Published December 9, 2016
After a career as an auto mechanic servicing Audis and Porsches, Russell Pizzo is now studying to be a physician at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
Pizzo’s decision to apply to medical school at UB was a life-changer.
“When I look back at it, there is something that has happened nearly every day since then that I can hold on to,” says the second-year student. A non-traditional student, the 36-year-old Rochester native arrived at UB’s medical school in a singular fashion.
“I don’t think there is anyone as surprised as I am,” Pizzo says. “I mean, I barely graduated high school so I was not the world’s best student. I just didn’t want to do anything.”
He was, however, a skilled mechanic.
“My senior year of high school I worked at the Kodak garage, on everything from chainsaws to giant cranes — and anything in between that you can think of,” he recalls. “I would go to school for a half-day, then work at Kodak for a half-day.”
Pizzo graduated high school in 1998, and went on to earn a two-year associate’s degree in auto service from Alfred State College.
“I got a job at a Porsche/Audi dealership in Rochester and worked mostly on the Audi line,” he says. “That was from 2000 to 2008.
“I liked fixing European cars and German cars. They have their quirks and they are challenging, but they held my interest. I was master-certified by Audi and ASE — the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence.”
A promotion followed, as a service shop supervisor at a Honda dealer with the same dealership group. Pizzo remained in the new job from 2008 to 2009.
“During that whole year and for the previous few years, I was not happy with what I was doing,” he says. “It was not something that just happened one day. Things just did not feel right.”
“But I didn’t have an answer. Turns out, the moment took some time to actually present itself.”
Pizzo figured out where his future would be during the summer of 2009, prior to his going back to school.
“It was nothing I had planned,” he says.
That summer, he and his roommate had neighbors who were nurses. They all would sit out on the porch and have a few beers together and the nurses would tell stories about their day.
“Hearing them talk about what they were doing was what planted the seed of going into health care for me. I had never worked in health care, but as strange as it may sound, I saw some parallels to auto service.”
Pizzo was thinking about helping people with what he saw as technical issues. He saw a similarity between both fields: diagnosing a customer complaint, providing assistance and delivering it in layman’s language to the customer — or patient — helping them to understand.
“Listening to our neighbors, it felt like a very similar thing as they talked about nursing and what they did as professionals day to day in assisting their patients,” Pizzo says.
“But health care is more important in my mind. As a service it is more vital to people’s well-being.
“I was never really a car guy, to be honest. On a level of importance, I didn’t equate finding the source of a rattle in a $40,000 or $100,000 automobile with treating someone for a serious illness. Both are valid of course, but I realized that one was not a good fit for me, while the other definitely was.”
Pizzo started at Monroe Community College that fall. Then about midway through his second semester, he went from nursing to considering a career as a physician.
“One big reason was that a friend of mine, Theresa Rose, who is a physician’s assistant and also a mentor, introduced me to someone who has turned out to be another one of my mentors.”
The connection Pizzo made with Lawrence Chessin, an internist and infectious disease physician in Rochester, was instant and pivotal.
“He is the first physician that I had ever worked with,” Pizzo says. “I remember the very first time I shadowed him, I had a ‘eureka!’ moment. It was just an overwhelming feeling of ‘this is the guy I want to be, this is what I want to do, this is where I want to go.’”
Pizzo enrolled in the University of Rochester in the fall of 2011, graduating four years later with a BS degree in microbiology and immunology and a minor in history. During his time at the university, he worked as a research assistant and laboratory technician, publishing portions of his work in leukemia research. He entered medical school at UB in the fall of 2015.
“The whole thing for me is working with patients — that’s what I really love about this,” Pizzo says.
“So, when times get a bit challenging, when we wonder what we’ve gotten ourselves into, it is the moments we get to see patients that remind us why we are doing this,” he adds. “Which is one of the nice things about UB. Some med schools have no patient interactions within the first two years — that period is all academic.”
“It is mostly academic for us, but we also have clinical experiences during that time,” he says. “We are seeing patients immediately, which is fantastic.”
“Obviously, our skill set is limited, but we are still learning and it’s a different way to learn.”
Solving medical puzzles is another aspect of becoming an MD that attracts Pizzo.
“It’s detective work, the way investigators follow leads,” he says. “Putting clues together to figure out what happened and why. It is an intricate process of assembling the pieces.”
Pizzo also describes his path to medical school as a process of pieces gradually fitting together.
“My background didn’t immediately lend itself to becoming a medical student,” he says. “I can’t point to any single moment or part of my past as the reason why I am here at UB.”
He says that when he told his parents he was quitting his job — which had evolved into a comfortably paying mechanic’s position — “I remember the look of terror on their faces. None of us knew what to expect.”
“But when I started doing well, I think it calmed their nerves and my nerves. I couldn’t do it without them or my family,” he says.
As far as his move from auto mechanics to medicine, Pizzo is somewhat philosophical: “If somebody told me while I was servicing those huge cranes at Kodak that I would someday be at UB going to medical school, I would have keeled over.”
“But having made this decision, I still feel like I’m just kind of doing my job.”