April 1, 2017

Dr. Jeffrey Veale | From Calgary to the red carpet in California

Inspired by children’s smiles, Jeffrey Veale applied for medical school to become the next Patch Adams, a physician, social activist and clown whose life’s work is memorialized in a Hollywood movie.

Inspired by children’s smiles, Jeffrey Veale applied for medical school to become the next Patch Adams, a physician, social activist and clown whose life’s work is memorialized in a Hollywood movie. At the time, Veale was completing his undergrad in zoology and had a successful side business as a professional clown, appearing at Stampede BBQ’s and Christmas parties. But his favorite appearances were as a volunteer at the Children’s Hospital.

“Kids would roll up in their wheelchairs and I would do magic tricks and make them happy – I fell in love with the idea of helping kids,” says Veale.

During rotations, Veale’s interest was piqued when he saw the impact surgery had on two patients, one with kidney stones, and one who required a transplant.

“Seeing the patients before and after surgery was incredible. One young jogger was in so much pain due to the stones he was having difficulty even sitting up, but after surgery, he was ready for a run,” remembers Veale. “The kidney transplant patient who had been on dialysis received a new lease on life.”

The surgeon’s skill was also inspiring.

“Wonderful urologist Dr. John (Jack) Williams, he was just terrific. He always seemed so happy and content, and he helped people, at home in Calgary and in Africa. I realized I wanted to be like him.”

The path to becoming a kidney transplant surgeon took Veale to Winnipeg for a residency in urology then onto to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) for a fellowship. UCLA hired Veale in 2006 where he champions new ways to match kidney donors to recipients. He became the first surgeon to ship a live donor kidney via a commercial airline and courier for transplant.

“Prior to that, a live kidney had been shipped for transplant, but it required a private plane. The surgeon flew with the organ and the whole thing cost about $35,000. We discovered a way to do it for $550. There’s now been over 2,000 live kidneys shipped for transplant,” says Veale.

Veale is best known for being an advocate of live kidney donor chains. He pioneered the Kidney Transplant Exchange Program at UCLA. The program matches willing donors with people in need of a kidney. Often when someone requires a transplant a family member wants to help, but isn’t a match. The chain allows the family member to donate their organ to a complete stranger and in turn, the kidney recipient’s family member donates a kidney, and on it goes.

“Now, we’re expanding the idea of the kidney chain to encompass the future. We’re now handing out kidney vouchers that be redeemed five or 10 years from now,” says Veale. “Donors and recipients are sometimes incompatible based on time. Issuing a voucher is going to be a game-changer. You’re going to be creating donors that otherwise would have been lost.”

Although his home is in California, Veale says his thoughts are never far from Calgary and he still “clowns around” now and then.

“Recently I was at our neighbour’s house and they didn’t believe I used to be a professional clown, so I found some balloons and twisted up a poodle and motorcycle for them,” Veale recounts with a smile. 

Dr. Jeffrey Veale, BSc’97, MD’00, associate professor of surgery at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, a transplant surgeon at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and director of the UCLA Kidney Transplant Exchange Program.

Favourite memory of UCalgary:  There are so many.  Playing hockey for the Dinos was a highlight and shooting the puck with Dr. Alan Jones, who was the associate dean of the medical school.  We were practicing for the Ice Bowl and Jones would come out and play with us. He was highly respected in the medial school, but he was so approachable.

Advice for Med Students: Work hard, and really play hard. Those three years go by so quickly. During clerkship – read up on your patients, get to know your patients, stay up late, see what’s going on all over the hospital; go to emergency, go to the operating room. Who cares if you’re not sleeping, dive in to the experience.

Advice for the Cumming School of Medicine for the next 50 years: I wouldn’t change a thing. Keep the hands on approach for students allowing them to practice interviewing patients and patient exams. Keep exposing students to new ideas and career opportunities. When I was there, some of the faculty would just come in and do one or two lectures, we were exposed to all kinds of specialties. That’s so important.