Aug. 23, 2023 — For Sal Anzalone, M.D., getting accepted into the University of Florida felt like winning the lottery.
The 1986 College of Medicine alumnus and first-generation American grew up speaking Italian with his family and spent his high school days volunteering in labs and emergency rooms, determined to become the first in his family to attend college and pursue a career in health care.
“I liked dealing with people on a personal level, and it was cool to be able to see patients get better as a result of their care,” Anzalone said. “I also knew if I became a physician, I’d be challenged for the rest of my life and never bored. For me it felt more like a vocation than a job, something I do just because I enjoy it.”
During medical school, he worked alongside peers who shared a passion for helping patients and found himself gravitating toward a career in pediatrics. After completing his medical studies, Anzalone left his home state of Florida for 25 years, first completing his pediatrics residency as chief resident at T.C. Thompson Children’s Hospital at the University of Tennessee, then practicing in Pennsylvania for two decades.
During that time, Anzalone’s two eldest sons, inspired by their father’s career, attended medical school themselves and carry on his legacy today as physicians based in the same Billings, Montana, hospital.
“I think they saw me enjoying what I do in my career and it was something that spoke to them,” he said.
Giving back where it all started
It was Anzalone’s youngest son, Alex, who brought him back to the Sunshine State. Recruited to the Florida Gators football team, he played as a starting linebacker until his graduation in 2016. He then joined the NFL and is currently team captain for the Detroit Lions.
“It made sense for me to move down to Florida for the next part of my career, with my son playing football for the team I’ve always cheered on,” Anzalone said. “I decided I wanted to come back where I started.”
Today, Anzalone is the medical director of pediatrics at Healthcare Network in Naples, Florida, where he is partnering with other health organizations in Southwest Florida to address the growing issue of childhood obesity.
“About 40% of the children in our area of coverage are overweight, and COVID-19 really accentuated that problem,” he said. “These children are in great need of counseling and direction because this can lead to metabolic problems, such as the fact that we’re seeing more children with pre-diabetes.”
In 2021, Anzalone partnered with the Togetherhood Initiative, which offers free nutrition counseling and physician visits to more than 30,000 Collier County children served by Healthcare Network. The initiative is currently funded through grants and the Florida Department of Health, with efforts underway to transition the program to being self-funded for long-term sustainability.
The county’s wide income gaps among residents make it a particularly meaningful place to get such a project off the ground, he said.
“A lot of this has been about taking a team approach because everybody was working in silos,” Anzalone said. “My goal was to bring these experts together, which is the way you can make a real impact with managing these children’s needs and getting results.”