Surgeon Inducted Into French Legion of Honor

French ambassador awards Namir Katkhouda the country’s highest honor for his groundbreaking work in laparoscopic surgery.
By Meghan Lewit
Pierre Vimont, French ambassador to the United States, at left, congratulates Katkhouda.

USC surgeon Namir Katkhouda was officially inducted Dec. 17 into France’s elite Legion of Honor. He received the award the highest honor the country can bestow for his pioneering work in laparoscopic surgery.

Katkhouda, a French citizen, is an international leader in the development of minimally invasive surgery. He received the Knighthood of the French Order of the Legion of Honor from Pierre Vimont, the French ambassador to the United States, who represented French President Nicolas Sarkozy in a ceremony at USC.

“It is a huge honor for me to wear the ribbon that was originally created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 and to accept this recognition of leadership in my field,” said Katkhouda, 52, professor of surgery and director of the minimally invasive surgery program at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “I hope that I have created a legacy that will inspire the next generation of doctors.”

More than 200 of his colleagues and peers attended the formal ceremony, including Provost C. L. Max Nikias and Carmen A. Puliafito, dean of the Keck School.

“We are tremendously proud of Dr. Katkhouda and his pioneering contributions to the field of surgery, which have made surgical care less traumatic for countless patients,” Puliafito said. “The entire Keck School of Medicine of USC basks in the glow of the international recognition he has received.”

Katkhouda spent much of his youth in Vienna and Austria and received his medical training in France. He did his residency at the University of Nice School of Medicine where, while training to be an abdominal surgeon, he joined forces with a small group of surgeons who were revolutionizing the field of traditional surgery through minimally invasive techniques.

“The first time I saw a laparoscopic gallbladder removal performed, I thought, ‘this is magic.’ It required such perfection in the technique,” Katkhouda said. “I was stunned. I saw the future and I never looked back.”

In 1988, he performed one of the first laparoscopic cholecystectomy (gallbladder removal) surgeries in France and established himself as a world-renowned pioneer in the field. In 1993, he was recruited to the Keck School by Tom DeMeester, chair of the Department of Surgery. That year, Katkhouda relocated to Los Angeles with his wife Dominique and children Nadine and Philippe.

“I wanted to find a place that would help me to expand my skills and to reach the next level. I knew that place would be in the United States,” he said. “I admired the entrepreneurial spirit of USC; it’s a university that is constantly rethinking itself and has an impressive international flavor. It also nurtures pioneering spirits.”

Among Katkhouda’s accomplishments in the field of laparoscopic surgery:

He successfully performed the world’s first minimally invasive laparoscopic vagotomy (surgical cutting of the vagus nerve) for treatment of duodenal ulcer disease, publishing his results in the American Journal of Surgery in 1991;
He pioneered laparoscopic liver surgery and published the first paper in the field;
He performed Europe’s first laparoscopic hernia surgery in 1990;
He performed USC’s first laparoscopic gastric bypass surgery in 2002;
He published the first in-depth book on the principles of laparoscopic surgery and another book on laparoscopic techniques that received a special award from USC President Steven B. Sample; and
He has traveled all over the world lecturing and demonstrating groundbreaking surgical techniques, including performing China’s first laparoscopic cholecystectomy.

Katkhouda was nominated for the Legion of Honor by professor Daniel Benchimol, dean of the University of Nice School of Medicine, who proposed his name to the French Secretary of Health. The decree was signed in January 2007 by then President Jacques Chirac.

Admittance into the order requires an extensive vetting process to determine that the nominee has contributed a minimum of 20 years of outstanding public or professional service. Past recipients from America have included Clint Eastwood, former President Ronald Reagan and astronaut Neil Armstrong. The President of the French Republic serves as the Grand Master of the Order.

Napoleon Bonaparte created the Legion d’Honneur in 1802. It recognizes exceptional military, cultural, scientific or social contributions to France, from both citizens and non-citizens. Inductees receive the cross of the Legion and are admitted with the rank of knight. Recipients are not addressed with a title, but rather wear a discreet red ribbon in the lapel of their suits and coats made of the same fabric as the decoration.

A self-proclaimed student and admirer of Bonaparte, Katkhouda said the rich history of the legion holds great significance for him.

“Napoleon wanted to create an order that would spur the imagination, and he did not want it to be something that could be inherited, but something that would be earned when honor is brought to the country,” he said. “It is with great emotion that I have received the same decoration that he wore during his battles, attesting to our deep love for France.”