Drs. Christopher, ’03, and Daniel DeSimone, ’06: From NU to the Mayo Clinic
May 29, 2012 by Lisa M. McMahon, '09
Christopher and Daniel DeSimone are following similar paths. They grew up in the Little Italy section of Niagara Falls, N.Y., and both attended Niagara University with the dream of becoming doctors. After graduation, they attended the University at Buffalo. As is often the case, they met their wives here at Niagara (Christopher's wife is Brenna (Salfi), '03, and Daniel's wife is Lori (McGowan), '05.*) Today, the brothers are interns at the prestigious Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. We caught up with them recently to ask them a few questions about their time at Niagara and their lives after graduation.
What did you want to be when you were a child? Why?
Christopher: I’ve never wanted to be anything else but a doctor. There were many people in my family with health issues, especially in the area of cardiovascular disease, so I was well aware of the impact and influence a doctor could have on one’s life. My Nanna and Nonno (Grandma and Grandpa) literally loved going to the doctor. The smile and happiness I saw on their faces when they spoke of their doctor --- it was one of admiration, one of endearment, one of trust. I was drawn in by how much they revered literally a total stranger. I wanted to incite these feelings in my family members as well as in others that I encountered.
Daniel: I remember wanting to be a fireman when I was growing up. Visiting a firehouse was a great experience when I was a young kid and I would be able to help others in a time of need.
How did you get interested in the sciences?
CD: I’ve always had a passion for the sciences — mainly the cool aspects, like fireworks, optical illusions, and anything wondrous I could look at under my Fisher Price microscope. However, I had my mind on many other things and would get easily bored. Three people were pivotal in changing my life and fostering a career in science early on: my father; my high school chemistry teacher, Mr. John Brinkman; and Dr. Mark Gallo.
I distinctly remember my father saying to me “If you want to be a doctor, you need to make science your strongest subject.” The next day I was in my chemistry class taught by John Brinkman, and I remember the video of a chemist who was dropping metals into water. As he went down the periodic table, the explosions became absolutely amazing. I was reeled in and I couldn’t get enough. Mr. Brinkman was the only teacher to get me excited about school work in high school.
I also took an AP biology course and this is where I met a brilliant man -- Dr. Mark Gallo. He was very comedic, easy going, and super smart. We clicked instantly and my passion for science grew deeper. I knew that I would fit right in at Niagara with Dr. Gallo around.
DD: Science was my worst subject in school. My father always said to make an area that you are weak in your strongest.
What made you choose Niagara University?
CD: I come from a very, very tightknit Catholic family. Being close to them was important. I remember people urging me to leave the area and go to “big name” universities. There was no way I was ready or even wanted to leave home. So, Niagara was really the perfect fit for me and actually ended up being one of the most important decisions that I ever made in my life.
DD: Niagara University was the only school I applied to when I was graduating from Niagara Falls High School. I knew I wanted to go to Niagara from day one. It also helped to have an older sister and brother who both attended Niagara University! Niagara University provides a “world-class” education and it is in my backyard. This was an easy choice.
What were your career plans at that time?
DD: My career plans were to ultimately become a medical doctor. I double-majored in biochemistry and biology and finished in four years. I took summer classes, participated in research, and volunteered with Sister Fran and her excellent NUCAP (Niagara University Community Action Program) program during these years.
What kinds of research did you participate in while in NU’s science programs?
CD: My time at Niagara began my formative years in the sciences. I was mentored by Dr. Robert S. Greene, who had probably more influence on my career than anyone. He put in so much time and he really believed in me. He got me excited and I started working in his lab at the end of my freshman year. It was an amazing experience — he taught me about cancer biology, but also how to achieve career goals and about life. He made me a better person, and I have to credit him for starting me down this career pathway with the preparation I needed to be so successful.
My research with Dr. Greene involved studying the process of apoptosis as a means of finding an anticancer modality. This was part of a larger treatment strategy developed at Roswell Park called Photodynamic Therapy (PDT). My senior thesis involved studying the apoptotic process in a cell-free extract made from tumor cells in order to study the effects of certain prototypical drugs. Dr. Greene and I found out that a drug used in PDT worked through a pathway involving Caspases. Our work was accepted and presented at a symposia where Dr. James Watson, one of the scientists who had solved the structure of DNA, was the guest speaker. Dr. Greene presented the data and it was well accepted. I presented the data at the Eastern College Science Conferences (ECSC) and the Regional Tri-Beta meeting of the National Biology Honor Society, and won the award for outstanding platform presentation at both.
