The Passing of Doctor Peter Jannetta
By Mark R. McLaughlin, MD
“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no “brief candle” for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”
George Bernard Shaw
The first gift he ever gave me was a Snickers bar. It was on the first day I met him during my interview. I thought to myself. Hmmmm, is this some kind of examination technique or ploy? Some psychological test that he uses to discern who is worthy to get into the world’s best neurosurgery residency program? No other chairman offered me a candy bar during my interview, let alone one of the most famous neurosurgeons in the world.
The chocolaty peanut treat was hard to refuse. I love candy! It was delicious, and as the interview unfolded I was already beginning to fall in love with this warm, avuncular, magnificent man from Pittsburgh. That was our first commonality I discovered: a sweet tooth!
The next gift was a technical lesson that I carry with me today. Peering through the observer side of his operating microscope as a third year medical student during a delicate micro-neurosurgery procedure, I watched as Dr. Jannetta began to make his dissection. There he was working through a quarter-sized hole in someone’s head, with very sharp micro-scissors, cutting the paper thin spider web-like coverings draped over a major feeding artery to the brainstem.
I was nervous. He was not. The blood vessel was the size and consistency of a strand of angel hair pasta, and the tip of his scissors was razor sharp. One wrong slip into the vessel and this patient was paralyzed… or worse. As he began to dissect out the vessel, his next move astonished me. He began to hum. That’s when he said to me: “Mark, never cut what you can’t see.” Six simple words…I’ll never forget them.
How does someone do that? How does someone achieve a comfort level so high, that while performing an extremely difficult technical and dangerous maneuver, he hums while doing it?
One of the secrets I learned from this great surgeon was to reduce a highly complex task to simple rules that are followed automatically. Dr. Jannetta was relaxed because he was following his rules of neurosurgical dissection. By following the rules, he was setting the grounds for the success of the operation. His lesson: If the surgeon never cuts what can’t be seen, then the operation is likely to go well. He not only taught me those rules, he inspired me to refine and perfect them and to pass them on.
Another gift he gave me was a view of how to run an organization and cultivate leaders. I was privileged; we all were, to see him orchestrate the most fascinating, in-depth, honest, scientific, and intellectual discussions about every neurosurgical disease that presented at our weekly conference.
And there were the reading homework assignments: Forgive and Remember, Going After Cassiato, From a Surgeon’s Journal, the list goes on. One conversation we had went like this: “Mark, young men should read old books and old men should read young books. Oh, and by the way, I proofread your dictation letters. Here they are with corrections. You leave a lot of split infinitives in your sentences. Work on that.” He was a writer and a philosopher and so was I.
Over the next decade of training and then on into my young and middle aged professional life, the gifts kept coming. He taught me the gift of generosity when he bankrolled the wedding of one of my fellow residents and even served as a surrogate father.
He taught me beneficence, exemplified by action. Many times I would walk with him to make rounds on Monday mornings. The patients were on the 8th floor and the elevator was packed. And as the doors were closing, he’d notice one last person trying to make the elevator. At the very last moment with one inch to spare he’d wave his folded newspaper in the crack to catch the doors from closing. On would enter a grateful nurse or custodian, or a colleague who he knew by name. He knew everybody’s name. That simple act of kindness and the respect he showed every person encountered made quite an impression on me.
He gave his time to help neurosurgical colleagues in Russia, and many other foreign lands, learn new neurosurgical techniques. He invited them into his home and adopted them into the Pittsburgh family he created.
And Peter gave on and on and on.
Whenever you were with him the day seemed brighter, challenges were easier, your outlook clearer. He had that effect on you. It always seemed to me, that whenever I was physically present with Peter Jannetta, right before my eyes, the world would blossom like a flower. Even in our last moments together on earth that was true.
The day of his burial was a spectacular spring day. He went out on a majestic, cool and cloudless morning in a simple pine box. That’s right, a pine box.
You see, he was giving and teaching me even on his final day here. Before me was one of the world’s most famous neurosurgeons of all time buried in a pine box. That is classic Peter Jannetta–humble and low profile. “No fluff,” as he would say. I learned from that.
There’s a famous story about America’s greatest wrestler Dan Gable. He was once asked by a reporter: “Are you ever disappointed with yourself?”
Gable’s reply was “I am disappointed with myself every time I walk out of the practice room.”
The confounded reporter said: ”What do you mean? You are the greatest wrestler in the history of the world. How can you be disappointed with yourself after you gave your all in practice?”
Gable’s reply was: “If I can walk out of the practice room, then I had a little bit more to give that practice. A little bit more to give of myself. My goal every day is to give my everything…all of it, to the point that I’m so exhausted they have to carry me off the mat.”
Dr. Jannetta, you gave life everything you had. You gave every research project undertaken, every patient you treated, every student you taught, every person you met… all that was in you. You gave your attention, your respect, your caring, your resources, your wisdom, your all. And as you enter into heaven, I know the Angels are carrying you. Because you gave your everything…all of it.
Goodbye my friend, teacher, and mentor. Goodbye my talented kindred spirit. Thank you for teaching me to be a go-giver. I’ll see you on the other side.
And one last item… please, save me another Snickers bar!!!