Dr. Olga Jonasson is cruising along Chicago’s Outer Drive in her orange Saab when a motorcyclist whizzes past. He is not wearing a helmet. She guns her engine, races alongside the rider, rolls down her window and nonchalantly hands him a kidney-donor card. It is her way of reminding young bikers that kidneys are often obtained for transplant from traffic-accident victims.
Her concern may be a bit paradoxical, since she is a surgeon who specializes in kidney transplants. But the approach is classical Jonasson. “She is persistent,” says William Silverman, director of Chicago’s Cook County Hospital. “She compounds her persistence with logic, which makes it hard to turn her down. She is extremely outspoken—and as direct as a poke in the eye with a stick.”
Silverman should know. Jonasson, 43, a University of Illinois medical professor, has recently been appointed head of surgery at Cook County, making her the first woman to chair the surgical department of a major U.S. medical center. Among academic surgeons—whose work involves research and teaching as well as operating—Jonasson, says Frank Stuart, a surgery professor at the University of Chicago, is “unquestionably the preeminent woman in the United States today.”
At Cook County Jonasson presides over 75 full-time surgeons, 77 voluntary attending surgeons, 110 residents and 22 operating rooms. Fortunately, she says, “I quite frankly enjoy making decisions.” She was chosen for the $74,000-a-year post after a nationwide talent search. At the same time, the prestigious Society of Clinical Surgery, after two years of deliberation, finally changed its sexist bylaws to induct Jonasson as its first woman. (Only about 3 percent of the nation’s surgeons are female.)
The daughter of a Lutheran minister and a nurse, Jonasson was born in Peoria, took premed at Northwestern and her M.D. at the University of Illinois. She has been chief of transplant surgery at the U. of Illinois Hospital since 1968, when she performed that institution’s first kidney transplant. Now she does 40 a year as part of her 15-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week regimen.
That includes her teaching load at Illinois’ medical school. “It is very intellectually stimulating to work with students,” she says. “It is a ‘plus’ for them when they pull out something I don’t know.” Her own research these days is directed toward methods of transplanting insulin-producing cells of the pancreas.
Her schedule as well as her nature impels the slim, 6’2″ Jonasson to literally run through her rounds, but she has stayed close to the wards. Although Cook County is the hospital of Chicago’s indigent, Jonasson invariably refers to patients as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” The respect is reciprocated. “Her patients,” says an associate, “are extremely devoted to Dr. Jonasson.”
Although medicine was her childhood ambition, Jonasson admits to regrets at never having married. But, she adds, her profession is “very fulfilling.” There are other payoffs. At last year’s Christmas party for the university hospital kidney patients, Jonasson received two presents. One was a picture frame filled with snapshots of former transplant patients. The other was that all of those recipients were still alive and most were able to attend in person.