In retirement, surgeon cuts a new swath as globetrotter, volunteer

Louis Del Guercio
Louis Del Guercio

Minimally invasive surgery has been something of a mixed blessing for thoracic surgeon Louis R.M. Del Guercio, M.D. ’53. “It’s easier on the patient but less satisfying for the surgeon,” says Del Guercio, who retired a year ago as chair of surgery at New York Medical College. He feels confident and fulfilled using his hands instead of operating remotely. For young surgeons who grew up playing video games, minimally invasive surgery is “duck soup,” says Del Guercio. “Not for us dinosaurs.”

In his role as “dinosaur,” Del Guercio uses his hands to paint landscapes in oil, an outgrowth of his work as a surgical illustrator. He also teaches and consults at New York Medical College and at Westchester Medical Center, where he was director of surgery. Last summer he joined the executive committee of the Association of Yale Alumni in Medicine.

Del Guercio’s contribution to research was honored by New York Medical College last spring, when the college sponsored a research day in his name. Del Guercio’s research focused on physiologic monitoring of the critically ill and injured. In the 1960s, he and colleagues at Albert Einstein College of Medicine were the first to describe what textbooks now routinely refer to as “hyperdynamic septic shock.” They discovered that in septic shock—shock caused by widespread infection—the heart pumps a higher-than-normal volume of blood. Most forms of shock cause cardiac output to drop.

These days, Del Guercio is more attuned to tidal ebb and flow than to cardiac output: mornings and evenings, he fishes for bluefish and striped bass from his beachfront home on Long Island Sound in Larchmont, N.Y. He also races a 30-foot Shields sloop with his daughter, who is the skipper, and his son-in-law and a friend, who serve as crew. His wife, Paula Marie Helene Del Guercio, enjoys the fish dinners but declines to set foot on the boat.

In recent years Del Guercio has also gone farther afield than the Sound—to a war zone and on a pilgrimage. He volunteered for the 1991 Gulf War to help out a military recruiter who had trouble signing up chest surgeons; the recruiter asked Del Guercio to set an example. As a reserve officer, Del Guercio had first served as a second lieutenant in the artillery in the early 1950s. Promoted to colonel for the Gulf War and stationed at an evacuation hospital in Chorlu, Turkey, he did surgery on a few injured soldiers and then, when a fierce tornado hit the Turkish town in October 1991, he helped treat the 300 people injured during the storm. “Getting an Army commendation medal at age 62 was a thrill,” said Del Guercio, who is now 74.

Reading a pilgrim’s account in The New York Times led Del Guercio to another adventure in the summer of 2000, a 200-mile trek along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The route, traveled since the time of Charlemagne, stretches from the Pyrenees west to the Atlantic. Del Guercio hiked for a month with two of his eight children: Gino, who makes documentaries, and Christopher, a pineapple and taro farmer in Hawaii.

Del Guercio was not consciously aware of why he was there until Gino, filming other pilgrims, began questioning them about their motivations. It was then that Del Guercio realized that he was walking in the hope that his developmentally disabled grandson, Ian, would learn to walk. Ian’s physicians had said that was impossible. Perhaps God might grant that to Ian, said Del Guercio, adding, “As they say in the Bronx, ‘It couldn’t hoyt.’ ” Ian, now 4, is walking. How that came about, against all odds, “is still a mystery.”