Love What You Do
Dr. Zaas, CEO of the Medical University of South Carolina, leads with passion
By Tommy Santora
Photo by Sarah Pack, Brennan Wesley
David Zaas wakes up at 5 a.m. every morning to fit in a run, or a workout in the gym. By 6:30 a.m., he has checked into the office.
“Hospitals love to start early,” says the CEO for the Medical University of South Carolina Charleston Division, and the Chief Clinical Officer for MUSC Health. “When the day is said and done, I may put in 12-14 hours, but when you love what you do, and surround yourself with a passionate team that takes care of people, nothing can replace that feeling.”
Zaas began the dual leadership role at MUSC in June 2020. In addition, he is an associate professor at the MUSC College of Medicine with a clinical practice in pulmonary medicine and lung transplantation.
Over 20 years of a health care career, Zaas has held roles of health system administrator, physician, clinician, researcher, and scientist. But, in February 2017, it was his role as a patient and eventual leukemia survivor that changed his life and enhanced his commitment and dedication to helping others.
While serving as President of Duke Raleigh Hospital, Zaas noticed he developed a rash, was short of breath, had difficulty exercising and his gums were sore. He convinced a colleague to run lab work. Days later, Zaas surveyed his own labs, and said, “I have leukemia.” Zaas was right.
On Valentine’s Day, a doctor officially diagnosed Zaas with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), a cancer of the blood and bone marrow.
“I don’t think I realized in 20 years of being a physician how lonely nights are in the hospital – a time when your mind races and thinks about things you don’t want to think about,” Zaas said. “But all I kept thinking about was being with my wife (Aimee Zaas, MD), and watching my boys (Jacob and Jonah) grow up. I needed to have the mindset that I was going to survive. I was going to win, and I was doing everything I could to find the best treatments available.”
Hanging in the back of his mind a 20 percent chance of survival tagged to AML, Zaas took a leave of absence to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, to participate in a clinical trial.
Because of his genetic mutation, Zaas was enrolled in a cutting-edge clinical trial utilizing personalized gene therapy that required a bone marrow transplant. Fittingly, Zaas’ match was his own son, Jacob, then 13 years old.
The transplant was a success, and Zaas emerged cancer free, celebrating his four-year anniversary on Feb. 14, 2021. In 2019, Jacob was named Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS) “Student of the Year” for his fundraising success in the Triangle area in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Jacob, 17, and Jonah, 15, are healthy, attending Middlesex School in Concord, Mass., and playing soccer, with aspirations to continue playing in college.
“Even when Jake gets in trouble, he reminds me, ‘Dad, remember that time I saved your life,’ Zaas said. “Leukemia has given me and our family a gift. I am thankful that I am not only alive, but I am thriving.”
Today, Zaas said he is in the best shape of his life – hence the personal, 5 a.m. wake up call to start every day.
“I continue to be motivated by the energy and passion of the team around me,” said Zaas. “We are all committed to providing the highest quality care to our South Carolina community, educating our future health care leaders and advancing research and innovation to improve health. The culture of our people drew me to MUSC; I knew right away this was the place for me to lead and make a difference.”
Zaas’ first seven months on the job centered on the challenge of operating a clinical health system through the COVID-19 pandemic. “We have been able to provide the highest quality care for our patients in this new COVID world. I have been most impressed by our ability to be nimble,” Zaas said.
At the end of 2020, MUSC Health launched a wide-scale vaccination program against the virus and gained a new tool to treat COVID-19, treating eligible patients with a monoclonal antibody infusion.
“We were on the frontlines of vaccinations starting in December; vaccinated more than 75,000 people, testing our vulnerable populations across the state, and caring for highest acuity COVID patients in South Carolina,” Zaas said. “We still continued to grow and advance our mission as a leading academic health system, accelerating research discoveries, and making advances in the care of our patients with cancer, heart disease, and stroke programs.”
MUSC Health owns and operates eight hospitals situated in Charleston, Chester, Florence, Lancaster and Marion counties, with more than 1,600 beds, 100 outreach sites, and 325 telehealth locations. The 17,000 MUSC care team members include world-class faculty, physicians, specialty providers and scientists who deliver groundbreaking education, research, technology and patient care.
Zaas said one of his missions is to continue to expand the MUSC network to work with more outreach sites, telehealth locations, and thereby further impact diverse populations across the state by providing the highest quality care closer to home.
“Giving patients options, choices, and access to clinical research, is part of our mission at MUSC and part of our mission as a leading academic medical center,” Zaas said.
In January 2021, MUSC began a community outreach campaign to spread the word further about available clinical trials. As a physician-scientist and clinical trial patient, Zaas knows how access to and awareness of clinical trials is important.
“We need to create more visibility for clinical research for those patients who want to pursue it, whether they want to pursue it because they believe that it will benefit others, or if they’re like me, and they really want to do whatever they can and are willing to take that chance,” Zaas said.
Decades of Experience
Zaas was the President of Duke Raleigh Hospital from 2014-2020. He was at Duke a total of 19 years, previously serving as the chief medical officer for the Duke Faculty Practice, Private Diagnostic Clinic. He also served as the vice chair for clinical practice in the Department of Medicine at Duke University, and as medical director for lung transplantation.
“I have many friends and mentors at Duke, and credit a lot of my leadership experience from the ability to work with high-performing teams at the university,” Zaas said.
Zaas, a graduate of Yale University in 1994, completed his medical degree at Northwestern University in 1998, and subsequently did his internship and residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Zaas said his love for medicine and aspirations to be a doctor began in high school when he did a research internship at the Cleveland Clinic. He was fascinated by science and innovation, and the value of working on a team to advance that research, he said.
Zaas originally thought his career path would be a traditional physician-scientist, but after he completed his training, he started his career as transplant pulmonologist and a scientist interested in studying the molecular basis of infectious complications in transplant patients.
Zaas met his wife, Aimee, of 24 years, at Northwestern. They dated through medical school, married before graduation, and were matched for residency at Johns Hopkins, with fellowships at Duke.
Outside of his work, Zaas is looking forward to the post-COVID world of returning to travel to his sons’ soccer games, travel internationally to watch professional soccer matches, hike through New Zealand and venture to wineries across the globe.
“This whole journey for our family has really helped us to say, ‘you know, we are really fortunate and blessed,’” Zaas said. “The whole experience in 2017 has made me become a better father, better husband, better physician, better leader, and add more value to our community.”