New Surgeon-In-Chief is 'Hard-Wired Optimist'

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Dr. Christopher Pezzi looks to build something ‘new and special’ at Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center

Scrubbing in for his first esophageal cancer case in the late 1980s at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Dr. Christopher Pezzi remembers the excitement of the surgeon training him.

“He was giddy and almost couldn’t contain himself and said, ‘Can you believe they pay us to do this? Don’t tell anyone, but I would do it for free,’” Dr. Pezzi recalled. “He genuinely was so happy. It really impacted me.”

Dr. Pezzi went on to share that story with his younger students and what he also learned from his father, who was a surgeon, and his mother, a primary care physician.

Today, after a 27-year career in oncology surgery, it seems that life has come full circle.

Dr. Pezzi was recently named head of the Division of Surgery and surgeon-in-chief of Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center. He returns to work with that same surgeon who inspired him, Bill Putnam, MD, medical director at Baptist MD Anderson.

“This is an amazing, once in a lifetime opportunity to help build something special and new,” said Dr. Pezzi, 57. “MD Anderson has a special place in my heart and now I get the opportunity to be part of MD Anderson again.”

Dr. Putnam was himself a young surgeon when he began working with doctors in training at MD Anderson. He remembers that time fondly and over the years has worked with Dr. Pezzi co-authoring articles for various cancer publications.

“Dr. Pezzi has had a long successful career as a surgical oncologist and has the right combination of skills we need,” Dr. Putnam said. “He’s a hard-wired optimistic with a very nice manner about him.

“He listens to people and tries to seek understanding first, which are important qualities to ensure success of our program,” he added. “He’s the type of surgeon who can combine the surgical care that is needed with compassion for the individual patient.”

Dr. Pezzi brings his extensive skills to Northeast Florida after more than 8,600 cancer surgeries at Abington Hospital-Jefferson Health in Pennsylvania, where he served as director of surgical oncology and associate program director for the General Surgery Residency Program.

As surgeon-in-chief at Baptist MD Anderson, Dr. Pezzi will oversee the quality of surgical care and enhance research opportunities in collaboration with MD Anderson Cancer Center. Dr. Pezzi will also recruit additional surgeons and create a future training and fellowship program for new physicians.

In addition to his administrative responsibilities, he will perform cancer surgery in his areas of expertise: breast, melanoma and thyroid cancers. He will also treat patients with abdominal tumors such as colon, liver, and pancreas, and more uncommon tumors such as gastric cancers and sarcomas.

“Dr. Pezzi’s many years of oncologic surgical experience will play a vital role in supporting us in our mission of growing programs such as melanoma treatment that are needed here in Jacksonville,” said Darin Roark, vice president of oncology services for Baptist Health. Skin cancers are the fifth highest type of diagnosed cancer nationally.

Dr. Pezzi, who received his surgical oncology fellowship training from MD Anderson and his general surgery residency training at the Geisinger Medical Center in Pennsylvania, has seen throughout his life the role surgery and medicine can play.

His father was a general surgeon, and one brother is a gastroenterologist. His other brother is a general surgeon like himself. His daughter and wife are also nurses and his son is in medical school. Most rewarding about his time in Pennsylvania, Dr. Pezzi said, was seeing his patients grow older and watching those patients’ children and grandchildren grow up.

“My dad always said surgery and medicine is a noble profession because you are helping other people,” Dr. Pezzi said. “Surgeons are often the first person people with cancer meet. It’s a very scary time in their life, but it’s nice to give them a good operation and get rid of their cancer and watch them go on with their lives.”

Dr. Pezzi said he believes in reaching out beyond the hospital walls, as he did with a team of physicians who went to Thailand and the Philippines after devastating tsunamis in 2005 and 2006. Being able to help people immediately in a short, safe, high quality operation, he said, is what motivates him.

“Surgery is a great skill to take with you to other parts of the world,” Dr. Pezzi said. “You can change someone’s life in an hour with a good operation.”

He also has spent his career serving on national cancer boards and plans to continue working with the Commission on Cancer and the Society of Surgical Oncology in his new position at Baptist MD Anderson.

Baptist MD Anderson opened in October 2015 combining the strengths of Baptist Health Jacksonville, the largest health care system in Northeast Florida, and MD Anderson, the leading cancer program in the country. A new nine-story building is expected to open across from the existing location in mid-2018.

“We are changing things within our community in a positive way for our patients,” Dr. Putnam said. “Dr. Pezzi will be a great ambassador for our program and for our community of surgeons and oncologists in Jacksonville.”

To learn more about cancer care at Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center, go to baptistmdanderson.com.

About Baptist Health
Baptist Health is a faith-based, mission-driven system in Northeast Florida comprised of Baptist Medical Center Jacksonville; Baptist Medical Center Beaches; Baptist Medical Center Nassau; Baptist Medical Center South; Baptist Clay Medical Campus and Wolfson Children’s Hospital – the region’s only children’s hospital. All Baptist Health hospitals, along with Baptist Home Health Care, have achieved Magnet™ status for excellence in patient care. Baptist Health is part of Coastal Community Health, a regional affiliation between Baptist Health, Flagler Hospital and Southeast Georgia Health System forming a highly integrated hospital network focused on significant initiatives designed to enhance the quality and value of care provided to our contiguous communities. Baptist Health has the area’s only dedicated heart hospital; orthopedic institute; women’s services; neurological institute, including comprehensive neurosurgical services, a comprehensive stroke center and three primary stroke centers; a Bariatric Center of Excellence; a full range of psychology and psychiatry services; urgent care services; and primary and specialty care physicians’ offices throughout Northeast Florida. Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center is a regional destination for multidisciplinary cancer care which is clinically integrated with MD Anderson Cancer Center, the internationally renowned cancer treatment and research institution in Houston. For more details, visit baptistjax.com.

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Deborah Circelli
Baptist Health
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Cindy Hamilton