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Documentary on Thomas Starzl Honored by Organ Donation Organization

Burden of Genius,” a documentary that tells the story of Pittsburgh transplant pioneer and surgeon Thomas Starzl, will be honored among the likes of “Grace and Frankie” tonight.

The Donate Life Hollywood Inspire Award will be presented to eight productions and their writers for their excellence over the past year in storytelling that shed a positive light on organ donation. Other recipients include NBC's “New Amsterdam,” Showtime’s “Kidding” and Nova’s "Transplanting Hope."

The virtual ceremony, which honors motion pictures, television shows and documentaries, will stream live Oct. 8 at 7 p.m. ET on Facebook at DLHCampaign and on YouTube at OneLegacyInspires.

The Starzl documentary, co-produced by Carl Kurlander, a senior lecturer in Pitt’s Film and Media Studies Program, details the surgeon’s 60-year career, including the world’s first successful liver transplant in 1967 at the University of Colorado University Hospital. Starzl joined the Pitt School of Medicine in 1981 as professor of surgery and led a team of surgeons who performed 30 liver transplants that year, launching the first liver transplant program in the country. Starzl's achievements in both surgery and research have been widely credited as transforming modern medicine.

"It is exciting that ‘Burden of Genius’ is being honored among such esteemed films and TV programs,” said Kurlander, adding that when he first approached Starzl about making a movie of his life, he was reluctant, feeling it was too complicated to capture accurately on screen. But Starzl eventually agreed when Kurlander promised his story would be used to inspire future generations and let others know the determination and perseverance needed to change medicine and the world.

“That makes ‘Burden’ winning the Inspire Award even more gratifying,” said the filmmaker. “With the help of groups like Donate Life Hollywood, not only will Dr. Starzl's story encourage future medical pioneers, but it will also remind people of the importance of organ donation and the miracle of organ transplantation—work which would not be possible without Dr. Starzl's contributions."   

“Burden of Genius” had its origins right in Kurlander’s classroom. In 2014, he taught a course called “Making the Documentary: Tom Starzl, Transplant Pioneer.” His students were able to pore over the massive Starzl archives the surgeon had donated to Pitt. Photos, news clippings and video were chosen by the students to provide the basis for the film.

In the summer of 2018, about 700 people viewed the documentary at a private on-campus screening. Its official public premiere was in April 2019 at the Carnegie Science Center with a week of sold out screenings. The film has won two Best Documentary prizes at festivals and has screened at leading universities, medical centers and health conferences around the world. "Burden" will air on the PBS Network in 2021. It was co-produced by Laura Davis and directed by Tjardus Greidanus. 

DLH founder Tenaya Wallace said films like “Burden” and the entertainment industry in general have a huge impact on the public’s perception of organ donation.

“Unlike most other subjects that are dramatized in Hollywood, the majority of the public has never actually experienced donation and thus are highly influenced, positively or negatively, by the fictional account of a very real and serious topic,” said Wallace. “When Hollywood gets it wrong, it can cost lives. But when they get it right—as these eight productions have—Hollywood has the power to literally save and change lives.”

DLH is an initiative of OneLegacy, a nonprofit organ procurement organization serving Southern California.