Time out with T.O. - The legend of Dr. Sorrell

by Tom O'Connor, UNMC public relations | September 21, 2018

Image with file name: Sorrell0921.jpg

When it's all said and done, Michael Sorrell, M.D., could very well go down as the most transformative figure in the history of UNMC.

The building named in his honor

On Thursday evening, an invitation-only event was held to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Michael F. Sorrell Center for Health Science Education.

Few people ever get the privilege of having a building named in their honor, and usually it doesn't happen until after they die.

The lead donors on the Sorrell Center -- Omaha philanthropists Ruth and Bill Scott -- knew firsthand what a great physician Dr. Sorrell was. He had been their physician for years and took care of Bill in 2005 when he suffered a serious spinal cord injury while on a golf vacation in west-central Nebraska.

Even though the Scotts could have had the building named after themselves, they elected to name the building after Dr. Sorrell.

"For 50 plus years, Mike poured every ounce of his energy into making all of UNMC the best - No. 1," Ruth Scott said. "Mike's insight into the needs of UNMC were similar to our feelings about our old shoes -- a perfect fit -- reliable, comfortable and always dependable.

"His guidance was instrumental in every project we were part of, and we take great pride in each and every one! Thank you, Mike -- you are the BEST."

Dr. Sorrell was stunned by the generous gesture of the Scotts.

"I had no idea," he said. "You could have knocked me over with a feather."

Dr. Sorrell is proud of how the philanthropic community has rallied around UNMC/Nebraska Medicine, just as he takes special pride in the five generations of his family who have gone through the University of Nebraska.

"Amazing things have happened here," he said. "We wouldn't have been able to do what we did without the philanthropic support.

"The tremendous leadership and vision of (chancellors) Charlie Andrews and Hal Maurer was critical. Our facilities were poor. Philanthropy allowed us to build new facilities and recruit outstanding faculty - that's been the secret to our success."

As chair of the internal medicine department during the 1980s, Dr. Sorrell was right smack in the middle of the biggest changes ever at the medical center -- the recruitment of full-time faculty members and the start of the bone marrow and liver transplant programs.

Never one to blow his own horn, Dr. Sorrell quietly went about his business. An iconic figure in the study of liver disease, he saw patients from all walks of life, but he also became established as the physician of choice for the rich and famous in Omaha and elsewhere.

His reputation was legendary. No one enjoyed more respect.

  • "Mike Sorrell was probably the key person in changing UNMC from a quiet little medical school that did very little research into an internationally known research institution that attracts people from all over the world." - James Armitage, M.D., who started the bone marrow transplant program at UNMC/Nebraska Medicine
  • "Mike Sorrell is one-of-a-kind. He is a giant in the field. When I would refer a patient to him, they thought they died and went to heaven." - Harold M. Maurer, M.D., chancellor emeritus
  • "He is one of my all-time heroes in academic medicine." - Layton Rikkers, M.D., former chair, UNMC Department of Surgery
  • "Although he was a world-renowned gastroenterologist, Dr. Sorrell also was a remarkable general internist. He made sure that medical students and residents had the breadth of understanding of general medicine to provide for the total care of the patient." - Rowen Zetterman, M.D., longtime gastroenterologist for UNMC/Nebraska Medicine

Dr. Sorrell embodies the three-legged stool of academic medicine - research, education and patient care.

He loved to see medical students turn into doctors. "I was firm and challenging, but I wasn't mean," he said. "I stressed rigor and disciplinary thinking. You have to have high standards.

"I tried to stimulate students to be lifelong learners. That's what makes medicine so challenging and exciting."

Numerous students went on to become faculty members at UNMC. One was James O'Dell, M.D., professor, internal medicine, and chief of the division of rheumatology.

"Every successful academician owes his or her success to their mentors," Dr. O'Dell said. "People who come along at just the right time - and by their example and belief in their mentees - inspire them and allow them to thrive. Mike Sorrell was that person for me."

The Dr. Sorrell file

1957 - B.A., University of Nebraska-Lincoln
1959 - M.D., UNMC
1960-66 - General practice, Tecumseh, Neb.
1967-68 - Internal medicine residency, UNMC
1968-69 - Gastroenterology residency, UNMC
1969-71 - National Institutes of Health traineeship, hepatic disease and nutrition, New Jersey College of Medicine and Dentistry
1971-73 - Assistant professor, internal medicine, UNMC
1971-2008 - Director, Liver Study Unit, UNMC and VA Medical Center
1973-76 - Associate professor, internal medicine, and chief, section of gastroenterology-liver disease, VA Medical Center
1979-81 - Acting chair, internal medicine, UNMC
1981-90 - Chair, internal medicine, UNMC
1990-2004 - Medical director, liver transplant program, UNMC
1998-2004 - Chief, section of gastroenterology/hepatology, UNMC
1991-2014 - Robert L. Grissom Professor of Medicine, UNMC
1990-91 - President, American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases
1980 - University of Nebraska Award for Outstanding Research and Creative Activity (ORCA)
2002 - President, International Liver Transplant Society
2004 - Nebraskans for Research Award
Married - Wife, Shirley, for 61 years; four sons; 11 grandchildren; and seven great grandchildren

