Prof. Kestutis Vitkus

Prof. Kęstutis Vitkus

He lived his life to the fullest, helping people along the way.

Professor Kęstutis Vitkus was one of the most well-known microsurgeons in Lithuania, having performed thousands of surgeries during his career, and is considered to be the pioneer of plastic surgery in the country.

Prof. K. Vitkus was born in Skuodas in 1952. His father Mečislovas Vitkus was a microsurgeon, associate professor, and also a renowned doctor at the time. His mother Vitalija Vitkienė was a professor of radiology. In 1976, K. Vitkus graduated from Vilnius University, Faculty of Medicine, and obtained his PhD in 1990, becoming the youngest professor in Lithuania at that time. Prof. K. Vitkus has been working as a doctor of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Vilnius Red Cross Hospital since 1982. After the said hospital was closed in 2013, he continued his career at Vilnius University Hospital Santaros Klinikos where he became head of the Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Center.

Prof. K. Vitkus also worked in Portland as a sports medicine doctor of the Trail Blazers team back in 1988–1989; during the period of 1992–1993, he worked in the Springfield Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Clinic of the Southern Illinois University, USA.

In 1980, K. Vitkus and his father Mečislovas Vitkus performed the first microsurgery operation in Lithuania and in the then Soviet Union, successfully re-attaching severed fingers. K. Vitkus was the first surgeon to transplant patches of bone, bone fascia, nerves, and joints with blood vessels. In 1987, he performed a complex operation to repair the ruptured Achilles tendon of the legendary Lithuanian basketball player Arvydas Sabonis. Prof. K. Vitkus was also on duty on 13 January 1991 – the most important night for independent Lithuania. K. Vitkus contributed greatly to independent Lithuania, by working tirelessly for countless hours at the Vilnius Red Cross Hospital in order to save lives.

The year 2004 became particularly significant for the history of plastic surgery in the country, after the opening of VitkusClinic – the first plastic surgery clinic in Lithuania, where Prof. K. Vitkus worked as a surgeon and provided consultations until the last days of his life

His family was his whole world

Prof. Kęstutis Vitkus was not only the most well-known surgeon in the country, but also a loving and devoted husband, father and grandfather, a loyal friend, and a sincere colleague – a man who knew how to enjoy every day and share his joy with others. He spent 40 wonderful years in marriage with Daiva Vitkienė-Reimerytė (1952–2018), one of the most well-known clothing designers of her generation. “Family is the foundation of one’s entire life, where the wife is the calm harbour for the sea wave-stricken husband. This is the perfection description of my wife. That is why we are together,” Prof. K. Vitkus once said during an interview with journalists.

After Lithuania regained its independence, D. Vitkienė-Reimerytė organized “In Vogue Vilnius”, the largest high fashion festival of that time, which was held until 1999. These festivals not only introduced Lithuanians to global fashion trends and the works of fashion houses in France and various other countries, but also helped young Lithuanian clothing designers to express themselves. For many years, D. Vitkienė-Reimerytė, a descendant of the Lithuanian noble families of Reimeris and Kenstartas, worked on Lithuanian television, creating clothing designs and decorations for various films and TV series.

Prof. K. Vitkus and D. Vitkienė-Reimerytė were known not only for their professional achievements, but also for their social and charitable activities, particularly their support for large families. The family of Vitkus not only donated money, but also talked to socially disadvantaged families face to face, and gave personal greetings to the children of such families during the most important holidays of the year.

A private clinic with three family generations

In 2004, VitkusClinic was opened on Svajonių Street, in the Valakampiai neighbourhood of the capital, surrounded by forests. It was the first such plastic surgery clinic in the country. From the very first day of its opening, the clinic was managed by Vita Vitkutė-Degutienė, the daughter of Prof. K. Vitkus. The professor himself provided consultations and performed surgeries in the private clinic, while his wife D. Vitkienė-Reimerytė created the interior design of the clinic.

VitkusClinic was expanded in 2019, with the introduction of aesthetic dermatology services. Doctor Austėja Elžbieta Degutytė, the granddaughter of Prof. K. Vitkus, has followed in the footsteps of her grandfather and also began working in the clinic.

