Center of Excellence in Diversity in Medical Education

Spotlight on Leadership

Oscar Salvatierra Jr., MD.

OSCAR SALVATIERRA JR., MD., Professor, Surgery and Pediatrics, Active Emeritus

My Inspiration
“The sick patients themselves. The goal is not only to restore the child’s health but also to optimize the quality of life for every transplant patient. Each case is different. Each one is another child made better.”

My Passion
“I have always been driven to help people and driven to provide equity in access to treatment, therapy and care. I don’t look back and I never give up, but I’m also a realist—if I don’t succeed, I move on and keep moving forward.”

My Future
“I am interested now in mentoring young trainees because the next generation of physicians will determine where medicine will go and therefore keep medicine on the right track. The health care delivery system is broken, and these young physicians need to be at the forefront of the battle that will be fought, both politically and economically.”

On the walls and desktop in Oscar Salvatierra, MD’s office are dozens of photos of smiling children. Most of those smiles are due to his pioneering spirit and expertise as a transplant surgeon.

As the former director of the Pediatric Kidney Transplantation Program at Packard Children’s Hospital, Salvatierra has performed thousands of kidney transplants in infants and children. Many were carried out on patients whose conditions were once considered fatal or that required surgeries too complex for many surgeons to undertake.

Though he now primarily serves as a surgical consultant on difficult cases, Salvatierra is still making an immeasurable impact on people’s lives, both as a medical innovator and as a mentor to future physicians.

“The best way I can help is to be an example to other Latinos,” he says. “I try to be a role model and to work with minority students to help them navigate the system to achieve the career they want and to help them be leaders.”

Salvatierra offers personal and career counseling to about 125 students a year, sharing his insights, insider expertise and positive perspective. One of his handouts includes inspirational quotes from sources ranging from Plato to Andrew Carnegie.

“You can never forget that medicine is about people,” he says. “I try to help get the right people together and let them do all the work. I try to give them direction to help them get to where they need to be.”

The oldest of six children, Salvatierra was taught the importance of education early on and was the first in his family to attend college. He spent his undergraduate years at Georgetown University, working three jobs during summer break to help pay expenses, and went on to earn his medical degree from the University of Southern California. He did a urology residency at USC and a transplant surgery fellowship at University of California, San Francisco. While he knew he wanted to help people in general, it wasn’t until he served as a combat surgeon in Vietnam that Salvatierra found his passion.

“Working in critical, life-saving situations firmed up my commitment,” he says. “You don't have much leeway in critical situations that involve life-and-death decisions.”

During his 35-year career at UCSF and at Stanford, he helped develop extraordinary improvements in treating renal failure. He broke new ground by transfusing kidney transplant recipients with the donor’s blood prior to surgery, allowing physicians to determine beforehand whether the kidney would be accepted. He led research and later refined procedures for the successful transplantation of adult kidneys into infants. He continues to study the molecular mechanisms of transplant rejection and is conducting research in developing steroid-free immunosuppression in children with transplants.

One of Salvatierra's proudest accomplishments was his leadership role in passing the National Organ Transplant Act in the mid-1980s, working with then-congressman Al Gore. The law established today’s national system for all organ transplants and includes a National Registry that serves as the foundation for future research and policy change.

“Before the Transplant Act, there was no equitable access to kidney organs, and you needed to pay cash for heart and liver transplants. The economically disadvantaged and minorities had little access to that kind of care,” he says, remembering his more than 40 trips to Washington, DC, to meet with politicians and to provide Congressional testimonies. “It eliminated economic status and race as criteria for access to transplants.”

Dr. Salvatierra’s contributions have been internationally recognized by Knighthood from the Republic of Italy, the Presidential Medal from the Republic of Argentina and the Presidency of the International Transplantation Society.

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