One of the most difficult and unpleasant aspects of being middle-aged is beginning to experience the loss of friends and colleagues who have had a profound impact on one’s life. Those who have been, or continue to be, associated with the department of surgery of Maricopa Medical Center in Phoenix recently experienced such a loss with the passing of Daniel M. Caruso, MD, FACS, after a very determined and utterly courageous battle with cancer.
I first came to know Dan 9 years ago when Maricopa Medical Center’s need for a pediatric surgeon and my desire for a different practice situation in the Phoenix area converged, resulting in my becoming a member of his faculty. As my chairman and my friend, Dan had a significant positive impact on me, and though he was chronologically several years my junior, he taught and reinforced life lessons that I will forever carry forward. He was also a faithful reader of this column, and whenever I saw him in Arizona, he always had a kind word about my monthly efforts presented here.
Perhaps Dan’s most admirable trait was his loyalty. He was fiercely loyal to me, his other faculty, the staff of the Arizona Burn Center, and his resident trainees. In turn, he instilled in all around him a profound sense of loyalty to both himself and our department. Nothing exemplifies this better than the “leave no stone unturned” care he received from current faculty, hospital staff, and his former trainees over the last months of his life. In short, he was the leader of his pack.
Dan’s loyalty was not of the “fair weather” sort; it prevailed even in the face of potential adverse circumstances that promised to actually cause him more grief. Nor was his loyalty blind and without limits, as all who were ever in contentious conversation with him have likely been reminded, “I am Sicilian. Don’t put a gun to my head.” That said, his loyalty was, like everything else about him, appropriately measured and extraordinarily genuine, providing for all of us an example toward which to strive.
Being measured in all one’s responses to the adversity presented by others is another valuable lesson Dan taught me. I can only imagine the headaches, anxiety, and stress of being the chair of a department largely made up of “passionate” mid-career surgeons during tumultuous times of continuous change. Despite the fact that many of us frequently urged him to be more forceful, just say “no,” or otherwise flex his or our collective muscle, Dan was forever the calm voice in the storm, reacting in a measured way that was much more reminiscent of honey than vinegar. Dan provided indisputable evidence that your grandmother was correct when she told you that you will catch more flies that way.
Nowhere were these qualities more preeminently displayed than in the administration of the surgical residency program at Maricopa. As is common to most academically affiliated, community-based surgery programs, much of our collective identity as a department was cloaked in the residency program and our trainees. Being a product of the program himself, Dan was the consummate “keeper of the flame.” He was also a superb judge of character and surgical aptitude and the unsurpassed prophet of future success. He was a passionate advocate for those residents in whom he saw promise even when his view was aggressively challenged by others in the department who felt otherwise.
In the case of residents whose flaws in the form of either “expressions of youth” or academic performance caused some faculty to have a negative opinion, Dan remained singularly focused on what he saw as their future potential. He not only protected them, but also saw to it that they were provided every resource available to succeed. He ensured that all trainees who met his muster by working hard and taking excellent care of the patients were given every opportunity to succeed. When appropriate and necessary, his profound insight into others’ talents combined with his compassionate demeanor made him particularly well suited to make suggestions, to the very few, that they might be happier and more successful in a specialty other than surgery. In sum, he had an unsurpassed passion for training the next generation of surgeons, paying it forward into the future as he went.
Dan had both a profound sense of justice and a keen political sense about how and when to strategically best use his position and influence to ensure fairness of outcomes. Amongst his faculty, he was particularly adept at discerning whose talents were best suited to specific tasks and thus, whom he should assign to ensure the optimal outcome for the department, our trainees, and our patients. When once I met with him to express my profound concerns relative to how members of our department were being treated by a certain hospital committee, his response was to act swiftly to ensure that I was appointed to that committee. By doing so, he showed that he trusted my judgment to look out for the interests of our department whilst simultaneously resolving my own concerns. He also gently reinforced the valuable life lesson of not going to your boss only with a problem. Take along that potential solution as well.
As I look forward to Clinical Congress and seeing familiar faces from the “Copa,” past and present, I anticipate many firm handshakes and warm embraces as well as a few tears shed in shared grief. Plain and simple, Dan was the consummate critical care/burn surgeon, a passionate surgical educator, and overall, epitomized the phrase, “great guy.” Our world is a far better place because of his 53 years of labor in the fields of this life.
Somewhere, a red Ferrari with a Detroit Lions license plate is humming down a flat stretch of highway at a clearly excessive rate of speed with Bob Seger blasting from the stereo ...
Well done, my friend. Very well done.
Until next month …