Dr. Sorrell, who is now 83, continues to come to work about three or four days a week. He does some writing, reading and consulting, but he stopped seeing patients two years ago.

He joked, "It gives my wife (Shirley) some respite from me."

But, he doesn't joke when he talks about the current state of medicine.

"We are in a Golden Age of Medicine," he said. "There have been tremendous advances in diagnosis and treatment -- they are just breathtaking. Treatment can be done so much easier with less discomfort to the patient."

As he looks back on his 47 years at UNMC, Dr. Sorrell said, "It's been a great run.

"It's been a privilege to be part of the next stage of the medical center. I've done the best I could. It's been so rewarding."

But, the best might still be yet to come.

He said, "The technology with iEXCEL (Davis Global Center) will revolutionize education even more."

And, with the eventual creation of the Frederick F. Paustian Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center -- thanks to a gift from Omaha philanthropists Ruth and Bill Scott -- he looks forward to "resolving IBD - the last unsolved mystery in gastroenterology."

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Kathryn Riedemann
January 16, 2021 at 6:55 PM

Hey Dr. Sorrell. My name is Kathy Riedemann. My mom was Liz Love. I worked with you in the Internal Medicine clinic at UNMC. You wrote a letter for me to get into Nursing. You told me that your wife was a Diploma Nurse and they were the best trained. Please know that I have thought about you many times in my career and how I not only appreciate you in guiding my career but that just really enjoy and loved working with you!

Beth Boline
October 25, 2018 at 8:08 PM

Dr. Sorrell was my mom’s doctor (and friend) when, in 1972, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. When her identical twin showed no signs of the disease, she was given a profilactic radical mastectomy. To my understanding, the first one ever performed as the result of one twin having cancer, and the other not. My mom passed, but my Aunt was given an extra 20 plus years as a result. He’s been a trailblazer from day one, and I’m so happy to see he’s been regarded as the hero he is. Beth Boline

MIchael Chaney
October 02, 2018 at 12:56 PM

I'll never forget the opportunities with Dr. Sorrell to sneak in a conversation in the halls, breakroom, or cafeteria of UNMC about his latest adventure or upcoming adventures Quail hunting. I'm sure we walked the same hedgerows in Johnson County. Words cannot express how grateful I am to have had the opportunity to serve on the Abdominal Transplant Team. Once you leave the corn, you have a greater understanding as well as appreciation what he accomplished at UNMC. Michael Chaney Transplant Financial Coordinator Association, Co Founder

Nina Rohlfs
September 24, 2018 at 2:50 PM

I knew his parents in Syracuse, whose dedication, love and good humor in their work gave Mike a wonderful role model. He has made our whole community proud and surpassed every hope we had for his doing good in the world.

Katie Kavanaugh Kerrigan
September 22, 2018 at 1:25 PM

Dr. Sorrell I miss seeing you walking the halls with your group of residents or med students. You are the reason I became a nurse. ❤️❤️❤️

Lucie Case
September 21, 2018 at 12:17 PM

I feel so incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with Dr. Sorrell! He is not only an amazing physician, but also an equally amazing, kind and caring human being.

Lisa Runco
September 21, 2018 at 11:18 AM

There will never be another one like him, he was, and still is, a giant. He cares deeply about his family, his patients and UNMC. Another member of The Greatest Generation, he is a treasure, and I was so glad to see him honored last night.

Clarence Ueda
September 21, 2018 at 10:31 AM

Dr. Sorrell is, and will always be, a UNMC legend. Dr. Sorrell is, and will always be, "The Man". Mike has positively impacted every UNMC health profession college in some way, shape or form. I have direct knowledge that that is definitely the case for the College of Pharmacy and University Hospital Pharmacy. Thank you, Mike, for being there for the College of Pharmacy, and for me, personally.

Colby J. Barak
September 21, 2018 at 8:09 AM

My father-in-law, Dr. Anthony J. Barak, enjoyed working with Dr. Sorrell for many years and loved to take personal credit for luring him to Nebraska to do his work. I am certain he is looking down from heaven and taking pride that his recruitment has meant so much to so many.