Champions of Health Care 2023: James Zellner — Community physician

Cofer: Zellner the area’s ‘pre-eminent heart surgeon’

Photography by Olivia Ross / James Zellner
Photography by Olivia Ross / James Zellner

Jim Zellner probably won show-and-tell the day he brought a cow's heart to his fifth-grade classroom.

"We were learning about different parts of the body," Zellner recalls. "When my turn came up, we'd gotten to the heart. I didn't know much about the heart, so my dad took me to a butcher shop and we got the heart.

"I took it to school and showed everyone the coronary, the aorta, valves, everything," he says. "I think there was general enthusiasm, but only the boys were interested in actually touching it."

Little wonder, then, that the Cincinnati native went on to become a surgeon. Trained at the University of Cincinnati's medical school and the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) in Charleston, his body of work covers more than 25 years and includes stretches at each of Chattanooga's three major hospitals.

He joined the Chattanooga Heart Institute staff in 2017, currently sits on its board and is the recipient of the 2023 Champions of Health Care laurel in the Physician/Community category.

"Any institution at which he's worked would have a favorable impression of Jim Zellner, because he's a nice guy and an excellent surgeon," Dr. William Warren wrote in nominating his Chattanooga Heart Institute colleague. "He's been a consistent leader in cardiac surgery in Chattanooga for decades."

Joe Cofer went a step further, pronouncing Zellner the "pre-eminent heart surgeon in Chattanooga, in my opinion."

Cofer, who received a 2022 Champions of Health Care Lifetime Achievement award, says he was hired in 1990 by MUSC to launch a liver-transplant program. He recalls that Zellner came to work there and became the first general-surgery resident in that program to perform a liver transplant.

Zellner says that in 1993, after completing seven years of general surgery training, he decided to focus on cardiothoracic surgery

"Very skilled surgeon," Cofer recalls of Zellner, who's certified by both the American Board of Surgery and the American Board of Thoracic Surgery. "When you're a surgical educator, you get to where you notice when someone not only has talent, but has 'it' as well. Not every resident does."

Zellner says heart surgery today "looks nothing like it did in 1993" from a technological standpoint, but some things haven't changed.

"A bypass is a circular stitch you run around a tube," he says. "I call it 'sewing in circles.' That's what I do all day, and that part's never changed."

And how many more days will Zellner sew in circles?

"Doing this surgery is a challenge -- mentally, emotionally and physically," he says. "Doing it for the number of years I have has been extremely rewarding, and I wouldn't trade a moment of it for anything.

"But I think my family has plans that will start in the next year or so. I look forward to spending more time with them."

Personal glance

How do you do relax/beat stress?

I like to spend time with my wife and family. Our children are in Chattanooga and Nashville, and we have two outside Chicago as well. Five grandkids, so we spend time enjoying them.

What led you to become a medical professional?

My father was a physician, an internist. I had a curiosity about how things worked, and he could explain a lot about how things work in the body. I was probably so inquisitive as to be annoying, but he was a real resource; he had a lot of knowledge.

If you had to choose another profession, what would it be and why?

Maybe the police -- I think I'd enjoy the regimented nature of it. I was in the Boy Scouts for a long time, and I enjoyed the organization there. And I like that you have the potential to help a lot of people.


* Honoring Chattanooga’s 2023 Health Care Champions

* Champions of Health Care 2023: Dr. Krish Bhadra — Innovation

* Champions of Health Care 2023: Dr. John S. Adams — Diversity and inclusion

* Champions of Health Care 2023: Diona Brown — Administrative excellence

* Champions of Health Care 2023: Welcome Home — Volunteer organization

* Champions of Health Care 2023: Mark Kapperman — Volunteer

* Champions of Health Care 2023: Mitch Dizon — Academic physician

* Champions of Health Care 2023: Tim Davis — Lifetime achievement

* Champions of Health Care 2023: Kristi Perry — Individual community outreach

* Champions of Health Care 2023: Cempa Community Care — Group diversity & inclusion

* Champions of Health Care 2023: Ashley Haynes — Non-physician practitioner

* Champions of Health Care 2023: Paul Farmer — Administrative excellence

* Champions of Health Care 2023: Whitney Evans-Snardon — Rising star

* Champions of Health Care 2023: Erlanger Board of Trustees — Group community outreach

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