Valerii Zaporozhan: “For me, a very important value – the reputation and heritage that I will leave behind”

The rector of ONMedU, academician Valerii Zaporozhan, honorary doctor of the world’s leading universities, winner of prestigious international and state awards, honorary citizen of Odessa, who could make a career in the US or Europe, but instead devoted his life to Odessa National Medical University and hometown. He graduated from the university half a century ago and chose it as his only job. Thus, Valerii Mykolaiovych became the rector of Odessa University and turned it into one of the most prestigious universities in the country. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of graduation from the then Odessa Institute, we talked to Valerii Zaporozhan about his student years, the path to medicine, professional challenges and the difficult choices that every scientist has to make.

Congratulations on the anniversary of graduation. Do you believe that 50 years have passed?

It’s hard to believe! I finished school in 1965, entered Odessa Medical Institute and from that moment I have been always within these walls. He graduated in 1971, exactly half a century ago. He became a candidate of science and went all the way – from student to rector of our university.

At what point did you decide to connect life with medicine? Were there doctors in your family?

I am from a Cossack family, where all the men were military. That’s why no one in the family dreamed of my becoming a doctor. Like all boys then, I wanted to become an astronaut, then a physicist. At school, I learned from the wonderful teachers I still remember. When I became interested in biology, genetics, biophysics, they guided me and helped me find answers to my questions. At one time, this hobby filled all my free time. Physics and biophysics led me to medicine. I wanted to know everything about the human body to be able to help others. When this realization came, I managed to submit documents at the last moment and in 1965 became a freshman of  Odessa Medical Institute named after Mykola Ivanovych Pirogov.

Did you choose this university because it is in your hometown?

Of course, this factor played a role, but it was not the only one. The university was already ranked and popular at that time, and the academicians and professors who taught there were well-known far beyond Odessa. So I did not have to choose for a long time. From the first days I knew for sure that I would do science. Philosophy was added to my favorite subjects – biology, biophysics, genetics. From the 3rd year I headed a student philosophical circle, then became interested in surgery, became the head of a surgical club and dreamed of a career as a neurosurgeon. However, genetics still prevailed. The brain is the most complex and interesting organ to study, but the sacrament of birth is quite different. Helping a new life appear in this world… I don’t know what these feelings can be compared to. So I finally realized that obstetrics and gynecology are my vocation.

What was your student life like? Share the brightest memories.

I was very active, as they say, always running in front of the locomotive. All programs, conferences, scientific events – I tried to be everywhere. Therefore, I did not have a student life in the modern sense as such. I am purposeful, even then I clearly knew what I wanted and why I was here. Therefore, I spent all his time studying, in the library or in the hospital. But I got the most pleasure from communicating with teachers, and among them there were many really outstanding people – surgeons, one of them was Academician Yasynovsky. That’s why I took a very active part in the work of student groups, because teachers came to the meeting, and it was possible not just to ask questions, but to discuss with them. It was the most satisfying. Well, then the first practice began: in the 4th year I was entrusted with a scalpel for the first time. I still feel excited when I think of that day.

How was it?

Like all medical students, I really wanted to be in the operating room, so I literally sat at night in a surgical clinic – to bring something, to help with a stretcher, to perform the smallest tasks. At that time we had an excellent vice-rector for educational work at the Department of Surgery – Boris Ivanovych Dmitriev. He was so tired with me during of his night shifts that once, when there was an emergency, many patients and he did not have enough hands, he invited me to be an assistant. Boris Ivanovych gave me tweezers and a scalpel, we started working. It is difficult to describe those feelings. First, a moment of sincere joy and emotional uplift. Secondly, a huge responsibility, because an experienced surgeon has trusted you, and you can’t let him down, you have no right to make a mistake.

Fifty years ago, could you have imagined that you would eventually lead your Alma Mater?

You know, then my biggest dream and ambition was the position of a doctor in the district clinic. When I was sent as a surgeon to Oleksandrivka, I was in seventh heaven. In parallel, I worked on my dissertation. I successfully defended it and received an invitation to the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology – there was a vacancy. I had no idea then that I would one day head the department, let alone the entire university.

From the first year until today, your life is connected with the University of Odessa. You do not regret that you did not try more, did not go abroad, for example?

My activity helped me to realize myself not only in science, practice and teaching. I am lucky to have friends all over the world. I received very attractive offers to work in other countries – in Europe, the United States. Of course, in those universities, your chances of making a bright career are doubled. But I really appreciate and attach great importance to my environment: my teachers, colleagues, students. I simply could not leave all the joint projects, leave my students who wrote dissertations and chose me as their supervisor. Our department is a family, you know. I feel and then I felt that I needed to be here, that I had to be close to the people I love and who love me. Another reason – Odessa. I could have become an astronaut or a physicist, become a doctor and a scientist, but I have always been, first of all, from Odessa. I love Odessa and these people too much to go.

How do you deal with burnout? Where do you get your energy and inspiration from?

I can answer you in Shakespeare’s words, he has a wonderful sentence. “I love people, I feel sorry for them. That’s why I chose this path. To know people and, in spite of this, contrary to fatal knowledge, to keep love for them is not only a pity. That’s happiness for me… “. My recipe is to do what you love.

What advice would you give to today’s students of ONMedU?

Now, looking back on my life, I have come to the conclusion that if you want to enjoy life, do what you can do better than others. And always do it with love. In addition to the knowledge and competencies that every specialist and especially a doctor needs, you need to have empathy, love people, give yourself. I call this state creative courage, then it goes, gives realization and pleasure. I would like to say to young people: life is very short, value your time and use it to the fullest – here and now.

At this stage, when so much has been lived and done, what do you think is most important?

There is a principle of samurai: it does not matter whether you managed to reach the goal or not, it is important how you went to it. A very important value for me is my reputation and my heritage. I do my best to leave behind a prosperous university, a powerful department, a prosperous Odessa, which I have served all my life, a generation of successful scientists and doctors whom I have taught and always supported.