Dr. Michael Brescia could have been rich, but he decided instead to save tens of millions of lives over the course of life.

 On staff at Calvary Hospital in New York’s borough of the Bronx for more than a half-century, Michael Brescia, who passed away last month at the age of 90, will be best remembered for doing two primary things.

First, along with a partner, James Cimino, Brescia came up with the procedure that made it possible to connect a dialysis machine to people with failing kidneys.

And it was all thanks to a lunch of a hamburger and French fries.

Brescia was having an especially difficult day. Working at the Veterans Administration Hospital in New York City, the young doctor was taking a lunch break of a burger and fries in the cafeteria. But he was burdened. At the time, he had ten patients who were dying of kidney failure.

“There are two French fries lined up, side-by-side on my plate,” he recalled. “I take a bite out of my hamburger and a blob of ketchup falls down perfectly between the French fries. It was like [the angel] Gabriel whispering in my ear, ‘Don’t move it! Don’t move it! Not Yet! There’s the answer.”

What was the answer?

“It’s like a vein and an artery in the wrist,” he thought. “I wonder, if I connect this vein and artery with a fistula (an abnormal connection between an organ, vessel, or intestine and another organ, vessel or intestine, or the skin), would this vein, and all the other veins, actually change and become like arteries? Then we wouldn’t just have one artery, we’d have 200 arteries! We could keep putting the people on the blood-cleansing machine indefinitely.”

It worked.

The question then turned to marketing the invention. A drug company stepped forward to develop the machine and offered the doctor $50 for every procedure. Dollar signs began floating in the young physician’s mind. The only “catch” to the offer was that news of the discovery would need to be kept quiet for at least a year as the company planned and opened dialysis centers around the world.

Sharing the good news of his looming windfall with his father, the senior Brescia was aghast. He asked the young doctor how many people were dying in the United States of kidney disease each year. Dr. Brescia told him it was about 50,000 people.

“No! No!” he told his son. “If you do that, when you shave in the morning, your face will disappear in the mirror and the faces of all the children whose parents you could have saved [now] will come appear one after another. When you sit down at the dinner table, you will have to keep a chair empty for all the people who died that year because of your silence.” 

He continued:

“Don’t think of this world – for boats, and cars, and houses, you will let 50,000 people die? No. Give it away!”

Convicted, Dr. Michael Brescia did just that, publishing an article revealing his discovery, thus allowing anybody and everybody to begin providing dialysis to patients in need.

Brescia is also credited with pioneering the use of palliative care – hospice care – for people with terminal conditions.

How did one man grow up to accomplish so much?

Mickey, as he was called as a boy, grew up during the Depression in a tiny apartment in the Bronx. He was one of four kids, born to Italian immigrant parents. He slept on a foldout bed, and the family was so poor he slept with his father’s coat for a blanket.

He was a cut up in school, didn’t take it very seriously, and at some point, his father suggested he become a plumber. Ironically, his job in medicine would involve human plumbing, but school was a challenge for young Mickey. But then a few things happened that changed everything.

One day, a teacher gave him an IQ test and was startled by the results. They gave it to him again. Same result. It turns out, Mickey was really bright. It’s a good reminder to be careful about putting people in boxes. 

Around that same time, Mickey saw a well-dressed man carrying a black bag driving a really nice car. He was in the city tending to a sick child. As he walked by Mickey, the doctor tipped his hat. The boy was mesmerized by the whole incident. He asked some questions, was told the man was a doctor, and then and there he decided he wanted to be one, too.

Mickey immediately stopped being a goofball, began working harder, graduated from Fordham, then Georgetown University Medical School.

Dr. Michael Brescia joined the staff of Calvary Hospital in the early 1960s. Back then it was called “The House of Calvary.”

Whether it was his devotion to people with kidney disease or helping those with a terminal diagnosis, it was Dr. Brescia’s devotion and respect for the dignity of every life that helped him pour his energies into caring for people. 

As for his palliative care work, he said, “We learned to live with tiny victories. The patient was able to eat today, or go to church, or sit in a chair, or play with her children.”

Not surprisingly, Dr. Michael Brescia was a man of deep Christian faith.

“We are part of Christ’s redemptive mission,” he said. “We make up for the misery of the world. Every time I go into a room, and I come out, I’m different. I made a difference in this world, to this person.”

 Incidentally, Michael Brescia suggested there are four ways to treat people who are suffering: 

  1. Be Present: “Patients can’t be alone.”
  2. Emphasize Touch: “When we touch someone, we are no longer the same; there is a bond. Babies in their mother’s womb touch the uterine wall. We have to touch our patients. That’s the way to love anybody.”
  3. Hold: We need to “embrace someone so they know they are not alone.”
  4. Say, “I love you. I promise to never abandon you.”

In the end, Dr. Michael Brescia gave away what he couldn’t keep anyway and received the joy and satisfaction of being used by the Lord to serve his fellow man.


Photo courtesy of Calvary Hospital.