‘Life is precious’

Treated for a brain tumor at 16, VCOM student rotates with his former neurosurgeon

Michael Fazzini, OMS IV, describes the “incredible” experience of completing a clinical rotation with neurosurgeon L. Dade Lunsford, MD.

On a summer afternoon at UPMC Presbyterian hospital in Pittsburgh, Michael Fazzini, OMS IV, is with a patient who has a brain tumor. She’s set to undergo Gamma Knife radiosurgery, in which neurosurgeons use focused beams of radiation to target the tumor without incisions to the skull. Fazzini listens attentively as the patient discusses the procedure with her neurosurgeon, L. Dade Lunsford, MD.

What the patient doesn’t know is that Fazzini, too, received Gamma Knife radiosurgery from Dr. Lunsford after being diagnosed with a brain tumor at age 16. Twelve years later, Fazzini has a clean bill of health and is a student at the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine in Blacksburg, Virginia. He made Pittsburgh news by completing a four-week clinical rotation with his former neurosurgeon this summer. Fazzini spoke with The DO about his journey to medicine and how his experiences have shaped his approach to patient care.

Michael Fazzini, OMS IV (left), poses with neurosurgeon L. Dade Lunsford, MD, who treated Fazzini for a brain tumor 12 years ago. Fazzini recently completed a clinical rotation with Dr. Lunsford. (Photo by Andrew Russell, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Reused with permission.)

You rotated at the same hospital where you received treatment. What was that like?

That time in my life is not something I like to replay, but Dr. Lunsford and his team made such an impression on me. Their care inspired me to become a physician, so working directly with Dr. Lunsford was an incredible experience.

My medical history has allowed me to relate to patients in a way I never would have been able to otherwise, especially on this rotation. When I was diagnosed and went through treatment, I was extremely scared and unsure of what the future held. You never forget those feelings. There’s not one minute that goes by when you’re not aware that life is precious. As a future DO, I’m there to serve people, and being able to empathize so deeply with what patients are going through really helps.

Were you uncomfortable with making your diagnosis public?

For a long time I didn’t share my story—I’d say maybe two of my med school classmates knew it had happened at all. But then I started thinking, what if there’s a 15-year-old who’s diagnosed with a brain tumor and feels depressed and hopeless? I hope that by hearing about my experiences, others in similar situations can see it’s possible to overcome obstacles and achieve your dreams in life.

Why did you choose osteopathic medicine?

The osteopathic philosophy of treating the whole patient and having such a large tool kit with which to help people really resonated with me. Osteopathic medical training is very clinical, but at the same time it’s very focused on people.

Do you have any advice for med students on organizing clinical rotations?

If you want something, whether it’s competitive rotations or residencies or any other opportunity, be persistent. Call everyone you can think of and even if they say no, don’t give up. Keep reaching out until you get the answer you want.

What’s next for you?

I’m leaning toward specializing in primary care because I think that’s the area that will allow me to help the greatest number of patients. My primary care doctor is the one who ordered the CAT scan that found my brain tumor, and he’s continued to mentor me throughout my journey toward becoming a physician. I love interacting with patients, and primary care allows you to learn the whole array of medicine.