Time out with T.O. - Not your Average Joe

by Tom O'Connor, UNMC strategic communications (retired) | September 24, 2021

Image with caption: Joe Sisson, MD

Joe Sisson, MD

Joe Sisson, MD, is not your average Joe.

He’s the perfect example of someone who makes the medical center tick. Quietly, without fanfare, he has gone about his business for the past 34 years, leaving a mark on everyone who encountered him.

After 24 years as chief of the UNMC Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine, Dr. Sisson stepped down on May 1 to make way for Ruxana Sadikot, MD. At the end of the year, he plans to retire while maintaining emeritus status.

"It’s been a wonderful rocket ride," he said.

The plaudits abound for the Eagle Scout who grew up in Waterloo, Iowa. He’s the epitome of the triple threat, with excellence in clinical care, research and education.

The Sisson file

But, it doesn’t end there. His mentoring skills are off the chart. He’s a technical whiz, who is fascinated by computers and other tools -- there’s almost no handyman project he won’t tackle. Better yet, he did it all while making it fun.

He was beloved by his division colleagues, who thrived on his innovation and honesty.

The formula was simple, Dr. Sisson said. "It’s all about recruiting good people and crafting a culture that we take care of each other. The culture is genuine. If someone goes down with a health issue, all it takes is one phone call and others step up."

One of Dr. Sisson’s closest friends and research colleagues, Todd Wyatt, PhD, tells a classic story that shows how Dr. Sisson rolled.

"We often traveled together to scientific conferences, many of them abroad," said Dr. Wyatt, a professor in the UNMC College of Public Health. "During a layover in the Frankfurt airport, Joe’s CD player stopped working. To my astonishment, he got out a tiny tool kit, dismantled the player and repaired it all between flights.

"He likely fed me a Rice Krispie treat while I watched in amazement. Joe always travels with Rice Krispie treats. Such preparedness is how we know he was an Eagle Scout."

Another vintage Dr. Sisson story comes from Mike McGlade, senior associate dean for business and finance in the UNMC College of Medicine.

"Joe wanted to let me know that he was in the ceilings of the pulmonary offices wiring his own network. I knew from that point on our time together would be challenging and fun. It was."

Talk to Dr. Sisson for a few minutes, and one thing jumps out: It is never about him. He takes way more pride in what others in his division accomplish.

Yet, check out some of his accomplishments:

  • One of only three faculty to receive the Top Teacher Award for 25+ years for the Department of Internal Medicine residency program.
  • Received continuous funding from the National Institutes of Health for 26 years, including a prestigious MERIT (Method to Extend Research in Time) Award reserved for only the most outstanding research projects.
  • Built the medical center’s Academic Department Information System (ADIS) from scratch.
  • Co-developer with Bruce Ammons, PhD, of the Sisson-Ammons Video Analysis (SAVA) system that measures the beat frequency of ciliated cells in the lung. The system is now used by more than 40 companies in 26 countries, and Dr. Sisson is recognized as an international expert on cilia, the tiny, hair-like fibers that sweep mucus out of the lungs.
  • Under his leadership, the division more than doubled in size and always turned a profit - something that wasn’t the case when he started. 

Most importantly, Dr. Sisson expanded critical care medicine to make the medical center the place to go for families in the worst moments of their lives.

"The ICU nurses loved working with Joe," said Julie Lazure, vice president of operations for Nebraska Medicine. "He was approachable, collaborative and an extremely enthusiastic educator and mentor. We loved his communication style. He knew everyone’s name. He demonstrated empathy to family members and always explained complex information in ways they could easily understand. Joe was never afraid to have difficult conversations."

Hanging proudly in Dr. Sisson’s office is a drawing by Art Heires, an artist in internal medicine. It shows a cross section of cilia with all the bands resembling a tire. What makes it unique is that each cilia lists one of Joe’s research citations.

"I will always cherish this," Dr. Sisson said.

At UNMC, the feeling is likewise. Enjoy the next chapter and remember to always leave room for that next Rice Krispie treat.

Bud Shaw
September 24, 2021 at 8:55 AM

Say it isn’t so, Joe! UNMC needs you still. I don’t think Joe and his work has received as much credit at home as it has in the rest of the world. More than once, when I would mention working in Omaha to a physician or scientist while traveling, they’d recognize UNMC as the place where Joe Sisson works. “He’s such a great guy” was a common refrain. Of course, I had to be honest: “Well yeah, everyone knows that, but what about that mustache?”

Irving Zucker
September 24, 2021 at 7:28 AM

Dear Joe, I wish you the best in your retirement. You are and outstanding clinician scientist and have contributed enormously to the Department of Cellular and Integrative Physiology. Thank you for all you have done for UNMC.-Irv

Brigette Vaughan
September 24, 2021 at 7:12 AM

Dr. Sisson took care of my father-in-law in his last days when he was admitted to the ICU in rejection following a lung transplant. He was so kind, and was there overnight managing his care minute to minute. He truly defines serious medicine and extraordinary care.

Lisa Runco
September 24, 2021 at 6:57 AM

Best wishes to you Joe, you will be greatly missed. Thank you for your vision, your leadership and your enthusiasm. Your legacy lives on with all of the colleagues, patients and learners whose lives you have touched.