Donald Liu

Life Guard

Late surgeon in chief, Comer Children’s Hospital

Last August, when Dr. Donald Liu drowned while trying to save two boys caught in a Lake Michigan rip current, it was a final example of his longtime dedication to helping children. “He took care of kids no matter what,” says Jeffrey Matthews, chair of the surgery department at the University of Chicago Medicine. “The fact that he rushed into the lake to try and help those two boys was perfectly in character.”

Of course, Dr. Liu’s life was so much more than that last selfless act. Just as those two boys made it safely to shore, so too did the hundreds of children who sought his care go on to live happy and healthy lives. The renowned surgeon in chief at Comer Children’s Hospital at the University of Chicago, Liu was born in New York City in 1962. The son of doctors—his father was a cardiac surgeon; his mother, a cardiology internist—he spent part of his childhood in Taiwan, where his parents moved to practice medicine and start their own hospital. Back in the United States, he studied medicine at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. He did his internship and residency at the Children’s Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, working with some of the giants of pediatric surgery. After stints in Ann Arbor and New Orleans, he came to Chicago in 2000 as plans were underway to build Comer hospital in Hyde Park.

Twelve years later, that South Side medical institution has grown into one of the best children’s hospitals in the country. “We have become a nationally prominent destination center,” Liu told Chicago last year after it had chosen him as one of the city’s Top Doctors. “Those children without hope and with diseases that can’t be taken care of at other places—they come here.”

One reason for the hospital’s success was Dr. Liu. He excelled at minimally invasive procedures, made valuable advances as a researcher, and, as a valued teacher, instructed the next generation of doctors. “I was in awe of this intense commitment he had,” recalls Matthews. “He was a really gifted surgeon and in demand here and at other hospitals. But he was never too rushed to sit at the bedside and develop relationships with his young patients—or to get to his own kids’ games and events.” In fact, as Liu told Chicago last year, it was after becoming a father to his three children—Genevieve, Asher, and Amelie—that he came to “better understand” his role as a physician. “Don was there to help, unconditionally, every day,” says his wife, Dr. Dana Suskind, who is also a surgeon at Comer.

These accumulated facts put Dr. Liu’s last heroic act into a proper context. “That horrible event is an illustration of the entirety of his life,” says his wife. “He was so many children’s lifesaver while he was alive. He would always do the right thing for someone else, no matter how hard it was to do.”



Photograph: Anna Knott