Commencement Address, Fall 2010 - Dr. Daniel Mazzuchi

Dr.Daniel Mazzuchi
Dec. 11, 2010


Surprises and Remembrances

Members of the Board of Trustees, President and Mrs. Wong, Provost Koch, Distinguished Members of the Faculty, Members of the Winter Graduating Class of 2010, Parents, friends, and guests.

I cannot tell you how surprised, pleased and honored I am to have been asked to be your Winter Commencement Speaker and to receive an honorary degree from this wonderful institution.

In my 71 years I have had many surprises. I had a hole-in-one on Number 7 at the Marquette Golf Course. I had a fire truck running around the city with my name on it for many years. These, among others, were truly unexpected events. And some of these surprising things have been unexpectedly helpful to me in ways I am only beginning to really understand.

So, the title of my address today is “Surprises and Remembrances.”

What I want to do is to share with you a few of the most important surprises in my life and some snapshots of a few people whose lives have touched me in mysterious ways.

I do this in the hope that you may find them both interesting and relevant.

And, there is a bit of humor in many of them.

First, the Surprises

Surprise #1:  Being a bartender.

I worked my way through college and medical school by being a bartender. By the way, a dollar earned in 1960 equals about seven dollars today. Back then I could save about $1,500 each summer. Imagine having a summer job today that let you save $10,000.

Anyway, I loved being a bartender. It felt kind of manly, and it gave me the independence I craved. What surprised me about it was how older people, men and women alike, would tell me the most personal stuff. Things that I would expect people to mention only to their closest friends.

It took me a while to realize that I was being trained to be a listener, that people were beginning to see me as someone they could confide in, and that the telling of all their problems and concerns was therapeutic.

I discovered later on how important it was to be a listener when I became a physician, but I know that listening is an important attribute of anyone who is dealing with people, especially where trust is needed.

So, tending bar gave me my Bachelor’s Degree in listening. We don’t learn everything in school!

Surprise #2: Connie says “Yes.”

I went to a small Jesuit College in Massachusetts from 1957-1961. In December of my senior year I decided to work over Christmas break instead of going home. I heard about Connie from one of my friends who told me she was a nurse at the local V.A. Hospital and fun to be with. I called her, introduced myself, and we had our first date on New Year’s Eve.

I don’t really know what to say about it except “I knew.” I was 21 years old, and when I looked into her beautiful face, I knew that this was to be the one for me to spend the rest of my life with.

But, I didn’t know if she knew. And we had only just met. But, two weeks later I took the risk and asked her to marry me—and she said YES!

I couldn’t believe it. My mother and father couldn’t believe it either. I won’t quote them here, but let’s just say we worked it out.

We married a year later, and in the next eight years we had seven children! As you may imagine, this brought a certain focus to our lives. And this was all before the discovery of disposable diapers!

Watching those children grow, watching Connie give so much of herself, her time, her energy, to see that they were loved and cared for has taught me more about what real love is than anything else in my life.

Surprise #3: The Rapidly Changing Face of Medicine

When I was born in May of 1939, antibiotics had not yet been discovered, nor had television, nor jet planes, nor personal computers. Most people lived where their parents lived, and their aunts and uncles and grandparents if they were still alive. In the last 100 years, average life expectancy has increased by nearly two decades. An old person when I was growing up was 50 or 60. That is hardly the situation today.

When I got out of medical school in 1965, there was no heart surgery and brain surgery was uncommon and extraordinarily hazardous. Diabetes was very difficult to control and often lethal at a very young age. Modern antibiotics were just being discovered, and there was virtually no technology. We had X-ray and EKG, and that’s about it.

Medical school had prepared us to know about disease, especially what we called the Natural History of Common Illnesses. The principal service a physician of that day could offer was a rigorous history and a physical examination.

These skills, which took so long to learn, are vastly less important today, and I am still blown away by how quickly that has happened.

It’s not quite “Star Trek” yet, but almost. There is a machine in every corner of every hospital or doctor’s office that will spit out data about a patient if only you will ask it to. It will quantify and qualify virtually every illness. It will prepare the patient for surgery, map the spread of malignancy, allow you to see inside the body and inside the cell. This is a highly enlightened technological age.

And, you know what is the greatest surprise of all? As fast as these changes have happened to my generation, they will happen even faster to yours. Because in this day, new information is researched, developed and applied to human use with the efficiency of a science fiction movie. Get ready to have all that you know become obsolete. Get ready to find a way to engage in life-long learning.


1. Elsa Fox

My mother’s mother, Elsa Fox, was born Elsa Sonneman in 1893 along the Oder River in East Prussia. She immigrated to the United States with her family somewhere near the turn of the century and settled in Wisconsin. She met my grandfather while in school, and they eventually settled in Washington, D.C.

She was widowed in 1940, two years after my parents were married and moved in with us. My father called her “Toots” and loved her as his own mother. To me and my siblings she was NANA, but she was really a second mother for all of us.

Her bedroom door was always open. You could go into her room and tell her anything, without fear that she would squeal on you. She never judged us. She let us tell her a few off-color jokes, or try a sip of her ever present bottle of sweet wine or curl up on her bed and watch TV. Or just sit with her if we were lonely or troubled. She loved us all without any reservation whatsoever.

When I was grown and had moved to Marquette and she was in her 80’s, she would call once or twice a year and say she was coming up for a visit. “How long Nana?” I would say, and she would always say, “a few weeks or a few months.” And, she would stay a few weeks or as long as three months. I always had a room for her, though she didn’t demand much privacy. She referred to me as the Lord and Master, saying “when is the Lord and Master coming home for dinner?”

