Kim Olthoff was always drawn to medicine, but her first dream was to become a large animal veterinarian—horses, cows and the like. She enrolled at Calvin to pursue that goal.
But the unwelcome arrival of cancer in her family during her sophomore year changed her course to human medicine and she switched to pre-med.
“Kim was a special student,” said now-retired Calvin professor of biology Pete Tigchelaar. “There was a certain sense of confidence evident. She had most of the answers.”
Olthoff responded by returning the compliment: “When someone like Pete influences you, that sends you in the right direction,” she said. “You dream of being a doctor, and you need someone to make you believe you can do it.”
At Calvin, OIthoff also joined the Thespians and the swim team and counts those experiences as important life-shaping involvements.
Another mentor in her vocational journey was Olthoff’s mother, Kathy, who taught her a skill all surgeons need to do well.
“My mother cultivated my success as a surgeon by teaching me how to sew my own clothes,” she said. “Now I tell people I teach that women are typically better at stitches because many of them learned how to sew growing up.”
She also learned early on that medicine is really about the people you serve and the lives you want to save and enrich.
“Callings are not our jobs. Relationships are central,” she said. “You must cultivate the ability to relate to every patient, every family as fellow image-bearers of God.”
What Olthoff does today is liver transplantation, in both children and adults, at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
She came to Penn after medical school at the University of Chicago and a residency and fellowship at UCLA.
“She has gained a reputation as an excellent surgeon and clinician, a talented leader and an accomplished scientist,” said Dr. Abraham Shaked of the Penn Transplant Institute. “Her efforts and contributions are responsible for positioning the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia as the premier pediatric transplant program in the country.”
Olthoff estimates that she’s performed more than 2,500 transplants and always marvels at the way this surgery improves the health of her patients immediately.
“It is reassuring to see your patient the next day after surgery and they are much better,” she said.
She hopes that one day no one will need such a surgery but for now a liver transplant is the only solution to end-organ failure. The liver cannot grow back, and there’s no mechanical replacement for the organ at this time.
Olthoff is grateful for playing a role in the development of liver transplantation—and she knows she serves as a role model for women surgeons in the field.
“What I want to see now is that more people will have access to the transplantation,” she said. “I’d like for there to be global access, to expand transplantation beyond any border.”
She currently works at national and international levels to try and bring about that goal, serving as the president of the American Society of Transplant Surgeons and as a key leader for the International Pediatric Transplant Association and the International Liver Cancer Association.
Olthoff met her husband David “Bing” Van Houten at Calvin, and they have two sons, Lucas and Jacob. David has been a teacher and coach over the years while doing much of the homefront duty for their boys—and earned a PhD in theology along the way.
“Bing has always been incredibly supportive,” she said. “We knew my path as surgeon wouldn’t allow me to stay home much. I’m always on call. He calls his job the best in the world. He’s the boys’ best friend.”
The magnitude of the medical decisions she has to make is not lost on Olthoff.
“Doctors make important decisions. You have to make a decision based on what’s best for the patient and the family. And once made, you live with that decision,” she said.
Olthoff added that faith plays a prominent role in these decisions and she sees how her patients’ belief in God is a motivator and a strong determiner in the results.
“God helps us accomplish what we do. You can see it in the patient—that it is family and faith that gets them through,” she said.
Olthoff appreciates many things about her Calvin education but she is reminded of one of them regularly.
“Surgeons are not thought to be humble; they tell others what to do most of the time,” she said. “But Calvin tries to teach humility, that it is not just about me and my talent. Rather, there are so many others that contribute. Above all, any talent that’s there is God-given.”