In Memoriam
Neil Samuel Ghiso, 1970-2002

Neil Ghiso '01, a talented and compassionate physician, researcher, and friend, died on February 11, 2002, at the age of 31.

Neil arrived at HMS in 1994, holding degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Michigan and Stanford, and certifications as a massage therapist and a bartender. He had published articles based on his research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and had worked with underprivileged children in Appalachia. In his first two years in the HMS-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, he not only took classes but also worked in an laboratory focused on angiogenesis research and served as a teaching assistant. He starred in the Second Year Show and traveled to needy communities in Vietnam to deliver obsolete medical equipment.

A few months into his third-year clerkships, Neil learned that he had a brain tumor. The diagnosis forced him to confront a question that, for most people, is only theoretical: if you were told that you had only a year left-or five, or ten-what would you change in your life? From the day he learned of his diagnosis, Neil felt strongly that he would not allow his disease to interrupt his life. He remained committed to staying in Boston, finishing medical school, and continuing to lead a vibrant and productive existence.

Over the following four and a half years, Neil suffered through five surgeries, three rounds of chemotherapy, one round of radiation therapy, and countless doctor's appointments. During that time, he also graduated with honors from HST and delivered the commencement address at HMS graduation in June 2000. He developed a "memory database" to help others with the same type of memory deficit that affected him as a result of his cancer. He served as a Eucharistic minister, parachuted from a plane with his brother, participated in a bike race to raise money for brain tumor research, played a superhero ("Adrian Adriamycin") in a theatrical production to explain cancer and cancer treatment to sick children at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and fell in love.

He also became increasingly aware that his role as a doctor and a patient gave him a unique perspective on the medical system. From his experience both delivering and receiving health care, Neil discovered that the most critical component of patient care is compassion. He praised his own doctors for "working hard not only to lower my seizures, but also to raise my spirits, for not only fighting to kill off my tumor, but also to keep alive my hope." He described the compassion he received from his doctors as "truly life-sustaining." At the same time, he criticized a system in which physicians are rewarded for spending as little time as possible with patients. Neil considered ways to incorporate compassion into health care delivery, proposing, for example, that insurance companies compensate doctors in some part on the basis of patient satisfaction with the interaction.

Toward the end of his life, as Neil became less able to address the health care issues about which he felt so deeply, his family and friends established the Neil Samuel Ghiso Foundation to carry on his work. The foundation is dedicated to fostering compassionate care for chronically and terminally ill patients and their families through medical education and training. The foundation held its first meeting at Neil's hospital bedside, a few weeks before his death.

In his commencement address, Neil reflected on his feeling of indebtedness toward his many teachers and mentors at HMS. "We are all really just the next chapter in a long, long story," he said. "We are all a gift of gratitude from the generation before us to the generations before them." He proposed that his graduating classmates repay their instructors by teaching the next generation "to give care the same degree of respect that we give the MRI, or surgery, or medical science in general." When we value compassion as an integral part of health care, we honor Neil's legacy. We thank him for all that he taught us.

Neil is survived by his mother, Larissa; his father, Saad; his brother, Alex; his sister-in-law, Luz Maria Santamarina; his girlfriend, Emily Angiola; countless relatives; and many, many friends.

- Lisa Catapano, MD/PhD (Harvard Medical School 2003)