From Stanford to rabbinate: Phil Pizzo moves on


At 77 – a stage in life when many retire – Phil Pizzo is starting over. After a career in medicine, public service, and university administration littered with accomplishments and accolades, Pizzo enrolled in seminary and training at the California Academy for Jewish Religion (AJRCA) to become a rabbi.

His plan of action is even more amazing considering that Pizzo was raised Roman Catholic. He converted to Judaism two years ago.

But those who know him say the move aligns exactly with who Pizzo is: a man who embodies the ideals of lifelong learning and self-reinvention.

“Some people just want to hang on forever. Not Phil,” said Pam Hamamoto, a former fellow at Stanford’s Distinguished Careers Institute (DCI), a program founded and run by Pizzo over the past 10 years that brings back people who have had successful careers in the classrooms of Stanford “He’s not afraid to move on, even at his age and with the laurels he could rest on.”

Pizzo, who is currently founding director of DCI, is stepping down at the end of this academic year.

For Pizzo, change and continuous challenge are part of a recipe for a fulfilling and purposeful life. “Looking back I can see how the threads of my life came together to bring me here,” Pizzo said. “But I never would have thought of that when I was young.”

Lifelong learning, lifelong healing

From his childhood in the Bronx, NY as the son of immigrant parents, to his advancement of lifesaving research into childhood cancers and AIDS, to his tenure as head of Stanford Medical School, learning, questioning and caring for others have always been at the heart of Pizzo. identify.

As a child, the local library in Pizzo was his refuge. He read about subjects ranging from biology to history and learned a lot about each.

A voracious appetite for reading remains the basis of Pizzo’s life. He wakes up at 4:30 a.m. and listens to an audiobook during his daily run of about 10 miles. He estimates that he finishes at least one book a week, and he hopes to return to marathon training, so that number is likely to rise.

Even with the tens of thousands of books Pizzo has read, it’s his commitment to caring for others and fighting for a better life for patients – especially children – that has taught him the most.

One “youngster” (as he calls them) he remembers is Teddy, one of the first two “bubble boys”. Pizzo groomed Teddy early in his career.

He became Teddy’s doctor right after completing his pediatric residency at Boston Children’s Hospital, where he became interested in infectious diseases and pediatric oncology. Pizzo was called to the National Institutes of Health to care for Teddy, the son of the director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

At extremely high risk of infection due to aplastic anemia or bone marrow failure, Teddy was confined to a sterile protected environment the size of a modern bathroom. He remained there for seven years, during which time Pizzo became his primary physician and only trusted caretaker.

Teddy’s condition was too advanced for the treatments available at the time to save his life. He died after seven years in Pizzo’s care.

The experience instilled in Pizzo the importance and urgency of medical research. It also brought him “to the limits of my efforts to understand life, death, and human suffering,” Pizzo wrote in an AJRCA Rabbinical School application essay.

Cutting-edge research and advocacy

A few years later, in 1982, still at the start of his career at the age of 38, Pizzo concretized his learning. At the time, he headed the pediatrics program at NCI. HIV/AIDS has become a major national concern, mingled with a climate of extreme anxiety and fear.

Seeing the implications of a burgeoning deadly disease for children, Pizzo insisted that the NCI devote significant resources to his study.

“It was a tough battle,” recalls Pizzo. “Nurses didn’t want to be part of it, my colleagues didn’t want to be part of it. Everyone was scared.”

But Pizzo insisted. “I had to go fight with the FDA, with the drug companies – everyone,” he says. “It was a slow and tortured process.”

Pizzo ended up leading the institute to care for pediatric cases of HIV and eventually developed new retrovirals to treat the disease.

“His utter dedication to treating HIV in children and finding answers was amazing to see,” David Poplak, a medical researcher at NCI during Pizzo’s tenure and one of his oldest friends, told the magazine. Stanford Medicine. “His leadership and commitment to the cause has had a profound impact on the pitch.”

Neurodevelopmental problems were a hallmark of the disease in children, which manifested very differently from HIV in adults. Children who spoke either stopped progressing in their communication skills or saw them decline rapidly. Mothers saw their children who had learned to speak suddenly become mute.

Under Pizzo’s leadership, the NCI was able to develop drug delivery techniques that reversed this process.

An exemplary moment in Pizzo’s career occurred in 1987 when he was chief of the pediatric oncology branch at NCI. President Ronald Reagan was due to visit the facility before announcing his special commission on HIV. As chief, it was Pizzo’s job to show Reagan the importance of research funding and, audaciously, to secure a photo of the president kissing a child with AIDS in the ward.

