It was late in the day the week before Christmas and the hospital halls were emptying out. It seemed that even Santa Claus had gone home. In the midst of the frantic days before holidays arrived, parents sat holding vigil for their child in surgery at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. The procedure was to remove a rare, aggressive cancer; the surgeon, Dr. Michael LaQuaglia. As the hours dragged on, three then five, then eight hours, the child’s parents prayed, but feared the worse. It was then that the doctor emerged from the operating room. He started to apologize. It was necessary to remove the child’s kidney to save his life, but all the parents only heard was the news that their greatest Christmas gift had arrived early – their child was alive. They began to profusely thank the doctor. “Don’t thank me, thank him,” Dr. LaQuaglia said. He pointed straight up.
The pediatric surgeon who grew up in Bloomfield and lives in Montclair, New Jersey, has delivered the line thousands of times. He describes himself as a man of faith, one who won’t take credit for the work of what many call his “miracle hands.”
For more than 30 years, Dr. Mike has upheld his reputation as a special angel to families whose young children face some of the most dangerous, complicated cancers. The surgeon, doing what many other highly-trained doctors cannot or will not attempt, carefully excises the daunting menace from their daughters and sons, sometimes twice or three times over. He estimates he has completed 12,000 operations over the course of his career at Memorial Sloan Kettering.
Now, while he will continue to operate on patients, Dr. LaQuaglia is taking a step back from the surgical grind to focus on research and mentoring. He wants to nurture the next generation of skilled hands. But parents of patients say that he has already left a legacy in the form of their children.
In July, the doctor stepped down as chief of the pediatric surgical service at Memorial Sloan Kettering. It was a position that Dr. LaQuaglia, 68, had held for 26 of his 31 years as a surgeon at the cancer center, where he is a bedrock of its neuroblastoma team. The rare cancer (about 800 cases per year in the U.S.), is the most common cancer among infants and is usually found in children under five.
Each surgery can span between eight and 12 hours and Dr. Mike sometimes performed up to five procedures per week. He has tried to scale back his time in the operating room, but that’s no easy feat. People have come from all over the country and around the globe to have him operate on their children.
Long before he was an angel in the operating room, Michael Patrick LaQuaglia grew up in Bloomfield, New Jersey, taking scissors to flowers at his father’s florist shop. The future doctor, the eldest of five boys, worked in the family’s greenhouse, cutting gladioli after school, gathering yards of soil to pot poinsettias in the fall and tending to lilies in the spring and learning the value of working hard.
He decided that he wanted to be a doctor while a senior at Xavier High School, a Jesuit school in Manhattan. He studied engineering and physics at the New Jersey Institute of Technology before attending what was then, the College of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.
Setting off on the road to become a neurosurgeon, Dr. Mike trained in general surgery at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. It was there that he met pediatric neurosurgeon W. Hardy Hendren, a doctor who was versed in every part of the body and known to operate for 24 consecutive hours. Dr. LaQuaglia placed all of his energy into becoming a pediatric surgeon, spending two years training at Boston Children’s Hospital. But one encounter with a young mother and her child further changed his trajectory.
The patient that Dr. Mike saw had a tumor that turned out to be neuroblastoma, which at the time had virtually a zero percent success rate. He remembered what his mentors at Mass General would say: “Find a problem that is unsolved, that nobody’s working on and go solve it.”
He decided that the problem he would devote his energies to would be neuroblastoma, placing his faith in science and in his own faith. Dr. Mike’s mission brought him to Memorial Sloan Kettering in 1987 and most days he stops into the Church of St. Catherine of Siena across the street from the world-renowned facility. Based upon research and extraordinary work, the team at the facility has increased the survival rate to about 60% today.
As Dr. LaQuaglia cements his legacy at Memorial Sloan Kettering, his own son, Michael (Joseph), 34, is in his final year as a surgical resident at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. In June, he’ll start a fellowship in pediatric intensive care at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. He previously followed in his father’s footsteps at UMDNJ and Boston Children’s Hospital.
Dr. Mike hopes his increased focus on research and mentorship will allow him to expand his influence at Sloan Kettering beyond surgery. The doctor estimates that a dozen or more surgical fellows he helped to train are now working as pediatric surgeons in the United States and abroad. They still call to ask questions about operations.
In the United States alone, over 15,000 children are diagnosed with cancer every year. Hearts for Gold is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping support pediatric cancer research. Because all pediatric cancer is considered rare, only a small percentage of the $4.95 billion in government funding for cancer research is dedicated to childhood cancers. Hearts for Gold was formed to address this funding gap and to support Dr. Mike’s efforts.
On Saturday, February 9, Hearts for Gold will hold its 5th annual fundraising gala at the Cedar Hill Country Club in Livingston, New Jersey. For more information about the event or to purchase tickets, please visit their website: heartsforgold.com. For those who cannot attend, but would like to help support Dr. Mike’s research, donations to HFG can also be made through the website, or you can email: [email protected].