Ake Grenvik was a giant in critical care medicine

Ake Grenvik, founding chief of the Division of Critical Care Medicine — eulogized by his department as “one of Critical Care Medicine’s giants” — died Sept. 5, 2021, at 92.

"Ake was one of a special small group of visionaries who paved the way for the rest of us in critical care,” said Ann Thompson, School of Medicine vice dean, in the department’s memorial.

Critical Care Medicine chair Derek Angus called him “A North Star for critical care.”

Grenvik was editor of the first major textbook on the subject, a founding member of the Society of Critical Care Medicine, and instrumental in the national effort to define such critical care concepts as “critical care triage” and “brain dead” and the ideas of “letting die” and “terminal weaning,” including participating in White House councils on the subject.

Grenvik’s former colleague, Michael R. Pinsky, vice chair emeritus of the department, knew him for 40 years. Pinsky joined Pitt in 1981 as director of one intensive care unit — another concept Grenvik helped to pioneer — while Grenvik headed another ICU.

“When you met Ake, he just had an aura about him that you could just trust him,” Pinsky said,  and that he was interested in collaboration above all. “He was gracious and involving. He was a profoundly honest and fair man,” in assessing fellows’ daily reports, for instance — correcting legitimate issues they might have found but also gently explaining reasons why procedural changes perhaps weren’t needed.

Grenvik was instrumental in the multidisciplinary critical care training program, Pinsky said — the first such program to combine surgeons, anesthesiologists and internists. He also worked closely with pioneering transplant surgeon Thomas Starzl on the ICU component of liver and lung transplants.

“When he became one of the first critical care medicine doctors, he discovered right away that you could keep people alive forever using artificial means, and that raised a very important question: Should you?” Pinsky added — thus instituting a more humanistic approach to management of the critically ill. “He constantly brought the conversation back to: ‘What does the patient need or want?’”

Born in 1929 in Sweden, Grenvik earned his medical degree from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm in 1956. He completed residencies in general and thoracic surgery, mostly in anesthesia at the University of Uppsala, and there completed crucial clinical studies on cardiopulmonary interactions in the critically ill.

“His studies linked the fragmented laboratory and clinical observations from the past into a cohesive picture of heart-lung interactions that forms the basis for what is known today,” his department said. “That work also prepared him to understand and guide the care of critically ill patients.”

He was recruited to Pitt in 1968, where he was an anesthesiology resident and head of a new intensive care unit at what would become UPMC Presbyterian Hospital. It was second ICU of its kind in the world — both begun by Peter Safar, then at Pitt but earlier in Baltimore. Grenvik received the University’s Distinguished Professorship award. His 43-year Pitt career ended with his retirement in 2011.

Grenvik is survived by his children Anders, Monica and Stefan, their spouses and his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

From 10 a.m. to noon Sept. 25, the family will receive visitors at Beinhauer Funeral Home, 2828 Washington Road, McMurray, PA 15317. A graveside service will follow immediately at Forest Lawn Gardens Cemetery.

A reception for all guests will be held that day from 4 to 7 p.m., at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Pittsburgh at the Meadow Lands, 340 Racetrack Road, Washington, PA 15301.

Memorial gifts are suggested to the Grenvik Family Foundation at the Society of Critical Care Medicine, 500 Midway Drive, Mount Prospect, IL 60056, or www.sccm.org/donate.

— Marty Levine