After the sudden and tragic loss of Prof. K. Vitkus, the head of the clinic, V. Vitkutė-Degutienė, stressed that she has no doubt that the clinic will continue its activities: “My father used to say: “Smile. Always smile. Not smiling severs your connection with other people. That is why I chose to hire employees who have good souls.” From the very first day of its establishment, the clinic was run by my Dad’s assembled team. These employees were also His disciples whom He trusted. This clinic is my Dad’s legacy and we will honour His memory by continuing to help people. The same way as Dad always did.”

Prof. Kęstutis Vitkus, as he is remembered by his friends and colleagues:

A. Sabonis: “If it wasn’t for Kęstutis, I don’t know how my life would have turned out”

It was an early spring morning of 1987, when suddenly a phone rang in the office of Assoc. Prof. Mečislovas Vitkus, the father of Kęstutis Vitkus. The call was from… Kremlin. A. Sabonis has ruptured his right Achilles tendon during his training in Moscow, in the USSR national team training camp. Prof. Kęstutis Vitkus was entrusted to perform the surgery. The surgery itself lasted three hours and its results were of great concern to the entire country.

“Everything went great. However, fate likes to play cruel tricks. Three months later, I fell down some stairs and ruptured the same Achilles tendon again! I couldn’t believe it. I remember saying to call Vitkus (Kęstutis) and tell him to begin sharpening his knives,” said A. Sabonis.

Prof. K. Vitkus came from Vilnius to Palanga to pick up Arvydas with a biplane. The second surgery was more complicated than the first one. “I remember him stubbornly saying: “That’s it, I’m going to sew it up so well, that you will never be able to tear your Achilles again, even if you wanted to!” And he was absolutely right,” A. Sabonis smiled, recalling the professor’s words. “I did not tear anything ever again. The NBA doctors were impressed of how everything was sewn up so perfectly, and I was still able to play professionally in my forties. Only maybe five or six athletes in the world have managed to return to professional sports after an injury like that,” the basketball legend said.

Prof. K. Vitkus and the legendary basketball player went together to the USA, where A. Sabonis was invited by the Portland Basketball Club to rehabilitate and to play. The friendship that was established in the surgery room lasted for several decades until the fateful day of the Professor’s passing.

“Our friendship was truly strong. We travelled, fished, and spent evenings together… Kęstutis was the kind of person you wanted to be around,” Arvydas Sabonis said while sharing his memories. “He had wonderful energy, optimism, sense of humour, and erudition. Anyone who has ever spoken to him at least once will understand what I’m talking about. Kęstutis was an exceptional person.”

President Valdas Adamkus on the fateful search for a bag of ice cubes

It can be said that basketball also marks the beginning of the friendship between Prof. Kęstutis Vitkus and the President of Lithuania Valdas Adamkus.

“As member of the US Environmental Protection Delegation, I visited the then Soviet Union and came to Lithuania for a few days. It so happened that a basketball competition was held during my visit, which I had to see. I knew V. Garastas, and he introduced me to A. Sabonis, who then told me about this wonderful surgeon Kęstutis Vitkus. This is how we met,” said His Excellency. At the time, they were not able to become closer friends due to the distance. However, when Valdas Adamkus and his wife Alma returned to Lithuania after the proclamation of its independence in 1991, the paths of the President and the surgeon have crossed once again.

“Alma had an unexpected accident – she slipped while walking down the street and ruptured her Achilles tendon. At that time, I only knew one doctor well in Lithuania – Kęstutis Vitkus. I called him, Kęstutis arrived immediately, examined Alma and said he needs a bag of ice cubes for the leg. And he ran off into the streets of the Old Town to search for these ice cubes. Half an hour went by and Kęstutis returned really upset, since he could not find a bag of ice cubes anywhere! This was so strange to me, as at that time in America you could find ice cubes on every corner of the street, in every cafe. Thank God, everything ended well, and Kęstutis took care of Alma wonderfully,” V. Adamkus said.

