Jan. 19, 2020 – A 15-year-old Anthony Pizzo, of Tampa, Florida, sat transfixed in front of his family’s television screen, watching neurosurgeon Ben Casey, M.D., navigate the complexities of medical practice at County General Hospital on the popular medical drama series that aired in the 1960s. It was during this early time in Pizzo’s life that he set his sights on a similar future for himself.
“These television programs had convinced me that a career in medicine would put me where the action is,” recalls Pizzo, now retired after more than four decades of practice in plastic surgery. “I wouldn’t be desk-bound but instead able to interact with multiple people while making rounds, going to the emergency room and radiology departments, using my hands in the operating room, and, of course, all the while doing good for humanity.”
Pizzo began his medical training at the UF College of Medicine in 1967. Though he initially pursued OB-GYN, Pizzo developed an interest in surgery after observing Shands physicians perform plastic and orthopedic surgical procedures. During these years, he created relationships with faculty members who would not only teach him technical skill but offer friendship and guidance.
“Smiley Hill was my best friend on the staff, but I’m sure most of my classmates would say the same,” he says. “I truly marvel at the quality of the staff at the University of Florida College of Medicine during my stay there.”
Pizzo’s former classmate, Dempsey Springfield, M.D. ’71, remembers Pizzo as a “serious student who didn’t take himself too seriously.” It was Pizzo’s humble, dedicated work ethic that convinced Springfield of Pizzo’s promising future.
“Students who stood out did so because they were class clowns, made a particularly stupid or thoughtless move or thought themselves superior to their classmates. We had all of these in our class, but Tony was not one of them,” says Springfield. “On clinical rotations, he fulfilled his responsibilities, helped others and was kind to patients and staff. These attributes are invaluable but often underappreciated. Tony demonstrated them throughout medical school. After graduation, we parted ways, but I’m not surprised he had a successful career as a plastic surgeon.”
Pizzo went on to complete an internship in surgery at Stanford University Hospital and two years of residency in general surgery at Stanford before beginning a residency in plastic surgery at the St. Francis Memorial Hospital Institute of Plastic Surgery in San Francisco. From 1977 to 1979, Pizzo served in active duty with the U.S. Army, where he was named chief of the division of plastic surgery and director of the Letterman Army Medical Center Cleft Palate Panel.
Working as an independent surgeon for the first time in his career, Pizzo encountered a variety of cases from trauma wounds to skin cancer from both the active-duty population and their families. It was during these years when Pizzo gained intimate knowledge of the impact of war on those who fight.
“This was when I learned self-reliance,” he says. “It also taught me that it was not only those who fell in combat that made great sacrifices for their country, but also those who carry the scars of that experience.”
During his 35 years in private practice, Pizzo sat alongside his patients as they faced challenges like life-threatening melanomas, post-mastectomy breast reconstructions and facial trauma from car accidents and dog bites. He offered them patience and open ears.
“The best way to support my patients was to take the time to assure them I was giving them my best efforts, and that I would be there to answer all their questions,” says Pizzo. “I wanted them to know that time was on our side and that the scars would improve and fade.”
Pizzo retired in 2014 but doesn’t tire of reading about his profession in journals and publications. For Pizzo, plastic surgery is a lifelong passion, an opportunity to acquire and refine a host of knowledge and skills.
“It was the precision, delicacy and variety of cases in the practice of plastic surgery that I found so fascinating,” he says. “You are able to see the results of your craftsmanship and creativity.”
When he reflects on the future of medicine, a field in which mental, physical and emotional burnout continues to threaten the well-being of providers, Pizzo offers direct advice: speak up.
“Everyone asks the physician how their patient is doing. Rarely are they asked ‘How are you doing?’” says Pizzo. “I saw many an accomplished and caring surgeon who eventually committed suicide. Don’t be one of them. Ask for help if you need it. There is no shame in doing so.”