DD: I worked on microbiology research involving Streptomyces bacteria. These bacteria produce almost two-thirds of the antibiotics that are currently used in patient care. I was hands on — I performed not only bench work, but also data analysis. I worked one-on-one with faculty mentors — something that does not commonly happen elsewhere.
Are there any particular professors who were mentors to you? How did they prepare you for your current residency at the Mayo Clinic?
CD: There were many. Dr. Robert Greene and Dr. Gallo for sure. Another was Dr. Joseph Forrester (chemistry). He knew I wanted to be a physician, but that I also really loved to do research, and he made me aware of a program called the M.D./Ph.D. program, during which you combine medical school and graduate school training and earn two doctorates. He was a great mentor; he taught me many great skills that I still carry with me today.
Dr. Prem Bharadwaj (physics) was a genius, and he made me his teaching assistant during my sophomore year. I continued to do this throughout my senior year.
My outlook on life changed with my exposure and education in philosophy, sociology, and religion while studying at Niagara. Dr. Raphael Waters (philosophy) really open my eyes and stimulated my thinking like never before. He was a provider of knowledge and opened my mind to many truths as well as to critically think about literature. He taught me one of the single most important things I’ve learned in a classroom ––that whenever we are looking to judge a situation, in terms of morals, we should always look both subjectively and objectively. I still keep this in the back of my mind.
Sr. Judith Merkle (religion) taught me more than anyone about medical ethics, and I knew that she was really trying to prepare me to do good in the world.
Dr. Stewart Whitney (sociology) was critical to my success, as he taught me about people, about how to deal with patients and how to deal with society. I learned about norms and culture and respect of people’s beliefs. This no doubt improved my skills in interacting with others.
My work-study job was at the Office of Academic Support. I met many wonderful people, such as Dr. Rita Pollard, who had a huge influence on me. Not only did she improve my writing, but she exemplified the type of teacher I wanted to become in an academic world. She truly cared for her students and would work tirelessly in workshops or during extra office hours for those who needed help; it was admirable. It was marvelous to see how many lives she had shaped --- she was a teacher of teachers and I always admired her style and demeanor. Patricia Kinner, the director, took me under her wing and helped me get to where I am now. She taught me many life lessons and stressed that God and family were the most important things in life.
I also had the privilege to work with three remarkable human beings: Dr. John Stranges, Dr. Nancy McGlen, and Father Joseph Levesque. They were all class acts and were exceptional at public speaking. They had great poise and grace, and they captured their audience from line one. Their example has helped me during interviews and presentations at meetings, and in being a better person.
Not only was I profoundly prepared for medical school because of my excellent science learning, but Niagara made me a better person. I really found out who I was and the type of person I wanted to be.
DD: Dr. Mark Gallo of the biology department was my mentor, role model, and most of all, friend. If I had a question regarding research, career plans, or life, he was there for me. Niagara University is filled with mentors like Dr. Gallo!
Tell me about your education and career path after Niagara, and what you are doing at the Mayo Clinic.
CD: Niagara University gave me all the preparation I needed to excel in medical school. The exceptional education I received made my time in medical school a rather easy and enjoyable one. I was much more prepared than those from other “big” name schools.
I went to the University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences for seven years. Four of these years were the traditional medical school education and it took me three years to achieve a Ph.D. I studied molecular cardiac electrophysiology and my doctoral dissertation won the Dean’s Award for outstanding thesis for the entire medical school (both medical and biomedical sciences combined).
After I completed the two doctoral degrees, I applied for an internal medicine residency position at the renowned Mayo Clinic with my brother. Currently, I am just about to start my final year in the program and am applying for a fellowship in cardiology with plans to become an invasive cardiac electrophysiologist.
DD: I attended the University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences for my medical degree. I obtained my M.D. degree in four years and I am currently completing my second year of residency in internal medicine at the Mayo Clinic. I further plan to specialize in infectious diseases.
How did NU prepare you for your current residency at the Mayo Clinic?
DD: Niagara University has and always will be my foundation from which I build upon. Niagara University taught me to be a leader, self-motivated, and a life-long learner. These are qualities that have been instrumental not only in residency, but in life.
What is it like working at such a renowned medical practice?
