By Donna Cornelius
When James Kirklin decided to switch majors in college, the world likely lost a marine biologist.
But it gained an internationally-known doctor.
Kirklin was an All-American diver at Ohio State University when he decided to switch majors and prepare for medical school, he said.
“I’ve always loved the ocean and still enjoy scuba diving,” said Kirklin, professor and director of cardiothoracic surgery at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and director of the Division of Pediatric Cardiac Surgery, Children’s of Alabama.
But Kirklin’s decision to pursue a career in medicine didn’t come out of left field. His father, Dr. John Kirklin, built UAB’s cardiovascular surgery program into one of the most respected in the United States.
James Kirklin is following his father in supporting the Birmingham Heart Ball. He is serving as the honoree of the 2015 ball, 22 years after his father held the same position.
This is the 28th year the American Heart Association has hosted the event, set this year for March 7 at the Cahaba Grand Conference Center.
Last year, the black-tie gala raised more than $1 million and placed in the top 10 in the nation for fundraising.
Money raised by the ball goes directly to the American Heart Association to fund research, education and awareness initiatives. These programs target heart disease and stroke, the nation’s No. 1 and No. 5 killers, respectively, according to the AHA.
Kirklin said these programs are particularly critical for Alabamians.
“Alabama is particularly challenged in the arena of heart disease,” he said. “Alabama is among the top states in the country for deaths from cardiovascular causes.”
Obesity and high blood pressure, especially among young people, and tobacco use are common risk factors among Alabamians, Kirklin said.
“There are so many areas where we need to enlighten and educate people about the negative impact of certain lifestyles,” he said.
Kirklin doesn’t just preach healthy habits. He practices them.
“It’s important to watch your weight and exercise regularly,” he said. “I work out three times a week, and my wife is an aggressive walker. You need 150 minutes a week of vigorous aerobic activity.”
Making time for fun promotes good health, he said.
“My wife and I take two trips a year, in the winter and in the summer,” Kirklin said. “We keep a power boat in Orange Beach and take it down to the Florida Keys or the Bahamas. We love diving.”
His three children and four grandchildren all are avid scuba divers, too, he said.
“Being fully engaged in something outside your profession can really lessen stress,” Kirklin said.
The surgeon has a demanding professional life. His clinical interests include heart transplantation, pediatric and adult congenital heart defects, and mechanical circulatory support.
Kirklin is consistently recognized in “Best Doctors in America.”
His years as a springboard and tower diver helped prepare him for a career in medicine, he said.
“It’s very difficult to be an athlete in college,” Kirklin said. “People underestimate the time requirement. In terms of time and discipline, it’s very challenging. But it gave me the ability to focus and to concentrate on the task at hand – the same things you need in cardiovascular surgery.”
After graduating from OSU, Kirklin attended Harvard Medical School.
“That was actually easier than college, because I had fewer distractions,” he said.
Kirklin came to Birmingham in 1981 to become assistant professor of surgery at the University of Alabama School of Medicine. He was in college when his father moved to Birmingham so he had visited but not lived in the city until then.
“I’d visit during my summer vacations, and I was struck by the beauty of Alabama the first time I drove here from Ohio,” he said.
Kirklin has become so thoroughly invested in his adopted state that he pulled for the University of Alabama and not his alma mater when the Crimson Tide and Buckeyes met in the College Football Playoffs game in January, he said.
He’s also a big supporter of the American Heart Association. Funds raised by the Heart Ball, he said, will help the AHA reach its “20/20” goal – improving the cardiovascular health of all Americans by 20 percent and reducing deaths from cardiovascular diseases and strokes by 20 percent.
“The Heart Ball is a major vehicle not just for fundraising but for bringing attention to the American Heart Association and its mission,” Kirklin said.
For more information about the ball, visit birminghamheartball.org or call the American Heart Association at 510-1500.