Jewish surgeon drowns while saving boys in Lake Michigan

Dr. Donald Liu did not hesitate when he saw the two boys struggling to swim in the rough Lake Michigan waters.

Despite objections from his children, who were worried about the dangerous conditions, Liu raced down the beach in Berrien County, Mich., and plunged into the lake to help the boys, who had fallen out of a kayak, according to Liu's wife and authorities.

An elite pediatric surgeon from Chicago, Liu made it to the swimmers, said his wife, Dr. Dana Suskind. But the rip current surging below the 5-foot waves dragged the doctor underwater, said  Bruce McKamey, a police officer for Chikaming Township.

Emergency responders, who arrived about 10:40 a.m. local time Sunday, pulled Liu, 50, from the water and Suskind, who is also a surgeon, frantically performed CPR on her husband of more than 17 years. The boys he swam to save, who were friends of the family, made it safely back to land. But Liu was pronounced dead shortly after.

"It was horrible," Suskind said Monday. "He had the biggest heart. He was a brilliant surgeon … but what was amazing about him was that he was the best father, that was his priority in life, and he loved me with all of his heart."

Liu and Suskind met at the University of Pennsylvania when Liu was a third-year surgery resident and Suskind was an intern. The bond was almost immediate. After the second date, Liu told Suskind that he loved her. Within three months they were engaged to be married.

"I mean, he was so good," Suskind said, referring to his expertise as a surgeon. "There was something beautiful. There was an economy of his (surgical) strokes. He was so quick and so great. It was crazy how good he was."

That skill, especially his exquisite minimally invasive surgical technique, brought Liu to University of Chicago Medicine as a pediatric surgeon in 2001, according to Dr. John Alverdy, executive vice chairman of the department of surgery at the university. Liu's widow is also a professor of surgery and pediatrics at the university and the director of the Pediatric Cochlear Implantation Program.

In 2007, Liu was named section chief of pediatric surgery and surgeon-in-chief at Comer Children's Hospital, Alverdy said. He had recently been awarded a "distinguished clinician" award at the hospital.

"He was a tireless, selfless physician," said Alverdy, noting that Liu had just won a prized National Institutes of Health grant worth more than $1 million. "He'd wake up at 2 a.m. to save a child from a gunshot wound, sleep for two hours and then be back here at 6 a.m. to do rounds and elective surgeries."

Liu was described by colleagues Monday as a dedicated world-class surgeon who was able to think quickly and execute many surgeries in a noninvasive way. He also could put sick children at ease, chatting with them about video games and sports, two of his obsessions.

"It lightened the atmosphere in the room and they were more open to you and all of a sudden you could see their faces light up," said Christopher Speaker, who is a nurse practitioner and worked with Liu for about the past decade.

At the same time, Suskind said that she and Liu, who converted to Judaism, were also able to center their lives on their three children, Genevieve, 13; Asher, 10; and Amelie, 7.

Although that sometimes meant rushing home for dinner between surgeries or scheduling surgeries early in the morning so he could make an evening baseball game, Suskind said Liu put family first.

Over the last year, Suskind and Liu had traveled to Florence, Italy, to celebrate his 50th birthday, and last month the entire family visited Shanghai for Genevieve's bat mitzvah.

Genevieve on Monday also recalled Liu's devotion as a father, remembering one summer a couple of years ago when she went away to camp and decided that she didn't want to stay. Liu immediately drove the nine hours to the camp.

"I remember seeing him in the cafeteria and he said, 'You know Genevieve, you don't have to go, I just came to check on you,'" his daughter said. Later "on my bat mitzvah, the first thing he said was that I taught him to love when I was born, but I think he taught me how to love."

Funeral services are being planned for noon Wednesday at KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation, 1100 E. Hyde Park Blvd., Chicago. Liu will be buried wearing University of Chicago Medicine surgical scrubs and holding a White Sox baseball, a video game and his children's pictures.


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