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Dr. Tomoaki Kato
Professor and Chief, Division of Abdominal Organ Transplantation, NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia
Surgical Director, Liver and Gastrointestinal Transplantation, Columbia University

"Trust your inner voice and intuition; your life is what you make of it, and nothing less"

Dr. Tomoaki Kato is a world-leading surgeon in abdominal organ transplantation. He completed his medical degree at Osaka University’s Faculty of Medicine in 1991, and went to the United States in 1995 to conduct an advanced fellowship in the Department of Transplantation at the University of Miami with the hope of doing something he could not accomplish in Japan at that time. He was subsequently appointed to the surgical faculty there in 1997 and was promoted to full professor in 2007. Since 2008, he has led abdominal organ transplantation as a professor of surgery at the Columbia University's NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.

 

A Matter of Perspective: Inspiration to take his talents worldwide

While studying at The University of Tokyo’s Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Dr. Kato decided to study medicine, which led him to transfer to the Faculty of Medicine at Osaka University. As someone who had spent his entire life in Tokyo, the centre of Japan, he was not fully confident in moving to Osaka. However, one of his seniors at Osaka University dispelled his concerns by mentioning that the distance between Tokyo and Osaka within Japan is miniscule compared to that of the United States. This inspired him to consider matters on a global scale and prompted him to go to the US during his lifetime. Though he was not aware of it at the time, this was the first step on his path to unprecedented achievements as a world-class organ surgeon.

 

Trust your inner voice and act on your intuition

After parting with his parents in Tokyo, Dr. Kato started his new life in Osaka standing on his own two feet. Because this decision was guided by his tuition, something in which Dr. Kato places unwavering faith, he had the utmost confidence in his ability to manage himself on his journey away from home. 
In the hope of spending some time in the United States as a clinical doctor, he decided to forgo a four-year graduate study, as he had aspired to learn and practice surgical techniques as soon as possible in order to become a surgeon. He attempted a US national medical licensing examination during his first year of clinical residency, and, without any prior preparation, passed the first of three steps, which gave him the confidence he needed to eventually achieve this goal.      

 

Foundation for Success: Building trusting relationships with colleagues

Dr. Kato went on to work as a postgraduate year (PGY) resident at the University of Miami in 1995. Initially, he faced language barriers, but he made every effort to catch up with his colleagues in the hospital by learning surgical techniques through observing operations, seeing patients whenever he needed to instruct the members of his team, and handling tasks that others were reluctant to do. He believed that detailed work and attentiveness, virtues of the Japanese people, would prove invaluable in other societies. These virtues were taught to him by his seniors; thus, whenever he needs alternative views and opinions, he seeks the advice of more experienced individuals. 
By accumulating experience and earning the trust of his colleagues, he began leading surgical operations, and after completing his two-year residential training, he was more eager than ever to be active in global society. Dr. Kato especially appreciated the sense of fairness in American society with regards to equal treatment of individuals regardless of their background.

 

Value of diversity in society

Because Dr. Kato works as a surgeon in the US, he sees all sorts of diseases that are not common in Japan. The US is a diverse country in terms of race, culture, habits, dietary patterns, and body shape; thus, medical treatment should be ready for a variety of diseases and disorders. On the other hand, Japan is a rather homogenous country, one in which improving the quality of medical treatment for specific kinds of diseases and disorders is required, which can sometimes prove disadvantageous when competing in the global market. Moreover, Dr. Kato feels that the value of experiencing other societies in the world is now diminishing in Japan. The homogeneity that Japan maintains is unusual on other continents and occasionally narrows one’s views. Being able to find new values or recognise values that go beyond borders is often only possible once you get a good look at your own country from the other side of the world. In particular, Dr. Kato believes that the latter will lead to mutual understanding regardless of background.

 

A pioneer in medicine gets a first-hand experience with COVID-19, but as a patient 

This spring, Dr. Kato was infected with COVID-19, and at one point, the condition was so serious he needed ECMO to survive. Thanks to devoted care and treatment by all his colleagues in the hospital and encouragement from colleagues and friends from around the world, he hung on and is now recovered from the virus. This experience has allowed him to more fully understand and appreciate the role and function of the hospital in society as well as the situations of its patients. Having nearly faced death, he has decided to complete his life’s missions as a leader in his field. One of these missions is to establish globalised medical treatment and services to connect countries, thereby contributing to welfare of all the people, while a second is to make his unique surgical techniques available to other surgeons around the world so that more lives can be saved. The third of his life’s missions is to improve multivisceral transplantation, the development of which has seen Dr. Kato work closely with researchers in immunology. Though this technique is now undergoing clinical trials, it may be some time before concrete results are achieved. Even so, his will pushes him ever forward for those in need of such operations. This gifted medical pioneer will continue to follow his inner voice until his missions have been completed.

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