“With Gratitude,” Pulmonary celebrates Zabner’s leadership, inspiration

Measuring a leader’s impact in academic medicine can be done more easily by examining growth of revenue or faculty members or patient care volume. But less tangible factors like lives transformed, world views changed, or careers redirected toward greater success are arguably even more important.

Over the course of an evening on the second floor of Hancher Auditorium, friends, family, and colleagues of Joseph Zabner, MD, demonstrated that less tangible kind of impact more overtly. Many former colleagues, including former department chairs and former trainees who have become chairs themselves, traveled from all across the country to show their appreciation for Zabner’s impact.

While a jazz combo played in the background, guests helped themselves to drinks from the bar and appetizers from a buffet. Long-lost friends and colleagues greeted each other warmly, catching up in a short period as if no time had passed.

A brief formal presentation then began led by Director of the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Occupational Medicine David Stoltz, MD, PhD. Stoltz shared stories of how he first came to know Zabner and the scope of the positive changes he led as well as the deep loyalty he inspired among his faculty. “We are the happiest division by any measure,” Stoltz said, “and Joseph is a big reason why.” Stoltz highlighted the importance of Kineret, Zabner’s wife, in both hosting many faculty recruits and division gatherings, but also all of her often-unseen labor in supporting Zabner throughout his work in the clinic and the lab.

Stoltz then introduced a line of faculty colleagues, each of whom addressed a different aspect of Zabner’s strengths. Pulmonary Fellowship Director Alicia Gerke, MD, MBA, described Zabner’s strengths as an educator. Douglas Hornick, MD, unable to attend, called in instead, and spoke over speakerphone about Zabner’s deft touch as a clinician. He was followed by Michael Welsh, MD, who extolled Zabner’s skills as a researcher, his joy for the work, and his ability to coach younger researchers.

Joel Kline, MD, spoke at length about his friendship and his leadership, guiding the division both through his early days as division director, but also through the last couple years as the pandemic placed enormous burdens on critical care faculty, fellows, and Medical ICU staff. Alejandro Comellas, MD, then used the metaphor of baseball to compare Zabner’s abilities to that of a shortstop, one who can rally a team and cover a large area with speed, skill, and wisdom.

Comellas then presented a Chicago White Sox jersey and cap to Zabner and then revealed one more surprise. “Many of you probably do not know that Joseph once played Little League baseball,” he explained. One of his former opponents was Ozzie Guillen who went on to play shortstop with the World Series winning Chicago White Sox. And then a video message from Guillen played in which he congratulated Zabner on his career and said that “being a doctor is a pretty good backup” since Zabner was unable to make it in baseball.

Stoltz then took the podium and returned to the topic of Zabner’s leadership during the pandemic, describing a series of daily emails that Zabner sent to the division and some others. These messages gave facts and updates in a rapidly changing environment and also contained messages of inspiration, from photographs to quotes to expressions of gratitude to sponsors of daily lunches for MICU staff.

One final gift then emerged for Zabner, a hand-bound hardcover book that collected all those emails from 2020, including pages of photos and pages signed with messages from members of the division and the research labs. Those pages, designed by Ann Armstrong, were then delivered to local artist Suzanne Glémot, who incorporated information from those messages and an introduction that revealed Zabner’s early work with rabbits for her hand-stitched cover image. Glémot also crafted a nesting box, which bears the words “With Gratitude,” for the book to rest inside. [A PDF of the pages that went inside that book is available for download at this link: “With Gratitude”.]

Thanks were also extended to division administrative staff, including Samantha Bredlau and Anne Vincent, for all their work in assembling a fitting tribute to Zabner.

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