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Vol. LXVI, No. 2
January 17, 2014
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‘An Incredible Place’
NIH Alum Pizzo Returns, Applauds Unique Environment

On the front page...

Dr. Philip Pizzo is warmly welcomed back to NIH.

Dr. Philip Pizzo is warmly welcomed back to NIH.

Before there was a Children’s Inn at NIH. Long before the current 75+ percent survival rate for pediatric cancers or the new hope for an AIDS-free generation. Before HIV and AIDS were even realities, there was a young physician finishing his residency at Children’s Hospital in Boston. Interested in research, infectious disease and cancer, he was abruptly summoned to Bethesda in June 1973. NIH needed a pediatrician to treat “Teddy,” a boy living in a sealed room on the 13th floor of the Clinical Center.

“This was one of those galvanizing changes in life that really altered my career and who I think I am as an individual,” said the former resident, Dr. Phil Pizzo, now also former dean of Stanford medical school and former chief come home of NCI’s Pediatric Oncology Branch.

Continued...

Teddy, Pizzo explained, had a severely compromised immune system. He’d been diagnosed with aplastic anemia at age 10. For his health, he was isolated from family, friends and virtually all human contact. Teddy survived 8 more years—vigorously protected from potential pathogens—in a specially ventilated, see-through case about the size of a large bathroom.

“He grew up and I grew with him,” Pizzo recalled. “He was an exemplar of resilience, at the most significant and fundamental level. We learned a lot from Teddy.”

A Pizzo successor as Pediatric Oncology Branch chief, Dr. Crystal Mackall, introduces him at the Great Teachers lecture. Pizzo shares a laugh with former colleagues Dr. Fred Gill (l) and Dr. Harvey Klein.

A Pizzo successor as Pediatric Oncology Branch chief, Dr. Crystal Mackall, introduces him at the Great Teachers lecture.

Pizzo shares a laugh with former colleagues Dr. Fred Gill (l) and Dr. Harvey Klein.

Forty years after his arrival in Bethesda, the investigator returned to NIH recently, with an overview of lessons learned and an abundance of perspective. Part of the Contemporary Clinical Medicine: Great Teachers lecture series, his talk offered a unique glimpse “at the subtext behind the headlines” of a career chock full of headlines. Pizzo attributed much of his success to his time spent at NIH.

“There has not been an environment in my life and career more formative and more important than this institution,” he said. “It really is an incredible place.”

One of Pizzo’s successors as POB chief, Dr. Crystal Mackall, introduced him as someone who “put the Pediatric Oncology Branch on the map for teaching us how to manage infections in immunocompromised hosts and the pioneering work he did for children with HIV infection.”

Well wishers (from l) CC senior investigator Dr. Harvey Alter, NHLBI’s Dr. Neal Young and NHLBI deputy director Dr. Susan Shurin greet the former NIH’er who helped transform the prognosis for childhood cancers.

Well wishers (from l) CC senior investigator Dr. Harvey Alter, NHLBI’s Dr. Neal Young and NHLBI deputy director Dr. Susan Shurin greet the former NIH’er who helped transform the prognosis for childhood cancers.

Photos: Bill Branson

Four qualities, she suggested, make Pizzo “a beloved and timeless leader, a role model for all of us.” She noted his “driven, focused and determined” work ethic; an “incredible power to develop a vision and a boldness—he taught ‘If you aren’t going to envision grand success, then it’s never going to happen’”; a remarkable sense of humor; and his “ability to tell a story.”

Pizzo’s own story, he pointed out, may appear in retrospect to have unfolded neatly and tidily “in a linear fashion,” but actually consisted of myriad, unpredictable “intertwining threads that came together.” He emphasized several of those threads in particular:

Basic science. “I want to underscore the incredible importance of basic science research and how that contributes to everything that improves the lives we value so much.”

Unwitting instructors. “Surprisingly, the people I felt I learned the most from were not the esteemed professors or the extraordinary faculty. They were largely the patients—those individuals who I cared for, did my personal research on—and my immediate colleagues.”

Medical students formally taught to pay attention. “The listening part has proven to be extraordinarily valuable not just in terms of clinical activity but also in my role as administrator in different sectors.”

Pizzo discusses his experiences before, during and after his career at NIH
Pizzo discusses his experiences before, during and after his career at NIH.

The value of teamwork. “We take it for granted now, but bridging together investigators with research nurses, biostatisticians, clinical pharmacologists was at the time unique to NIH” and bolstered not only the research itself, but also the well-being of the patient.

Psychosocial components of clinical care. “The Pediatric Oncology Branch then and now has really connected the dots between humanism and patient care,” said Pizzo, who had attended POB rounds that morning. “The branch still brings together those essential ingredients that allow children to go through the rigors of clinical trials in ways that are meaningful and significant.”

Perseverance. “Tenacity pays off in unexpected ways,” he stressed, describing early efforts to get the Children’s Inn built and to develop Camp Fantastic, with unforeseen help from congressional spouses, parents of patients and private sector contributors.

Thick skin. Pizzo noted the strong protests he endured—some from staffers who threatened to quit, and did—when early in the AIDS epidemic he decided that the POB would begin to treat kids with the still-mysterious and fear-inducing disease. Witnessing in person the marked neurological deterioration suffered by several of the children convinced him. “Patients can make a difference in the way we think about new ventures,” he said. Under Pizzo’s watch, the Clinical Center was the first hospital to administer continuous AZT—“the beginning of hope,” he calls it—a landmark treatment achievement in the epidemic.

he gathers with longtime friends (from l) NIA director Dr. Richard Hodes, CC director Dr. John Gallin and Gill, chief of the CC’s internal medicine consultation service.
He gathers with longtime friends (from l) NIA director Dr. Richard Hodes, CC director Dr. John Gallin and Gill, chief of the CC’s internal medicine consultation service.

After 23 years, Pizzo left NIH in 1996 to head pediatrics at Harvard. In 2000, he was lured west to lead Stanford Medicine. After a dozen years there, Pizzo stepped down as dean in 2012 for a new phase. Now a full-time professor, he lends his voice and experience to various scientific advisory boards, advocates for biomedical research and mentors transitioning scientists. He’s also developing an exciting university-based program for life and career transition.

He speaks out frankly on vital issues. “The NIH in the intramural program—and elsewhere—needs more women leaders,” he said, vocalizing anew a topic he initiated before leaving Stanford: more flexible career paths for women physician-scientists.

Addressing stem cell research, Pizzo said it’s important that “we not let political agendas impact promising research that can truly make a difference.”

Finally, he closed with an encouragement to current NIH’ers, “I say, as someone who was part of this institution from the early seventies to the mid-nineties and now see it in full glory of the early 21st century, that you have every reason to be proud of what you do every day.”


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