On her last visit to Marquette we sat in my kitchen and she told me the story of her long and very uncomfortable boat ride across the Atlantic when she was 12 years old and of the wonder at seeing a new land and the fear of never going home again. I was too dumb to have gotten that talk on tape, but I will always remember it as I will always remember her, and Nana always made me laugh. Here is a picture of her I will never forget. There she is, sitting in my living room watching her favorite afternoon soap opera, her body bent slightly forward, watching the drama unfold. And then she yells at the lead female character, “Don’t listen to him honey, he’s no damn good!”

What my beloved Nana Fox taught me was that our immigrant ancestors gave us more than life at great sacrifice to themselves and with great courage. They gave us dignity and hope and opportunity.

Whenever I stand on a stage, and especially today, I feel them standing here with me, and I want to hug them and thank them for giving so much of themselves so that I and my family could have a better life.


2. Jim Tretheway

When I first met Jim Tretheway in the early 1970’s, he was an angry man. He had come to the Emergency Room with chest pain, and no one had been there to see him. It took over two hours for the doctor on call to finally come in to check him out, and he was very rightly upset about it.

Jim was the retired editor of the Mining Journal, and I had just been elected Chief of Staff at Marquette General Hospital. He came to my office, asked to see me, and after he had introduced himself he asked me to read a series of articles he had just written about the inadequacies of the Marquette General Hospital Emergency Room.

I read them quietly, and then I told him I agreed with every word he had written. I also told him that modernizing our emergency room was my first priority as the new Chief of Staff, that it would take about six months to accomplish and I invited him to watch the progress with me. I asked him to hold off publishing these articles because I thought they might harm our ability to improve the situation. But I also said if he didn’t like the progress we were making, he could publish them with my blessing.

It all worked out very nicely. MGH got its first full-time Emergency Department and set the very high standard that it has maintained and improved upon to this day. And those articles were never published.

And, Jim Tretheway and I became friends, and we became golf partners. Playing together in the men’s league at Marquette Golf Club for many years, we were a Mutt and Jeff team and produced lots of smiles in our opponents. He was 5’4” and 135 lbs. I was 6’3” and 250 lbs. He used nothing but wooden clubs, and I used all irons. We had a lot of fun together.

A few years after we met I was carrying the beeper for the Cardiac Arrest Team, and it went off, the voice saying “Code 5 Emergency Room.” I ran there as fast as I could and found that CPR had already been started on an older man that looked like he was beyond help. I took over the CPR pumping his chest for fully 10 minutes before I realized that it was Jimmy, my partner and my friend.

I said a special prayer, and we worked for a long time before he came back to sinus rhythm. Because of the length of the resuscitation, I was afraid that his brain might be damaged, so I went up to the CCU with him and sat at the foot of his bed, hoping for the best. About 40 minutes later he opened his eyes, looked around the room, saw me and said “Well, Dan, I know I’m not in Heaven because you are here with me.”

He was fine. He lived many years after that, saved by the emergency hospital system that he had helped to create.


3. George

When I retired from practice, I became a hospice volunteer. I had seen a lot of death and suffering, and I thought my experience as a physician would be of help. I didn’t want to volunteer as a physician though; I just wanted to be Dan again and do my best to comfort dying people.

During my first visit to a hospice patient, I was introduced by a nurse who knew me. “This is Dan Mazzuchi. He used to be a doctor,” she said, “ but now he is a real person.” I have never forgotten that introduction and have always wondered since just how much our uniforms and our titles isolate us from the rest of our fellow men.

Shortly after, I met George. George was dying a slow and painful death from chronic heart and lung disease, and he had to labor to speak. But, speak he did, and over the next several weeks he told me the story of his life. And we became friends, a friendship that grew to mean a great deal to both of us.

George was ready to go, tired of all the pain and helplessness but couldn’t understand why God had kept him alive so long when he didn’t want to be. Finally, he became angry with God for not taking him and became depressed and guilty because of his anger.

A couple of weeks later, he was all smiles again, and I asked him what had caused such an obvious change in his mood. George said, “I finally figured out why God has kept me alive.” “Why, George?” I said. He said, “For you. God wants me to teach you something about living before I die.”

I thought I was helping him, but he was helping me.

I thought I was consoling him, but he was consoling me.

I thought I was the teacher, but I was the one being taught.


Take-home Lessons

So—what can we say in summary about these things? What are the take-home lessons?

1. Learn to be a good listener. Give time and attention to others, and they will hold you in their hearts.

2. Remember that we accomplish very little by ourselves. Having someone believe in you, especially if they love you is the most potent catalyst to achievement in existence.

3. Remember that you have just begun to learn. Learning must be a lifetime commitment.

4 . Be prepared to learn from everyone you meet. It is amazing what people can teach you if you let them.

5. Be prepared to accept twists and turns in your life. Smile at them. Build bridges. Make friends. Roll with the punches. It gets better. Who knows? You may even save your life in the process.

And finally, remember those who gave you life—and dignity—and hope and opportunity. They are all with you here today, proud of you and smiling at your success.

It has been an unforgettable experience for me to be with you here today. I wish all of you the very best as you continue your life’s adventure. God be with you always. Thank you.


Daniel S. Mazzuchi
Northern Michigan University
Winter Commencement Ceremonies
December 11, 2010