The friendship between the families of Adamkus and Vitkus has lasted for several decades. President Valdas Adamkus and his wife Alma also participated in the official opening of VitkusClinic in 2004.

“The clinic is located near our former house in Turniškės, so sometimes Kęstutis would just hop onto his bicycle and pedal away from the clinic to our place. We used to sit for hours discussing the future of Lithuania. It was a very sincere friendship. Kęstutis was a true intellectual. His knowledge of any field – not only medicine – was amazing. He was also a nature lover, who was concerned about the welfare of animals. It is difficult to describe such a person with just a few words… Kęstutis Vitkus was a true example of a noble and great man,” President Valdas Adamkus said, while sensitively picking words to describe Prof. K. Vitkus.

I. Degutienė: “He was dearly loved by all – both people and animals”

“I first knew Kęstutis as a colleague (Irena Degutienė worked with the professor as an anaesthesiologist-resuscitator at the same Vilnius University Red Cross Hospital, author’s note). Our children – Gediminas and Vita – both enrolled to study medicine. This is how they met. And then one day they came to the hospital and I was the first to be informed that they are going to get married. Kęstutis then walked up to us, saying – what are the children doing here? They timidly told him everything, and Kęstutis was suddenly bursting with joy, saying that we should open a bottle of champagne instead of standing there and staring at the ground. As it turned out, they were afraid to tell us about the wedding,” said the well-known politician and doctor Irena Degutienė.

“Since at that time my husband was writing a dissertation, and Daivutė (Daiva Vitkienė-Reimerytė, the late wife of Prof. K. Vitkus, author’s note) was busy preparing her collection, me and Kęstutis were the ones who organized the wedding,” said Irena Degutienė. The joining of two families of Vitkus and Degutis resulted in two wonderful granddaughters – Austėja Elžbieta and Saulė Marija.

“Instead of calling them by their actual names, Kęstutis would lovingly give his granddaughters nicknames such as Muffin and Bubble… He was very gentle, very loving. He loved everyone, both people and animals. When you come to Vitkus family homestead in Molėtai, you can see llamas, sheep and chickens. All the children would run up to uncle Kęstutis to ask him to go to the sheep, since the sheep would run straight to the Professor as soon as they saw him coming! All the llamas, the chickens, and the pony had names. And the love between him and his dog Caesar, on whom the professor even performed surgeries himself when necessary, was so immense…,” said Mrs Irena.

“He never viewed other people as below or above him – to him all people were equal creations of God, he helped everyone. Every local living in Molėtai can testify that whenever someone got sick, and whenever the Professor was called for help, he would immediately rush out to help every person,” said Irena Degutienė, while sharing her vivid memories of the Professor. “It is a God’s gift to be able to truly enjoy life. And he had this gift.”

Surgeon R. Vaičiūnas: “K. Vitkus was a Professor with a capital letter”

The talent of Kęstutis Vitkus in the operating room was a true gift from God.

“With him began a new era in the history of medicine of our country,” said the renowned plastic surgeon Renaldas Vaičiūnas who worked with Prof. Kęstutis Vitkus since 1983. “No matter how many years have passed, to the very last day I still called him Chief or Pro. Everyone in the hospital would call him Pro – he was an authority, an inspirer, a Professor with a capital letter. His authority was not based on fear, but instead inspired by admiration, determination and drive. You would strive to be as good as him,” said surgeon R. Vaičiūnas while also sharing a funny story about his Mentor.

“So the Pro returns back from America and brings with him SuperGlue which we have neither seen nor heard of here. And he says, you know, this glue can stick anything together, it’s unbelievably adhesive. Don’t believe me? Give me your finger, I’ll show you. I, of course, extend my hand, he applies a few drops of the glue on my finger and says – press the fingers together, come on, and hold them together,” says R. Vaičiūnas, continuing his story: “As you can imagine, my fingers were very much stuck to each other, it hurt, I could not tear them apart… So what the Pro did was take a microscope and scalpel to cut between my fingers and separate them… Good thing I happened upon an excellent surgeon,” Renaldas Vaičiūnas said, finishing his humorous story.

