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Fast Confession - Jan Pirk: He Only Collects Veterans, But Of Course Does Not Feel Like One

Karolína Lišková
10.Jul 2018
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8 minutes

The most famous Czech heart surgeon, Jan Pirk has recently celebrated a respectable seventies birthday. Although he has long since retired, he is far from being a typical pensioner. His diary is still literally full to a bursting point. In addition to demanding operations he is still very much actively involved in sport, his grandchildren and his great passion in the form of historical vehicles. One could say that his day must have at least 40 hours. Yet he made time to make an interview with Luxury Prague Life.

You have recently celebrated your anniversary, what was the celebration like?

The birthday was beautiful, but on the other hand, it is no fun when one is seventy, but what can you do. But it was beautiful, we celebrated it on several occasions. My wife also celebrated hers, we are of same age, that is, I am older by ten days. We had a joint celebration. There was a great deal of presents and they were all beautiful but two were the most beautiful ones. One that I received from the director and deputy director of economic - a French racing bicycle from 1927 and the second extra special gift was that my family had commissioned custom-made skis for me. The design was made by one of my nephews. It is model Pirk 70 and they bear signatures of all members of the family. And my family is a very large one indeed.

Doctor, at seventy I imagine people that can barely walk. You absolutely do not fit in that category. On which sports, in addition to jogging, do you enjoy spending your time?

Well I don´t so much any longer. But in addition to running is still do a lot of cross-country skiing and triathlon. I really devote myself to those.

And there are any people of the same age as you?

Jogging, yes, and cross-country skiing also. But not so many to triathlon. (laughter)

Funkcionalistická vila na prodej, Praha-západ
Funkcionalistická vila na prodej, Praha-západ, Okolí Prahy

How is it possible that you keep yourself looking so great, functioning like a 20-year-old man?

The way I look is of course due to genetics - in addition to not overeating and not being fat. I do my morning exercise routine, I work out, because older people very easily loose muscles.

And how old do you feel like?

It is a difficult subject. When I'm running the same track, I feel every year twenty seconds slower. (laughter) That is how I measure time. The last time I ran Great Kunratice track which I ran 35 times, I see that really every year I am slower by twenty seconds.

I still I cannot help feeling that a 70-year old longs for a bit of quiet, watch television, read books, but you here at IKEM are still going great guns.

(laughter) Still going great guns... But I am retired, I draw pension.

Congratulations. I will not have any.

(laughter) I draw pension because I have greatly contributed throughout my life, so why shouldn´t I. But I work on a full-time basis and I do not have such worries as I had in the past when I headed the clinic. Those everyday concerns, like respect the budget, or that there is a shortage of doctors, no nurses… I no longer have these problems, so I have much less work and only actually nice work. This means that I operate. Last night I started to operate at ten in the evening, I finished at five in the morning and at eight I was again at the operating theatre. I operate a great deal. And apart from that I also have the time to read professional journals and attend lectures. I have time for what I enjoy.

How can you keep on going like that? 

Well I did not want to, because I am too old. And a fellow doctor left in order to head the Vinohrady clinic, so we were one surgeon short. So I said - well, I will take two shifts a month. And now I am notoriously know for the fact that during my shift there are operations throughout the entire night, so now no one wants to have a shift alongside me. (laughter)

So let us talk about your leisure time. Even though you don´t have any...

But I do. I try to enjoy my free time to the full. Recently I took part in a charitable five-day event. We collected funds for physiotherapy of oncology children patients, I ride my bicycle with Josef Zimovčák - he rides the tall bicycle, the rest of us normal bikes, we go around the whole country, collecting money. And I called my wife from the trip and she told me that she feels like a widow, because I am never at home. So I have really a lot of activities. But for example today, when we finish this interview I am going home. I thought that I would have a nap, but I won´t have the time because from five o´clock my youngest granddaughter will have her second birthday celebration. So we are having a garden party.

You have guessed my next question. What kind of grandfather are you?

I would love to spend more time with my grandchildren, but there really isn´t enough. I do not have a single free evening that there would be nothing on. But those little ones spend a lot of time with my wife, who is retired and babysits them. She is a full-time grandmother. She looks after them so that the young ones could go to work. The oldest grandchildren are past sixteen and then there are two young ones. They are in this range, so I enjoy time with each of them according to age.

One of the older ones is dedicated to athletics, he is enjoying it very much, so I´ve recently been running with him in a wood. Not that I could keep up with him, but I measured his track. The second granddaughter plays the flute, she´s been attending drama lessons for years and she longs to be an actress. She´s been playing amateur theatre for a really long time. Another ten year old grandson plays tennis and imagine this; he played a match that lasted three hours and six minutes. He was able to endure that! So with each we enjoy spending time in such a way that they prefer, doing what is fun for them.

Do your grandchildren realise what a famous grandfather they have?

No, they don´t. They call me gramps. I would not even like it. I do not think that they perceive me like a great personality, and I am glad. I am their grandpapa.

Yet I wonder whether there is somewhere a personality like you, who would once stand in your shoes and become a second Pirk.

Look, he cannot be as I am. He must be better than me. If pupils were not better than their teachers there would be no progress in the world. Every reasonable teacher must realise that. I am very happy with who took the clinic over. So far I am trying to help where he wishes me to.