CD: It is an absolute dream come true, like a fairly tale. I thank God for blessing me and my brother with the opportunity to be a part of such a wonderful place with a mission to heal the sick. On a given day, you are either working with or alongside the pioneers and current world leaders in the fields of medicine. It is the place where ideas and treatments for the future of medicine are born. I witness a synergy of the best minds in medicine, world-class facilities, and cutting-edge treatment strategies in action each day at the clinic. There is a strong focus on improving medical care and its delivery, which is truly amazing to be a part of. Everyone at the clinic realizes we are a part of something really special –– much bigger than ourselves. We are all connected in one very important way, and this is in the passion we have to care for our patients.
DD: It is an absolute privilege to be working at the Mayo Clinic. Everyone is working together for a common cause and is willing to put others ahead of themselves. This is a place where the sum is far greater than its parts.
What’s your favorite part of the job and why?
CD: It is definitely my interaction with my patients each day. You enter into a relationship that only you and the patient are involved in -- no one else in the world has the ability to connect with another human being on that sort of level.
At the Mayo Clinic, we offer patients hope when other institutions or practitioners have told them that there is none. It is very rewarding when you are able to help patients, whether it be with a diagnosis, a treatment, or helping them understand their disease and giving them some answers. We are successful each day because we choose to treat the whole patient by seeing them as human beings who have feelings, who are sometimes scared, maybe lonely, and simply need compassion and understanding, and sometimes just want another human being to simply speak to and connect with.
DD: My favorite part of the job is talking with patients and never having to look at a clock. I get to learn from my patients and in turn, I do my best to provide them with the best care possible.
What are you most focused on right now?
CD: A large study that will have a tremendous impact on the field of medicine.
There are millions of patients with pacemakers and/or defibrillators. Patients who have these devices placed in the right side of the heart can develop adherent clots. If those patients also have a connection between the right and left sides of the heart called a patent foramen ovale (which is present at birth and persists in about 25 percent of the population,) it is plausible that these clots can break off and go from the right side of the heart to the left side, embolize to the brain and cause a stroke. Therefore, I am looking at the incidence of stroke as well as mortality in these patients. I am also interested in whether these patients do better on blood thinners or benefit from a procedure in which this “hole” in the heart is closed. The repercussions are enormous -- if these hold true, it may be recommended that patients with these devices be screened for a PFO to determine if it may be prudent to anticoagulate or close this hole, or to place the device on the outside of the heart. This could have a drastic change in the practice of medicine as well as an impact on many, many lives, and can potentially protect patients from stroke — so I am very excited for the results to be published.
DD: I am currently doing research on infective endocarditis, specifically looking at the incidence (new cases) of Viridans Group Streptococci Infective Endocarditis in Olmsted County, Minn. What is unique about this work is the recent guideline changes for dental prophylaxis. In 2007, the American Heart Association published updated guidelines in regard to patients with certain cardiac conditions who require antibiotics prior to dental procedures (cleanings, tooth removal, etc.). The new guidelines affected millions of patients in the United States who were receiving antibiotics prior to a dental procedure -- they no longer required an antibiotic. I have completed a manuscript that has been accepted for publication in the cardiology journal Circulation.
In addition, I am preparing to apply to Infectious Diseases Fellowship programs across the nation to pursue my goal of becoming an academic infectious diseases specialist. I want to see patients, teach, and answer questions that I see in the clinic and at the patient's bedside with clinical research.
Do you have any favorite stories from your work life that you can share?
DD: My favorite story involves an iPad and a man having a heart attack. I was at the gym when I heard someone yelling for aspirin. I rushed over to see a man who was profusely diaphoretic, pale, and having intense chest pain. I was with my brother Chris, who is also an internal medicine resident at Mayo Clinic, and another colleague. We gathered as much information as possible, and gave him aspirin and more nitroglycerin, but he continued to have chest pain. We obtained an EKG and compared this EKG to an old EKG from his medical records using an iPad (electronic medical records). There were new changes on this EKG indicating that he was having a severe heart attack. We directly transferred him to the cardiac catheterization lab where a clot was discovered in a main artery of his heart and was subsequently removed. His pain resolved almost instantaneously. He spent the night in the ICU and was discharged from the hospital a couple of days later. I see him regularly at the gym and he is doing great!
* Brenna and Lori are making Niagara proud, too! Brenna is a special education teacher in Rochester, Minn., and she and Christopher are expecting their first child this summer. Lori is at the Mayo Clinic with her husband, Daniel, working as a physician's assistant in orthopedic surgery.