Honoring Our Surgical Heritage: The Inaugural Catamount Surgeon Award

UVM President Tom Sullivan, at left, with Richard Gamelli, M.D.
UVM President Tom Sullivan, at left, with Richard Gamelli, M.D.’74

On January 20, 2017, Richard Gamelli, M.D.’74, professor emeritus at Stritch School of Medicine, Loyola University Chicago, received the inaugural Catamount Surgeon Award from the Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont. The award celebrates Dr. Gamelli’s many important contributions to the field. He retired in October 2014 as the Senior Vice President and Provost of Health Sciences at Loyola University Chicago, and The Robert J. Freeark Professor of Surgery. He also served as director of the Burn & Shock Trauma Research Institute and chief of the Burn Center at Loyola University Medical Center. Dr. Gamelli is a member of the UVM Board of Trustees. UVM Professor of Surgery Frank Ittleman, M.D., delivered the following remarks at the awards ceremony.

 When Dr. Norotsky asked me to speak tonight to commemorate Dr. Gamelli and the inaugural Catamount Surgeon award, I was both pleased and honored. Pleased because of the deep affection that I have for Dr. Gamelli and honored because of the respect and admiration that I hold for this man. As an afterthought to Dr. Norostky’s request, I asked him, “why me?'” He answered, without hesitation, “because you know him and you were there.”  I thought for a while about that reply and its implications. Yes, I have known Dr. Gamelli for many, many years, and, thankfully, we are both still here and if the truth be told, I was “there” well before the “there” to which Dr. Norotsky referred. A simpler explanation is my penchant for “remembrances of things past.”

Speaking of the past, I believe that it has been ill-treated of late. We are in such a rush to embrace the “now” and predict the “when” that we tend to forget how we actually got to the “here.”  I compare the disregard of the past to the uncoupling of a caboose from a moving train. The locomotive continues forward at break neck speed into the future, while the caboose slows and stops and eventually disappears far behind. Our past, the caboose, is filled with treasures-­ imagination, vision, youthfulness,  energy, unborn ideas, beginnings and endings,  rights and wrongs,  moments of great insight and abiding love and friendship, akin to what many of us feel tonight for Dr. Gamelli and his family. If we, as a medical community, allow the past to continue to fade in the distance and disappear, we will lose something very precious and irreplaceable. This is why the Catamount Surgeon award and Dr. Gamelli’s presence tonight as its first recipient, is a truly seminal event. It creates a continuum, reaffirms our surgical heritage and informs us of who we are today and what we may become in the future. As we honor Dr. Gamelli, I also want to applaud Dr. Norotsky and his leadership for establishing this bond between “there” and “here.”

Frank Ittleman, M.D.

The mold for the Catamount Surgeon was forged during the formative years of the Department of Surgery. For many of you, those responsible, those who bore the burden may only be names appendaged to an auditorium, a library, a professorship, a lecture series or a lonely plaque on a wall.  John Davis,  Jerry Abrams, David Pilcher, Larry Coffin, Roger Foster and many others, all accomplished surgeons, had a vision to create a surgical program of stature in a small New England town. They were dedicated to their craft and to the students and residents that looked to them for guidance. They were tough, yet empathetic, disciplined, yet creative. They weren’t icons, at least not then. They were imperfect to say the least. They had their foibles and fallibilities, but to us, this made them even more human and compelling. They were clinicians, mentors and teachers who pushed you to become better than they were themselves. For them, that would have been the ultimate compliment. They were the surrogate fathers that many of us so desperately needed.

Dr. Richard Gamelli’s professional life began back “there” as a medical student and resident at the Medical Center Hospital of Vermont.  My enduring memory of Richard is of a young man striding onto Baird 3, literally wrapped from neck to knees in his white lab coat, all the buttons secured and the pockets chock full of both the necessary and needless appurtenances of residency.  There were pages of patient work-ups, lab results, operative reports to be signed, articles to be read, manuscripts to be edited, experiments to be conducted, half eaten sandwiches, candy wrappers, coffee cups (not necessarily empty) and, of course, the requisite stethoscope stuffed amidst the debris. He had not yet, thankfully, adopted the God awful habit of pipe smoking which was ubiquitous amongst the attendings. That would come later.  But with his entry, I knew that there was a new kid on the block and that our lives, and the lives of our patients, were going to be very different and very much better from that point on.

Richard learned at the collective knees of great teachers. He was a discerning acolyte who absorbed the art and science like a sponge. From the beginning, you could tell that he was special. Exceedingly bright, inquisitive and imaginative, only to be matched by endless energy, dedication and an irrepressible spirit and drive. There was no guile, maybe, at times, a bit of sarcasm, but Richard always gave you the truth. He was able to see clarity where there was confusion and reason where there was chaos. He had the unique ability to parse a conundrum into its simplest parts and reach a solution. After Richard spoke, I would often say to myself, “I wish I had thought of that.” But, of course, we know that that makes all the difference. He was the consummate clinician who cared deeply about his patients and his profession.

Dr. Gamelli expected a great deal from those that he taught. His mantra was always effort and excellence. He held young surgeons accountable, but his expectations never exceeded those that he set for himself. If there was work to be done, it was going to be done right. His students thrived under his tutelage because he was fair, because he respected hard work and because his ethical compass was always true.

When confronted with grave problems, Richard, like all great surgeons, was his own best critic. A man of supreme confidence, he understood the dangers of hubris. Throughout it all, the victories and defeats, the good and the not so good moments, he maintained his sense of perspective and his wonderfully wry sense of humor.

Dr. Gamelli was given so very much by those who came before him and he spent the better part of three decades giving back to young surgeons all that he had learned. By any measure, Dr. Gamelli has had a career of great significance. Through his clinical experience, research and leadership, Richard has literally touched almost every aspect of the care of the surgical patient. He has, in many ways, exceeded his mentors, as it was meant to be. His apotheosis is well deserved.

Richard, in recounting the myriad gifts that you still carry with you from your past, the baggage of your life, so to speak, namely the accomplishments that you never thought would have been possible, I can only imagine the joy and satisfaction that this incredible journey has given you and your family. I want you and Mary to know that your return, to where it all began, as the first Catamount Surgeon has also brought all of us great joy and satisfaction.


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