For 33 years, Dr. Joseph Lawen has worked as a Urologist at the QEII Health Science Centre where he has made immeasurable contributions to kidney transplantation. His impact has been most felt by his patients, their families, and communities across Atlantic Canada. But his work has inspired colleagues, leaders, and peers in the field.
This June, after a tremendous three decades of service, Dr. Lawen will begin his well-earned retirement from medical practice.
Dr. Lawen has performed more than 2000 kidney transplants and 500 living donor transplants in patients of all ages and demographics from across Atlantic Canada.
“Dr. Lawen has impacted the lives of thousands of people,” said Dr. Greg Bailly, chief of Urology for the Central Zone at Nova Scotia Health. “No transplant surgeon at the QEII, since the start of the transplant program, has done more kidney transplants than Dr. Lawen. He is a valued member of the Department of Urology where he has provided excellent clinical care, research, education and mentorship to hundreds of students and trainees. He is leaving some very large shoes to fill!” said Dr. Bailly.
After immigrating from Lebanon with his parents when he was just five years old, Dr. Lawen grew up in Halifax. He attended the St. Patrick's Boys High School in Halifax before completing medical school at Dalhousie University in 1978. Dr. Lawen then completed residency training with the Department of Urology at what is now Nova Scotia Health. He also completed a fellowship in Houston, Texas before returning to the QEII Health Science Centre in 1989.
“Joe and I went to medical school together, worked together through our careers, and were even neighbours for a while. He is always measured, a superb surgeon and a wonderful human,” said Dr. Mike Murphy, senior medical director of the Multi-Organ Transplant Program and longtime colleague.
Originally scheduled to retire in 2019, Dr. Lawen stayed on a little longer to mentor his successor, Dr. Tom Skinner. Dr. Lawen felt it an honour and his duty to make this contribution to the program and his valued patients. Over the past three years, Dr. Lawen and Dr. Skinner have worked in collaboration. Dr. Lawen is confident that the future of the kidney transplant program is in capable hands.
“Dr. Lawen is an inspiration to me and many who work with him. When I think about the fact that he's been performing surgeries for as long as I've been alive, it's hard to imagine the experience he's developed and the lives he's changed over that time,” said Dr. Tom Skinner, current surgical director of the Kidney Transplant Program.
“Dr. Lawen was a pioneer in many aspects of transplantation. What was an experimental procedure at the outset of his career is now a highly complex discipline with little margin for error,” said Dr. Skinner.
Dr. Skinner noted that at a time when many of his colleagues may have sought opportunities to lighten their workload or minimize on-call activities, Dr. Lawen took on a major leadership role as the surgical director of the transplant program and always made himself available to help his colleagues.
“I will always remember a Friday night when he cancelled plans to stay and assist me in a challenging surgery. His tirelessness and willingness to help those around him will define his career,” said Dr. Skinner.
“My favorite memories of him were during transplants together at all hours of the night,” said Janet Bate, a now semi-retired charge nurse who worked alongside Dr. Lawen for the bulk of his career. “I will always remember the many laughs and silliness over the many years,” said Bate.
Despite Dr. Lawen’s extensive expertise and the hundreds of surgeries performed, Dr. Lawen says the stakes are high in kidney transplantation as it is a complex surgical procedure.
“Surgeries are not always perfect, and kidneys don’t always work right away. We always aim for the best possible outcome, and I never take a successful surgery for granted,” Dr. Lawen said.
Kidney transplant surgery requires the work of a large multidisciplinary team and collaboration for success. With the QEII serving kidney transplant patients from across Atlantic Canada, there are many people involved in a patient’s journey to transplant surgery.
“It always amazes me how many people in different roles are working on one kidney transplant. When we put a kidney in a patient’s body, we see it turn pink, and it starts producing urine, probably 50 people have been involved, including donor retrieving surgeons, nurses, donor and recipient coordinators, tissue typists, pathologists, lab technicians, nurses, and the list goes on,” said Dr. Lawen. “I feel guilty that I get to see the grand finale when a kidney starts working. I always remember the whole team of people that contributed to that surgery,” he explained.
Surgeries like Harry Thompson’s kidney transplant.
Thompson, a now-retired lawyer from Halifax, received a kidney from his oldest son in November 2012 after living with kidney disease since 2001. Dr. Lawen completed both surgeries, removing the transplant and implanting it.
“I am going to miss my twice-yearly checkups with Dr. Lawen,” said Thompson. “When you spend an extended period with someone, they become more than just a medical professional – more like a friend. We’ve had great conversations and I always felt like I was in good hands.”
In November, it will be ten years since Harry’s kidney transplant. Harry defines his journey as a success story, which he attributes to good personal health habits and the health care he received.
“With any kidney illness, it significantly impacts your life. You don’t have the energy to do very much, and you live a very simplified life. Many things are restricted, including travel, diet, and your ability to exercise is limited. Everything changed after the surgery and Dr. Lawen was there all the way along,” said Thompson.
“Dr. Lawen is very patient-centered. He doesn’t treat you like a statistic; he treats you like a person,” said Thompson. “He loves medicine and what he does. I will miss him, but I wish him a happy and fulfilled retirement!”
Dr. Lawen is also a full professor in the Faculty of Medicine at Dalhousie University and has trained over 50 fellows, hundreds of residents, and many more medical students. Working collaboratively with urology and general surgery colleagues, Dalhousie’s Kidney Transplant Program is one of the most highly recognized programs in North America.
While transplantation was his academic focus, he also had a burgeoning urology practice focused on kidney prostate and kidney stone diseases where he worked alongside Dr. David Bell.
“He is a great urologist and widely known to be an excellent teacher who will continue to impact patient care in his many students who are now practicing and advancing the field,” said Dr. Bell.
In his retirement, Dr. Lawen says he will catch up on long-neglected yard work and joked that his wife is particularly looking forward to having more help around the house. Dr. Lawen plans to spend time with his family and friends, including his four adult children. His oldest son, Dr. Tarek Lawen, has followed in his footsteps and currently a third-year resident in urology at Dalhousie University.
Congratulations, Dr. Lawen!