February 2, 2021 by
Chris Rokkas, M.D., Ph.D., (left), and Frank Ittleman, M.D.
When Chris Rokkas, M.D., Ph.D., was in grade school, a special visitor came to his village in the mountains of southern Greece: the pioneering South African heart surgeon Christiaan Barnard, M.B.B.S. Barnard, who had performed the world’s first human-to-human heart transplant, was there to visit Rokkas’s cousin, a fellow heart surgeon whom he had helped train. As his cousin explained to him how surgery would change the way the world treated heart disease, the young Rokkas became captivated and decided that he, too, would one day become a heart surgeon.
Fast forward to today, and Rokkas—now an international expert in adult aortic surgery—has been invested as the inaugural Frank P. Ittleman Chair in Cardiothoracic Surgery at the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine. The investiture ceremony was held remotely on February 2, 2021 in front of guests watching from across the United States and around the world. A recording of the event is available on the Larner College of Medicine Youtube Channel.
The Ittleman Chair was established through the generous support of a large community of donors, all giving in recognition of Ittleman’s long history of outstanding surgical care and medical teaching as a cardiothoracic surgeon and UVM professor of surgery. “Dr. Frank Ittleman is one of those people whose healing touch has been felt by patients from all walks of life across the decades of his practice here in Vermont, and who has supported a long line of colleagues throughout his career,” said Richard L. Page, M.D., dean of the Larner College of Medicine, during the ceremony. “Those grateful patients and friends have joined together to institute this enduring symbol of their regard for Dr. Ittleman. To all of them, we offer our sincere thanks.”
During the investiture, Dean Page, UVM President Suresh Garimella, and Mitchell Norotsky, M.D., chair of the Department of Surgery and holder of the Stanley S. Fieber, M.D.’48 Chair in Surgery, all praised Rokkas for being an outstanding surgeon, impactful researcher, and dedicated teacher. He was also celebrated for his deep commitment to providing thoughtful and ethical care to his patients.
Recruiting a surgeon with these qualities to the Ittleman Chair was an intentional and purposeful decision because these are the very qualities that have endeared Ittleman to so many patients, families, students, and colleagues. Dean Page reinforced this point, saying “We have been fortunate that, in Dr. Chris Rokkas, the inaugural holder of the Ittleman Chair, we have a faculty member and physician whose humanity and skill is right in line with that of Dr. Ittleman.” (Read more about Dr. Ittleman in a 2013 profile in Vermont Medicine magazine.)
“I never forget that the reason why we’re here, ultimately, is the patient—a great surgeon is made by the patients,” said Rokkas. “Patients realize that when a person has a good surgeon, it’s not just about the outcomes, it’s also the way they treat the patients: the humanity and understanding. You need to be honest with the patient, you need to be compassionate, and you need to be understanding with the patient and the family. I think these are the most important things.”
Rokkas joined the University of Vermont faculty in the summer of 2020. He received his medical education at the National University of Athens, Greece and the University of Illinois in Chicago. He relocated to the United States for extensive post-graduate surgical training at the University of Illinois, Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., S.U.N.Y. Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, N.Y., and the Medical College of Wisconsin. To complete his training, Rokkas entered a clinical fellowship in aortic surgery under renowned surgeon Dr. Nicholas Kouchoukos in St. Louis. Rokkas practiced as a member of the medical faculty at the National University of Athens for several years before accepting a position at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, where he worked until coming to Burlington. Rokkas serves as chief of the Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery in the Department of Surgery and a surgeon in the Cardiothoracic Surgery Program at the University of Vermont Medical Center.
In addition to his medical degree, Rokkas holds a research doctorate in medicine from the National University of Athens. His work spans both basic science and translational research and has led to more than 70 peer-reviewed books, articles, chapters, and papers in the field of adult cardiothoracic surgery. As an international leader in adult cardiac and aortic surgery, he offers professional guidance to surgeons across the United States and around the world through workshops and presentations.
Rokkas is also deeply committed to “passing what we know to newer generations,” he says. When asked about his teaching philosophy, Rokkas turns to the ancient Athenian philosopher Socrates, who engaged in dialogue with his students rather than lecturing to them. “The Socratic methodology is a great approach because you never belittle your students, you never make them feel bad about not knowing something—so you actually get the best out of them. You guide them in the right direction, to do the right thing, and say the right thing that they already know, and then build on that.”
Reflecting on what it means to be invested as the Ittleman Chair, Rokkas thinks about the many donors and how they wished to continue—and build on—the contributions that Ittleman has made. “I’m really grateful to them for their generosity, and for giving back to the community,” says Rokkas. “These are people who act without any selfishness whatsoever—they have the good of the community in mind. I thank them for their tremendous generosity to establish this chair that will be of service for generations, and I hope to make them proud of their donations.”
Fundraising for the Larner College of Medicine is a major focus for the University of Vermont Foundation, a nonprofit corporation established to secure and manage private support for the benefit of the University of Vermont. Today, the University boasts over 120 endowed chairs and professorships—over half of which are associated with the Larner College of Medicine. Find more information about the impact of donors and the work of the UVM Foundation.