in MUSC achieving national prominence. When Steve Sahn came here, he had to build the division from scratch. He started with nothing and over the years, he built one of the most respected pulmonary–critical care programs in the nation. Steve is especially proud of the more than 75 fellows he has personally trained over the years; many have gone on to distinguished careers in their own. This is a an extraordinary legacy achieved by very few, said Larry Mohr, M.D., professor of medicine and longtime friend.

During his 28 years as division director, Sahn believed building a strong team was foundational to creating a nationally recognized program and has been praised for his strategic vision.

“Steve was the kind of leader that quietly grew the program, bringing on people who fit in with the team.

Friends Drs. Carlos Kummerfeldt, Jennings Nestor, Terrill Huggins and Larry Mohr gather with Dr. Sahn at the Wickliffe House. Photo provided

He looked for outstanding clinicians or researchers and there was always something unique about everyone he recruited. He just seemed to know who was going to have a promising career and as a result, he built a world-class team. Steve always pulled the team together. Like a family. Steve built a high quality program with people with unique skill sets who achieved the highest standard of care,” said Flume.

Those impeccably high standards led to numerous high-profile awards and recognition from pulmonary medicine’s most respected academic societies. Sahn was twice awarded the Alfred Soffer Award for Editorial Excellence. A co-recipient of the inaugural award, he was named in 1993 and again in 2008.

In 2011, Sahn was awarded the American Thoracic Society’s Trudeau Medal, a prestigious lifetime–achievement award recognizing his major contributions to prevention, diagnosis and treatment of lung disease throughout his career.

“Dr. Sahn made his mark on the modern day understanding of pleural disease and achieved international prominence. Under his direction, MUSC became the mecca of pleural disease in the world. When specialists from top pulmonary hospitals around the nation referred challenging cases to Dr. Sahn that spoke a great deal about his expertise and reputation,” Terrill Huggins, M.D., assistant professor, Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care, Allergy and Sleep Medicine.

To know Steve Sahn is to know he is passionate about three things: the fellowship program, family and sports.

“One of Steve’s greatest passions was the fellowship program. He built the program, grew it, nurtured it andthe program has doubled in the last 20 years. He helped the fellows with their careers. He loved to watch them grow, and his favorite part was teaching. He had a very fatherly approach with them. I can say that our fellows, as a result, can go deeper in the diagnosis process than most which is a huge testament to Steve,” said Flume.
Huggins credits Sahn for bringing out the best in him and others.

“Dr. Sahn taught fellows how to think critically. He expected excellence, so we all did our best. He was an example to us all. He modeled excellence and everyone looked up to him,” said Huggins. He mastered the ‘art’ of medicine. He literally is one of the masters,” Huggins said.
While the division was family to Sahn, his wife, seven children and eight grandchildren are the driving force in his life.

Though it was hardly easy, Sahn worked hard to balance medicine and family. Even though it was difficult on most occasions to hang up his stethoscope at the end of the work day, he would often make it home for dinner or to coach one of the kid’s teams and then head back to the hospital to pick up where he had left off.
Instilling that same priority in his team was important to him, said Claire Hoefer–Sahn, Sahn’s wife.

“He constantly told his team that physicians needed to balance their work with quality family time and that family meals in particular were critically important. Steve believes that home is a safe place after a tough day at the hospital,” said Claire. “He couldn’t stress balance and quality of life enough.”
Balance was important except when it came to sports. An avid sports enthusiast, the Blue Devils, Cardinals and Green Bay Packers made for lively discussion and even friendly rivalries.

“Dr. Sahn is known for his open–door policy and his call me anytime you need me policy, but if you do either, you had better know when Duke is playing!” said Huggins laughing.

Colleague, mentor, physician, friend… Sahn leaves a rich legacy and a pain in the hearts of many.

December 19, 2013

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