When he witnessed a doctor treat a Sherpa during a trek through Nepal, Professor Jason Kovacic (BMedSc 1992, MBBS 1994) knew he had to pursue medicine.
The Oarsome Foursome also played an indirect role in Professor Kovacic’s decorated international career as a researcher physician when he gave up an elite rowing career to become a cardiologist who most recently joined the fight against COVID-19.
The Nepalese revelation came in late 1985 as the newly graduated Caulfield Grammar student trekked through Nepal with a school group and a Sherpa who had a boil on his back. A doctor in the group offered to treat it.
“This doctor gets out his kit and I just have this graphic recollection of it, with the backdrop of the Himalayas rising behind,” Professor Kovacic recalls. “And I thought ‘This is what I want to do. I just want to help people’.”
So began a 17-year journey to qualify as a physician-scientist and cardiologist, including a Bachelor of Medical Science and Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) at the University of Melbourne in the early 1990s.
Until then, the 200cm athlete had juggled rowing with study, representing Australia as a junior and winning the famous King’s men’s eight title with members of the Oarsome Foursome in 1994 during the final year of his medical degree.
In 1995, he just missed national selection and decided to concentrate on medicine, starting residency at Prince of Wales Hospital and then doing internal medicine and cardiology training at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, ultimately completing a PhD at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute (VCCRI).
THE POWER OF PERSEVERANCE
While the Oarsome Foursome won gold in Atlanta in 1996, Professor Kovacic has gone on to have a stellar international career that came full circle in early 2020 when he became Executive Director of the VCCRI and Professor of Medicine at the University of New South Wales.
“Rowing was hard but one of the things it taught me was the importance of tenacity and perseverance and resilience, if you want to achieve anything you really have to give it everything you’ve got,” he says.
In 2007 Professor Kovacic moved to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland and then Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York in 2009.
At Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, he established the world leading Kovacic Laboratory to focus on relatively neglected conditions such as fibromuscular dysplasia and spontaneous coronary artery dissection. He will continue to run the Mount Sinai lab after it secured further NIH funding, and he remains jointly appointed as Professor of Medicine there.
DEALING WITH THE COVID-19 CRISIS
Professor Kovacic returned to Australia with his wife and two young children in early March 2020, just as COVID-19 threatened to take hold in Australia, to take up his role at the VCCRI.
The VCCRI is involved in several COVID-19 projects, including one with St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney and other hospitals that will look at stem cell therapies to treat COVID-19.
“There are some remarkable opportunities in Australia that are very unique to this country,” Professor Kovacic says. “When Australia bands together, unites and does things collectively, it’s a powerful thing.”
The COVID-19 response was a case in point, with Australia quickly ‘flattening the curve’. “I’m not surprised that we’ve seen this unprecedented rallying from the medical profession around COVID because it’s just what health professionals do,” he says. “It’s why we do medicine.”
Unfortunately, many of his US colleagues and patients were not so lucky. “Most people in New York know someone who was sick or succumbed to the virus.”
TAKING ON A TOUGH OPPONENT
He now hopes to intensify his fight against fibromuscular dysplasia, which causes problems with blood vessels. An international collaboration has discovered several genes that cause the disease, as well as disclosing a blood protein signature, and developing the first mouse model.
Such skill and determination run in the family. Professor Kovacic’s sister Dr Katherine Kovacic (BVSc (Hons) 1996, GradDipArts 2004, PhD 2015), who studied veterinary science at the University of Melbourne, is also an accomplished author, and famed Slovenian poet, novelist, and playwright Ivan Cankar was their great, great uncle.
Professor Kovacic’s late father was originally named Cyril Poč, but when he fled Yugslavia as a teenager, the safest way was to adopt the maiden name of his late mother – Kovačić. Cyril arrived in Melbourne in 1957, penniless and still only 19.
“His sister (Neza Cankar) was my great, great grandmother and she married Ivan Poč,” Professor Kovacic says. “They had four kids and one of them was my grandfather Ciril Poč.”
“He had a remarkable work ethic and after having many jobs, he eventually built a thriving business dealing in precious rock and mineral specimens,” Professor Kovacic says. “As well as rowing, my dad certainly instilled into me the importance of perseverance and a solid work ethic.”
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