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Lifesaving neurosurgeon inspires career in medicine

| Saturday, July 9, 2016, 9:00 p.m.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Medical student, Michael Fazzini, 28, of Lower Burrell (left) stands with Dr. L. Dade Lunsford, 68, of Fox Chapel in Lunsford's office. When Fazzini was 16, he had a brain tumor that was treated by Lunsford using a Gamma Knife. Fazzini has started his rotation with Lunsford.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Medical student, Michael Fazzini, 28, of Lower Burrell (back) looks over the shoulder of Dr. L. Dade Lunsford, 68, of Fox Chapel in Lunsford's office. When Fazzini was 16, he had a brain tumor that was treated by Lunsford using a Gamma Knife. Now, Fazzini has started his rotation with Lunsford.

Michael Fazzini woke up at 4:30 a.m. to get ready for his first day on the job.

He was nervous. So nervous, that on the drive in, he prayed nothing would happen — no crashes, no break downs ... nothing to stop this moment awaiting him, 12 years in the making.

“I wanted to get there safely because I wanted to feel this,” said Fazzini, 28, of Lower Burrell. “I wanted to experience it.”

He walked into UPMC Presbyterian.

Then he waited for that moment — when he would see Dr. L. Dade Lunsford.

They met in 2004.

Fazzini was a sophomore sprinter at Burrell High School. Lunsford was in his 29th year at Presby.

Fazzini was having bouts of haziness and “zoning out,” he said. Otherwise healthy and strong, he would be there one moment, gone the next. His parents brought him in for testing.

Then the call came: brain tumor.

Fazzini turned to his mom and asked: “Am I going to die?”

“You get a phone call, there's a mass in your brain, and you start thinking, ‘Am I going to be alive in two weeks? Am I going to be disabled? Is this going to affect my thinking?' ” Fazzini said. “I was 16. The things that were important to me were running track and playing soccer. Then you're going to meet with all these specialists.”

Lunsford was among them.

In 1987, he brought a new technology to Presby: the Gamma Knife, which allows doctors to operate on the brain without opening the skull. By focusing beams of radiation on the growth, the Gamma Knife kills the nucleus of cells in the tumor. When the cells attempt to divide, they can't. The tumor dissolves.

Twelve years later, Fazzini walked into UPMC Presbyterian. This time, he wore a white lab coat, not the blue pajamas he wore the day of his treatment.

He attended a meeting. He sat silently in a conference room, waiting.

A Gamma Knife resident saw him.

“Are you Michael?” the resident asked.

“Yes.”

“Come with me.”

They walked down shiny-floored hallways. When they reached neurosurgery, Fazzini remembered every detail.

There was his room, right next to the hallway bathroom. There were the halos that fit over patients' skulls, to help guide the Gamma Knife. Everything was exactly as it was before.

After the surgery, on April 23, 2004, he spent one night in the hospital.

Two weeks later, he was back with the track team.

He returned to the hospital only for routine checkups, every six months, then every year, then every few years.

During his last checkup, he told Lunsford he was considering pre-med. He had studied molecular biology at Clarion University and was looking into the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine in Blacksburg, Va. Before the tumor, he had not considered medicine. But the memories of Lunsford and his staff resonated.

“So compassionate, so caring, so empathetic,” Fazzini said. “You don't forget that. What better way to give back than to offer the same thing they gave me?”

Fazzini enrolled. His first year passed, then his second. He leaned toward family medicine, because, as a physician, he wanted to build long-term relationships with patients.

When it was time for rotations, when students spend four weeks learning at hospitals, Fazzini dreamed of working at one hospital in particular, under a certain neurosurgeon.

He made a call to some family friends, who knew some people who knew Dr. Lunsford.

And everything came together.

His rotation at Presby began Tuesday.

When he walked into neurosurgery, he recognized hospital staff, and they remembered him, despite the changes. The frightened teen with long, dark curls was a grown man with a shaved head, nervous smile and stethoscope hanging around his neck.

And then, the moment arrived: Dr. L. Dade Lunsford rounded a corner and came face to face with Michael Fazzini. Again.

They shook hands. Fazzini said something. He doesn't remember what.

“Probably just, ‘Hello, it's good to see you,' ” Fazzini said. “But I honestly don't remember because I was so nervous.”

They got to work. They approached a patient who was scheduled to undergo Gamma Knife treatment. The patient was scared. Fazzini talked to him, thinking: This person was me. This was me, and now, I'm standing on the other side.

“You can have all the grades in the world, but you cannot know that feeling unless you've been through it,” Fazzini said. “It never leaves you.”

He calmed the patient in ways someone else could not. Then they moved on to the next one.

When Fazzini drove home that night, the anxiety was gone.

Now, he felt only excitement. He called his parents. He called friends.

And he told them about his day with Lunsford, 12 years later.

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