Tiny Patients, Big Heart

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

The ailing babies come to her tiny and delicate, with terrified families distraught over their health. Dr. Donna Caniano cannot always save them. But when she can, the rewards are bountiful.

"I will never forget the first time I went to a patient's wedding. When she came down the aisle, I thought, 'Oh my God. I'm going to lose it right here,' " Caniano said. "She was such a vision, and she had had many health problems. I was so honored to be a small part of that."

Caniano, 58, is surgeon-in-chief at Nationwide Children's Hospital-one of fewer than five female surgeons-in-chief in the nation. She is also chief of the Department of Pediatric Surgery, a professor of surgery at the Ohio State University College of Medicine, and a nationally recognized expert in the care of newborns with major congenital abnormalities of the gastrointestinal system.

"We are most fortunate to have someone with Donna's surgical expertise and experience as our chief of pediatric surgery," said Dr. Richard J. Brilli, chief medical officer at Nationwide Children's Hospital. "Her dedication to patients and their families, her compassion and hands-on, caring attitude make her a role model for other surgeons in our community."

At any given time, Caniano and her team care for 40 to 50 children and their families, she said. Since she began at Nationwide Children's, her team of surgeons has grown from four to 10.

Her path from Albany, New York, to Central Ohio has been long and fascinating, particularly because she flourished during an era when it wasn't common for women to become doctors.

Caniano went to an all-girls Catholic high school before graduating from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie with the last class that was exclusively female. She became one of only 10 female students at Albany Medical College. And when she graduated from that school in 1976, she was the only woman to become a surgeon.

More than three decades later, Caniano's drive remains.

She's up at 4:45 every morning with a cup of coffee, a bowl of oatmeal and blueberries, 20 minutes of stretching and lifting free weights before starting her 12-hour workdays.

"I'm usually in the office by 6:15," she said, "because there's no one here, and I can get a lot done."

Besides cross-country skiing and swimming, she never uses elevators and walks 45 minutes every day. Caniano and her cavachon, Sophie, have become fixtures in her German Village neighborhood.

"I'm absolutely religious about that. At the end of the day, I come home and no matter how late it is, I put the dog on a leash and take a walk," she said. "It's my de-stress."

The svelte Caniano is a proponent of a diet that includes olive oil, fruits, nuts and vegetables. "I eat the Mediterranean diet almost exclusively," she said.

Caniano first came to Columbus in 1981 to complete two years of pediatric surgery training at Nationwide Children's. It was the first time she'd been to the Midwest. "I loved the hospital, but I wanted to be back on the East Coast and live in a big city," she said.

But Nationwide Children's eventually made an offer she couldn't refuse.

Caniano has had offers to leave the hospital, but she's never considered them. "This is a special place. It's a community treasure. So being part of that is really important to me," she said.

Even when she married a Pennsylvania-based attorney almost five years ago, she didn't consider moving. "He either comes here or I go there," she said. "There's a lot of coordination. We have lots of frequent-flier miles."

The root of Caniano's devotion to the hospital is its mission. "To always provide a child the best care no matter who that child is or where they come from-that is so central to me as a person," she said.

That devotion inspired her to donate $1 million to Nationwide Children's last year.

"Dr. Caniano has supported the hospital philanthropically for many years," said Jon Fitzgerald, president of the Nationwide Children's Hospital Foundation. "She always says 'yes' when we ask her to be a panelist at the telethon, and she is more than willing to ask other physicians to make a financial commitment. She is a skilled, caring surgeon whose philanthropy sends a positive message to our community that this hospital is worthy of support."

As for her own rewards, Caniano always looks forward to springtime, when families and former patients send her graduation announcements. "I have a few patients who are attending medical school now," she said.

But not all of the 500 surgeries Caniano performs annually result in wedding bells and graduation parties. Some children don't make it. "If a child passes away, I believe that you as a physician mourn with the parents," she said.

Despite that difficult reality, most people who train to become surgeons were drawn to it for some compelling reason. For Caniano, it was the integration of the academic study of medicine and the physical practice of surgery.

"I never thought of surgery as a particularly hard thing, because it was so fun," she said. "I love the patients. I love being part of their lives." She recognizes that when doctors decide to become surgeons, they are choosing a demanding path.

"It's long hours, training and self-sacrifice," Caniano said. But she's extremely satisfied with the decisions she's made. "When one is doing what one loves, it's not considered a sacrifice. It's considered a choice."