Painter A. Žilys on his bicycle trips at the early hours of dawn

The renowned artist and painter Arūnas Žilys has known Prof. Kęstutis Vitkus since his childhood years. They grew up together on the then Balio Sruogos street in Antakalnis neighbourhood, and their childhood friendship has blossomed into a bond that united both of their families for several decades – K. Vitkus and his wife Daiva were legal witnesses in the wedding ceremony of A. Žilys and his wife Virginija.

“We travelled together as two couples. And, oh, how wonderful it was to travel with Kęstutis! For instance, we once travelled to France and we came to this French town. As soon as dawn began to break, Kęstutis got up, took his bike from the car, the same bike which he took everywhere with him, and he pedalled away alone to explore the area. And by the time we would get up, which was around 10 a.m., he would already know everything about the area, would tell us everything, and be our guide,” said the renowned painter while sharing his memories about his childhood friend.

Kęstutis was an artist at heart, appreciating beauty and aesthetics. Some of my works are displayed in VitkusClinic, which I am very proud of. Sometimes I would ask him sheepishly about his work – so how do you sew things together, how do you even see what needs to be attached to what? What if you had to sew this thing to that one, would you be able to? And, you know, he would never tell me to stop asking such nonsense. He understood my curiosity because he himself always wanted to understand how the world works. Losing Kęstutis was painful, but knowing a person like him was a huge blessing that I will always cherish,” said painter Arūnas Žilys, while talking about his friend Prof. K. Vitkus.

Priest R. Doveika: “His zest for life was infectious”

Priest Ričardas Doveika was one of the closest friends of the family of Vitkus. “I met Kęstutis Vitkus and his wife Daiva while I was still serving in the Cathedral. The Professor and his wife were active members of our community, as well as active participants in charity events. “Dozens of children from socially disadvantaged families throughout the parish received Christmas gifts only because they were donated by Kęstutis and Daiva,” said priest Doveika, who was a close family friend.

“The Professor was a person who could reach everyone. After talking to the Professor, you could still feel his presence lingering for a few more hours, leaving an aftertaste of joy and happiness inside. It’s as if he pulled everyone into his bubble of happiness – his neighbours, guests, friends, and even his beloved animals…”.

The priest last talked with the Professor a month before his passing. At the time, he didn’t know that this would be their last conversation. “We are the people of today. And I believe the professor understood this perfectly well. He had many plans for the future, but he also lived every day to the fullest. We could all learn from him,” said R. Doveika.

Awards and achievements of Prof. Kęstutis Vitkus:
During his career as a doctor and lecturer, Prof. K. Vitkus did his internships in the clinics of Moscow and St. Petersburg, as well as improved his skills in France, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, the USA, Germany, Russia, the Czech Republic and Finland. From 1985 until the last days of his life, he worked at Vilnius University, teaching students and holding courses for improving the qualifications of doctors. He also held lectures in the clinics of Chicago, Miami, Portland, Seattle and San Francisco. During his career, Prof. K. Vitkus introduced new methods of microsurgery in orthopaedics, traumatology, oncology and plastic surgery. He has published over 150 scientific articles.

The professor was a member of many professional and public organizations: he was the founder and member of the Lithuanian Society for Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, as well as its first president; member of the International Society of Surgery; member of the World Society of Reconstructive Microsurgery; member of the Lithuanian Society for Hand Surgery and Rehabilitation “Manus Lituanica” and International College of Surgeons; member of the editorial boards of Lithuanian journals “Acta Medica Lituanica”, “Lietuvos chirurgija” and “Medicina”; and member-expert of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences.

Prof. K. Vitkus was awarded the National Prize for the establishment of the Reconstructive and Plastic Surgery Service, the Olympic Star of the Lithuanian National Olympic Committee, the Lithuanian Biathlon Federation Medal “For Merits to Lithuanian Biathlon”, the Sports Cross of Honour of the Department of Physical Education and Sports under the Government of the Republic of Lithuania “For Merits to Lithuanian Sport” (2012), and the 1st Degree Award of Vilnius City Municipality “For Merits to Vilnius and the Nation” (2015).