“I really feel that I found a little niche in life – that God made a plan for me at the MGH.”
Few people can say they have worked at the same place, in the same profession, for their entire career. But Roman Desanctis, MD, director of Clinical Cardiology emeritus at the MGH, can – and he also can say he would not change a thing.
“The greatest pleasure I have known is being a doctor,” says Desanctis. “If some 60 years ago I were to have written down what I wanted to do in life, it would be this.
Desanctis, 83, who was one of the oldest practicing physicians at the MGH, retired last week. He began his career at the hospital as an intern in 1955, fresh out of Harvard Medical School. A native of Arizona, Desanctis had not planned to stay in New England long. He bemoaned the endless winters – had every intention of returning to the warmth of Tucson – but wanted to teach as well as practice, and there was no medical school near his home.
So home became the MGH.
Cardiology was his specialty. He organized the first coronary care unit, serving as its director for 10 years. From 1981 to 1998, he was director of Clinical Cardiology and acting chief of the Cardiac Unit from 1989 to 1991. For the last half century, he has played a pivotal role in teaching and training scores of MGH cardiologists.
In 2007, he became the first recipient of the MGPO Trustees’ Medal, which recognizes individuals who have made a monumental and lasting impact on the MGH and its physician community. But despite all of his achievements and accolades, Desanctis believes his greatest success is the relationships he has had with his patients.
“I think if I had to put it into perspective, I’m first of all a doctor, and it’s been a sheer joy. I love my patients. I love my practice. I’m not just a doctor but also a friend.”
Three generations of the Mills family have been patients of Desanctis. “I remember driving my mother to her appointments,” says Linda Mills. “And she would always say, ‘I am on my way to see God – Dr. Desanctis, the man who saved my life.’”
Gentle, kind, empathetic – all adjectives used by patients and colleagues to describe Desanctis – yet he is also humble. Notable patients include King Hassan II of Morocco, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, and late Celtics coach Red Auerbach; but names and titles mean little to a man who prides himself on the emotional connection he has with all his patients.
“He has a sensitivity and an ability to understand – I think more than most – how his patients feel,” says W. Gerald Austen, MD, chair of the MGH Chiefs Council. “He is able to transmit that so they feel he really understands, he really cares. It makes a real difference in terms of being able to face some often difficult decisions knowing there is someone like Dr. Desanctis on their side. It makes me sad. We are both the same vintage. There are not many of us left from that era. But my main sadness is for the hospital and his patients.”
Austen and Desanctis have known each other for 63 years. They met as classmates at Harvard Medical School and in a strange twist of fate Austen is also Desanctis’ godfather. “I wanted to get married during my last year of medical school, and my priest wouldn’t marry me unless I was confirmed; Jerry was the only Catholic I knew in Boston. So we went out on a nice April evening, I got confirmed, and Jerry and I have been close ever since. The things he has done here at the MGH are beyond belief. He is so good. He has such integrity,” says Desanctis.
Desanctis will not leave the MGH entirely. He plans to continue teaching and assisting with fundraising efforts for the hospital.
“Someone who has been in medicine for almost 60 years has a perspective that might be of some value and maybe we can get the young doctors looking more at the patients and less at their computers,” says Desanctis – sound advice from a physician who knows the heart inside and out.
Read more articles from the 02/07/14 Hotline issue.
EXTRAORDINARY JOURNEY: Desanctis during the 70s and today
CELEBRATING FRIENDSHIP: Desanctis, left, Austen and
Andrew Warshaw, MD, MGH surgeon-in-chief emeritus