What are you most proud of? What was the greatest achievement of your career?

One is to have humility in his field so as not to lose his path. But if I am to be really proud of anything, it is the team that we managed to build here. That we are the largest cardiac surgery centre in the Czech Republic, of a grade comparable to that of any other world centre to which doctors come from around the world for a training and that IKEM graduates head cardiac clinics around the whole country. I think that that is something that IKEM can be proud of.

Was there ever a case where you were at your wits´ end?

Yes, there are such cases, like for example my father, who died here. He had massive cerebral haemorrhage and nobody can do anything there. These are diseases that are beyond our capabilities.

Prodej luxusního domu, Praha - západ - 414 m2
Prodej luxusního domu, Praha - západ - 414 m2, Okolí Prahy

Do you think that it will ever change?

No, people will never be immortal...

(laughter) I didn´t mean it like that…

I know. Of course nowadays we save people of whom 25 years ago we wouldn´t dream that they could be saved. At the end of the nineteenth century famous German surgeon, Billroth, said, that a surgeon who touches the heart will lose respect of his colleagues, because they thought that no wound of the heart will ever heal. And you can see that it can. Development goes ahead fast.

Do you know how many people did you save?

We have a computerised register from 1993, which is roughly 6,000 patients, but I did not count it during the last two years. We have statistics on how many heart transplants I have done. It is around 280. But what happened between 1983 and 1993 cannot be traced.

Are you also a doctor at home when someone has a flu for example?

A little, but the main doctor in our home is my sister, who is a GP. They say that my sister knows medicine, but that I know nothing. (laughter)

A little diversion - what about fashion? You are dressed with flair …

Am I? And my wife told me off that I wear these old wide pants, that now the narrow ones are in and that I am not keeping up. (laughter)

So your biggest fashion guru is your wife?

Perhaps so. I try to be cultivated in what I wear to work, because I think that it goes with the job. So one dresses according to occasion. And when someone goes for a heart operation it is a big event in his life, significant, and when he sees the doctor coming in a clean white coat and presentably dressed, he adds importance to it, too. The patient feels better when such a smart looking doctor talks to him before the surgery and a better contact is established.

But otherwise at the cottage I slob around. When I drive Velorex, I wouldn´t dress like that.

You see, those historical cars of your - how many have you got?

I have around ... I have four Velorexes, but on the whole up to ten. But I also have ten motorbikes.

But that is also a demanding hobby…

Yes, it is demanding. I was preparing for my pension because I saw my colleagues, teachers who devoted their entire life to work as I did and when it ended they did not know what to do next. They sailed on like a body without a soul… So I thought about what to do when I finish with surgery and sport which I will also need to stop at some point. It cannot go on indefinitely. We have an agreement with my wife, I mean she ordered it, that when it happens that I am last in a race, I will finish and stop racing. So I thought that I have to find a hobby that one can do indefinitely. So it started. The old machines are so beautiful.

Now we have been invited with Professor Pafek to High Tatras mountains for a veterans´ meeting in honour of 100th jubilee of Czechoslovakia. We are going on ride veteran motorbikes. I look forward to it.

You have said that your wife is of the same age, you must have had some anniversary, too.

We had, 48 years.

Hmm… Do you have a recipe for long-lasting marriage?

(laughter) You must have a tolerant partner.

That´s all?


How will you celebrate the 50th? It is a golden anniversary…

Do you know what… When we had our wedding lunch, there was a menu, and it was a kind of a booklet. We still have it to this day and on the back page we write every year how did we celebrate our wedding anniversary. We have been writing it from the start and then there suddenly appeared: "We have forgotten", or "I forgot"… So we now surprise each other by who did not forget. (laughter)

Only this year I have spoiled it. We went to the cottage by car, I had handsfree and my secretary calls and says: "Mr Professor, remember that tomorrow you have a wedding anniversary!" (laughter) But because I had it written in my diary I knew about it already.

For the fiftieth you still have time to devise some surprise.

Yes, there is still time. My wife was saying that when she stuck it with me for so long that she will keep going.

What would you still like to achieve, work-wise?

I do not know ... I would like for every operation to be successful.

Thank you so much for the interview.

Fast confession:

The most beautiful present which you got for your recent birthday?

If I were to name just one I would insult dozens of others who all gave me gifts.

Cosmetic surgery yes or no?


Where do you feel at home?

At home, my cottage in Konojedy, in Rokytnice nad Jizerou and IKEM.

In which board game do you excel?


What is your personal runner's record?

You have to put the question better, it depends what track.

What was the greatest number of consecutive hours that you spent at the operating theatre?


Which veteran car do you still plan to buy?

I am not planning any, but I will certainly get one.

What do you think about our government in one sentence?

A government without confidence.

When and why did you have a broken heart.

When my daddy suddenly died.

Euthanasia yes or no.

Yes, but don´t involve doctors in it.

What is the greatest reward of a physician?

When he gets a card from a patient who because of pain could not tie his shoelace, or was short of breath, seeing that it was sent from mountains.

Who is an undisciplined patient?

Even after a heart surgery he continues to smoke.

Can doctors work miracles?


When you retire, what do you look forward to the most?

That I will enjoy other good things in life than surgery.
Interviewee asks the editor:

Where did you buy this dress?

I don´t know at all, I´ve had it for five years.
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