When the time came for Reagan to hold the child, he did nothing.

Determined to stick to the vital program of the Institute, Pizzo took the child, who was named Michael.

“I literally plunged this young man into the arms of the president,” he says. The press took a picture and it appeared in The New York Times the next day.

(Photo courtesy of Phil Pizzo)

The photo belied the president’s ease with the issue, but it changed the narrative around AIDS in America.

“I think it did more to de-stigmatize the disease than any other photo,” Poplak said. The shot humanized HIV with a stamp of cultural approval from above.

“If you really care about something, you have to stand up for it and take the risk,” Pizzo said.

However, a fundamental part of Pizzo’s risk and reward philosophy is the absolute disavowal of seeking credit or recognition for any of its work.

“I never sought recognition, a position or a title. It’s about the cause, not the merit,” Pizzo said.

What is remarkable is how fully Pizzo lives this ideal. “It’s such a model,” says Mike Takagawa, a current DCI fellow. “He embodies humility, integrity and strong leadership so perfectly.”

After his career in medicine and research, Pizzo became dean of Stanford Medical School, serving in that position for 12 years.

Redefining longevity and purpose

Even with all of his medical and leadership accomplishments, it’s the way Pizzo embodies a new way of thinking about longevity that, according to those who know him, makes him truly inspiring.

Pizzo founded the DCI after considering his own transition out of his position as dean at Stanford Medical School.

“I had seen early in my career the need for all of us to proactively transition before someone said it was time to go,” Pizzo said.

He had an epiphany: what he had planned applied more broadly than to his own path.

While lifespan has increased dramatically over the past century, people at many points in their mid and late careers need opportunities to rethink and renew their purpose.

“It was a point to think in a transformative way about how individuals might change the arc of their own personal life journey,” Pizzo said.

DCI was founded as a place where people can pause, take stock, reflect, and re-engage in learning, with the goal of revitalizing their sense of purpose. Scholarship holders have no requirements and can freely take courses in all schools of the University.

The Institute, housed at Stanford’s Center for Longevity, also seeks to help educational institutions rethink the traditional mantra that universities are for educating young people.

More generally, DCI is about incremental impact to society.

“How can this growing demographic of people over 65 become an asset to society instead of a cost?” says Katherine Connor, Executive Director of DCI and alumnus of the 2018 program. With a wealth of knowledge, skills, and experience, this demographic is vastly underutilized.

So far the program has been a success. “What’s not to like?” Connor said. “It’s an amazing chance to step back and reflect, to reframe and think very intentionally about what you want to do with your next 25 to 30 years, and how you can make a difference in some way. another.”

Other universities are also following Pizzo’s example. Notre Dame, UT Austin, University of Minnesota, University of Chicago, and Oxford are all among a growing group of universities establishing similar programs.

Turn to Judaism

And now Pizzo is stepping up – starting rabbinical school next September.

Pizzo discovered Judaism through his wife, Peggy. As a spiritual woman, she explored several religions, including Catholicism, Buddhism and Quakerism. Peggy became involved with a local synagogue, Beth Am, because the community supported early childhood development, an area where Peggy has dedicated her career. She had no intention of getting involved in religion.

Pizzo started coming, accompanying his wife to the weekly Friday evening services.

“It was just fine,” Pizzo said. “From the first time, I felt like this was where I belonged, but I didn’t know that before.”

“I used my usual method,” Pizzo explained; by that, he means that he read hundreds of books – fiction and non-fiction – to learn all he could about the Jewish religion and the history and philosophy of the Jewish people.

Phil and Peggy converted to Judaism together in 2019.

Seeking the usual level of depth and understanding that he has had all his life, Pizzo became interested in becoming a rabbi almost at the same time as his interest in conversion. He saw how much the desire made sense given his interest in philosophy and theology and his lifelong passion to be a healer, guide and counselor.

“I thought to myself, ‘If I could do it again, what would I do? “, Pizzo recounted. “And then I thought, ‘Well, can I do this?'”

He sees rabbinical study as an opportunity to learn a discipline that is new to him but deeply linked to the values ​​and interests he has carried throughout his life. He particularly hopes to develop a better understanding of the connection between physical and spiritual healing.

Pizzo envisions a new chapter in his life as a teacher and scholar, in addition to being a pastoral counselor and healer. It plans to develop learning opportunities for students to explore the intersections between science and religion and to write and publish on these topics for academic and public audiences.

“I’ve been lucky in my life to never have had a job,” Pizzo said. “I’ve always had a calling.”


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